|Platforms||PS3, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC|
|Release Date||August 29, 2017|
Remasters, remakes, HD collections. No matter what you call them, these attempts to bring old games to new audiences have grown over time to become some of the most polarizing projects in the gaming industry. As the great rapper Big Daddy Kane once said, “Remasterin’ ain’t easy” (it’s a direct quote, I promise). The whole process is a cautious balancing act that requires time, manpower, and money, and can be catastrophic if done poorly. On the one hand, you have established fans of the series who nostalgically cling to their memories of the game and will relentlessly nitpick anything they feel is “wrong” in comparison to the original version. On the other hand, you have new fans that are curious about the series but were never able to get into it for one reason or another. A good remaster is capable of walking the line between these two, letting old fans relive their nostalgia on modern consoles and giving new fans a way to easily jump into a game they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to play.
It is in this complex space of the gaming world that Yakuza Kiwami attempts to set itself apart. Though a remake of the first Yakuza had already been pitched to Sega, the idea wasn’t greenlit until Yakuza 0 became a breakout success in the Western market. Rather than simply update the original textures, game producer Masayoshi Yokoyama set out to make an “extreme”, or Kiwami, remake. The Yakuza series has made a name for itself due to the creators’ willingness to continuously build on old ideas and improve them, and this remake was no different. Yakuza Kiwami was completely rebuilt within the same engine as Yakuza 0, and features updated combat, new minigames, and even additional story sections that connect the game to Yakuza 0. Rather than keep the poorly received English dub, the team chose to add in the original Japanese dub, with a few new voice actors. Such ambitious decisions certainly piqued the curiosity of both long time fans and newcomers, but would they pay off?
Violence: The majority of gameplay consists of fighting various criminals. These fights can be very violent, featuring blood splatters, bone breaking, and special moves that use improvised weapons in brutal fashion. During these special moves, the main character can stab enemies with knives or swords, shoot them, pull out their teeth, bludgeon them with large objects, or brutally throw them into nearby walls. These attacks feature some blood, but no dismemberment, and enemies are always shown to be alive at the end of battles. In contrast to the main character, villains will occasionally kill or threaten civilians during cutscenes, and violence in these scenes is a good bit more explicit than in gameplay.
Sexuality: A large portion of the game takes place in a district known for adult entertainment, and various signs can be seen that feature scantily clad women advertising brothels and similar locations. Some women around town and in clubs wear dresses that are short or have low cut tops to reveal some cleavage. You can enter various clubs and interact with “hostesses” in a flirtatious and seductive manner, though this is optional. One portion of the game features an underground sex club, and you can hear erotic sounds as you walk through it. Additionally, there is an adult video store where you can watch footage of real life women frolicking in lingerie. Some sidequests feature sexual scenarios, such as being seduced by a woman, but nothing is shown explicitly. Finally, you can occasionally encounter women on the street being sexually harassed by thugs, but there are no physical actions shown.
Spirituality: You can exchange points to unlock new abilities at a shrine, though there is no spiritual significance given to it. Your character can carry small talismans and amulets that give them increased stats. There’s a variety of Japanese spiritual imagery throughout the game, such as demon tattoos on one character, but none of it is given much real significance.
Language: Since the game is in Japanese, no swear words are spoken in English, but the subtitles include fairly frequent uses of f**k, d**n, h**l, b***h, s**t, g*dd**n, etc. The Lord’s name is taken in vain at various points as well. Expect the kind of profanity you would from any crime drama, but written out instead of spoken.
Drug and Alcohol Use: The main character can drink various alcoholic beverages, which will give passive effects to stats but not affect him visually. In some side stories, drugs are passively mentioned, and your character passes out due to a spiked drink in one.
Negative Themes: Theft, murder, betrayal, violence, and other crimes are depicted, but the main character tends to have a poor view of these unless there is a justifiable reason for them.
Positive Themes: The main character is very upstanding and virtuous. Despite being a criminal, he refuses to kill innocent civilians, and frequently chooses to forgive enemies who have been attempting to take his life. He often helps people around town with small problems, and makes a tremendous sacrifice at the beginning of the game for the sake of his closest friend. A large portion of the game is spent helping a young orphan girl, and he slowly develops a father-like bond with her. Additionally, some other characters take steps past their violent nature to connect with their children and become better fathers.
Yakuza 0 was easily one of my favorite games I’ve played this past year. I put nearly a hundred hours into it, and even after exhausting the majority of the side content, my hunger for Yakuza was not sated. So naturally, I picked up Yakuza Kiwami as soon as I could and stepped into the next chapter of protagonist Kiryu Kazama’s story. This should have been an awkward transition. After all, Yakuza 0 came out ten years after the first game in the series. Moving forward in the story but backwards in terms of development should have been as shocking as watching the Star Wars prequels and then immediately jumping into the Original Trilogy. Instead, Yakuza Kiwami impressed me right off the bat by how simple it made the transition between games. When I booted it up, there was a great deal of comfort in seeing the same protagonist in the same city, with the same moveset I had spent hours perfecting. On the surface, it initially seemed almost as if I was playing some secret DLC for Yakuza 0, and I’d never left that game at all. However, Kiryu and I would both find out soon enough that a lot had changed in our beloved Kamurocho since we’d been gone.
For narrative purposes, the decision to rebuild the game in Yakuza 0‘s image fits remarkably well. Without getting into spoilers, events at the beginning of the game force Kiryu to leave Kamurocho for ten years, and the story kicks off with him trying to navigate everything that has changed in the meantime. Like Kiryu, I was initially wowed by all the changes that had been made to a city I’d grown to love, and this spurred me to explore all the nooks and crannies with the same zeal I had for Yakuza 0. For me at least, this heightened the bond between player and protagonist, and I spent the first few hours of the game making remarks like “Back in my day there was a ramen shop over there” as if I were an out-of-touch old man yelling at people from my porch. But even if some things had changed, there was one thing you could always count on in Kamurocho: roving groups of thugs ready to throw down at a moment’s notice. It wasn’t too long before Kiryu and I got up to our old habits and started laying the smackdown on some disrespectful young whippersnappers.
While the original Yakuza only had one fighting style, Kiwami takes things a step further by adding all three styles introduced in Yakuza 0. Just like in 0, you can switch between each of these styles to change Kiryu’s attributes, moves, speed, and power level. During combat, you build up “Heat” over time and can use it at certain points to perform over-the-top moves that would ignite anyone’s inner professional wrestling fan. The combat is largely unchanged, but is still just as fun as before, if not more so. In fact, because I had spent so much time honing my abilities in Yakuza 0, I felt like an absolute powerhouse for the first part of the game. The first few hours flew by as I effortlessly bobbed and weaved through punches, knocked some goons flat on their back, and finished off with the pièce de résistance: a bowling ball to the face. I was having so much fun that I could almost ignore the astute reader (yes, you) asking “What about the fighting style from the original game? What happened to it?” To answer that, we’ll have to take a look beneath all the glitz and glamor of Kamurocho and expose some of its uglier bits.
Yakuza Kiwami has a lot in common with the town it’s set in. Both are flashy, glamorous and promise high octane fun. Yet as I poured hours of my time into both of them, I eventually started noticing that all that glittered really wasn’t gold. When the original Yakuza came out, it was lauded as a bold and ambitious crime drama that offered a glimpse into the Japanese underworld that you couldn’t find anywhere else. However, it would be an understatement to say that the gaming market has changed a lot in the past ten years. Aspects of the game that were once considered cutting edge and revolutionary now feel clunky and out of date. This is where Kiryu’s legendary fighting style from the first game comes in. Quite frankly, it pales in comparison to the smooth combat perfected by later games in the series. “Dragon Style” is exceedingly awkward to use, hard to upgrade, and feels largely unnecessary. Because Yakuza 0 developed three fighting styles to be used throughout the entire game, Dragon style ends up suffering from under-specialization; there’s no real reason to use it for the majority of the game.
Besides that, it’s a lot harder to upgrade than the other fighting styles. One of my biggest complaints with Yakuza 0 is that you use the same currency for everything in the game, which resulted in the unintended side effect of me never investing in styles that I didn’t use super often. In my opinion, Kiwami‘s upgrade system largely fixes that problem. The menu is easy to navigate, there are dedicated points just for upgrading styles, and the layout naturally incentivizes diversifying how you upgrade. In fact, the same style that I barely touched in Yakuza 0 ended up becoming my go-to moveset! Unfortunately, upgrading Dragon style is not nearly as intuitive. Because it’s supposed to be an embodiment of Kiryu’s fullest fighting ability, you have to jump through a lot of hoops to upgrade it. These include grinding out random encounter boss fights, solving cryptic riddles, and completing tedious and often frustrating missions. I put a lot of time into this, and did my best to use Dragon style when I could. But as I neared the end of the game, it remained on my back-burner in favor of the other three styles. This is a shame because there was obviously a lot of hard work done to justify the style’s presence in the game. Since Kiryu has been out of the game for ten years, he doesn’t have his old strength and needs to regain it over time. The random encounter boss fights are super fun, and the style does eventually become useful, but I was overall somewhat disappointed that I ended up using it so little in the main story.
Speaking of the main story, I’ll admit that I started the game with exceedingly high expectations for the narrative. Yakuza 0’s story deeply moved me with vivid scenes of sorrow, love, anger, and everything in between. I spent my playthrough eagerly reciting bits and pieces of it to my girlfriend because SOMEONE had to know how good it was. I went into Kiwami with the hope that I would be touched the same way. By the time the credits rolled, I could gladly say that the story of Yakuza Kiwami is…okay. It’s not a bad story by any means. It kicks off with an explosive opening that’s not too far from your average crime drama but is executed well: there’s a murder, a test of brotherhood, and a deep conspiracy that has to be unraveled. It’s what you might expect from any game focused on criminal organizations, but doesn’t do too much to elevate itself above the rest of the pack. Instead, it bounces rapidly between a large collection of characters and storylines that can make it hard to follow at points. More than once, I found myself having to google who characters were and read plot summaries so I could comprehend what was happening. All of this is exacerbated by the somewhat awkward cutscenes. Though the character models were redone with the stunning detail of Yakuza 0, the original animations from the PS2 game were left in, which creates this kind of “uncanny valley” where you have realistic-looking characters moving like robots. With all that in mind, the story is still worth playing through for the moments when the writing really connects. Despite some flaws, the characters have a sincere charm to them, and if you let yourself connect with them, you may find yourself as blown away by the intense finale as I was.
Perhaps it’s unfair to critique Yakuza’s story so heavily, especially by comparing it to a game that came out a decade later. After all, the team developing the game had no certainty that it would be successful, so obviously it would lack some of the finesse seen in the later titles. This brings me to one of the more interesting directions taken when remastering Yakuza. Rather than just improving cosmetic features, the team decided to add extra cutscenes and lines of dialogue. These scenes expand the story arc of one character to make him a more compelling villain, increase the presence of a fan favorite character, and retroactively connect the story to Yakuza 0 in little ways. For my money, this was the most “Extreme” choice made in the remake process. Fans tend to hold onto nostalgic memories of game stories, and adjusting them in any way risks heavy backlash. Remarkably, though, I think these are far and away the best parts of the story. The added cutscenes do wonders to improve the villain’s characterization. Instead of being unremarkably evil, his arc now bears more resemblance to a Greek tragedy, with gut punching scenes that are some of the most memorable in the game. The character pictured above, Goro Majima, was the secondary protagonist of Yakuza 0, but had a somewhat diminished role in the original game. The remake remedies this by adding encounters with him that are fun, full of fanservice, and even somewhat touching at points. Even the little details make a difference. In Yakuza 0, I spent a lot of time building friendships with an adult hobbyist and some children who race remote control cars. To my pleasant surprise, Kiwami rewards fans who complete that storyline with a wholesome sidequest where you can catch up with older versions of these characters. These might not seem like a big deal, but they helped me connect with the game’s world more than anything in the original story.
On the topic of side content, Yakuza Kiwami has a lot to offer. High quality minigames have become a staple of the Yakuza series, and Kiwami provides a mixture of games that have appeared in previous titles. These include claw machines, batting cages, a casino, RC car racing, and traditional Japanese games like Mahjong, Shogi, and dice rolling. These are all well done and enjoyable, and you can easily spend entire hours trying to win a prize in the claw machine or desperately googling to figure out how Shogi even works. Personally, I was more excited to see what kind of substories Kiwami had in store. As the Yakuza series has grown, the substories have quickly become one of the most memorable parts of the games, and I was excited to see the same kind of whacky and heartfelt tales that enthralled me in Yakuza 0. Unfortunately, the majority of these missed the mark for me. Like the main story, they may have been impressive in their day, but largely lack the skilled writing that made later substories a joy to experience. Some of them stand out, especially the ones that were added in the remake, but most fall into the category of “just another sidequest to kill time”.
If I had to sum it up in a few words, I would say that Yakuza Kiwami reminds me of stumbling upon an esteemed artist’s earliest work. Upon close inspection, you might be able to recognize that it was made by that artist. Maybe they have a specific technique or color choice that sets them apart and can be seen even at this stage. But looking at this painting, you can’t help but feel that it’s incomplete. All the right elements are there, but there’s something that’s just barely holding it back from what it will eventually become. Like that painting, Kiwami has everything that makes later Yakuza games great, but lacks the polish and development that comes from years of building upon these base ideas. At times it comes close to reaching the greatness of its successors, but it leans too heavily on being a serious crime drama to fully establish what would become the signature Yakuza style. However, one cannot overstate the monumental effort put into boldly redefining this cult classic for a new audience. In my opinion, it is these bold decisions that elevate Kiwami over your average remaster and make it worth picking up. This could have easily been a simple HD reskin of the original, but the creators chose to build on a previous work in a way that exhibits marked humility. Where the story was weak, they chose to rewrite it. Where the combat was stiff, they decided to rebuild it. All of this adds up to an experience that brings new fans in instead of alienating them, and that should be celebrated. If you know you want to dive fully into the Yakuza series, I would invite you to give this a try. But if you prefer something that really represents all the zany fun the series has to offer, I might recommend that you pick up Yakuza 0 first.
The Bottom Line
Yakuza Kiwami does a remarkable job of bringing a PS2 era cult classic to modern audiences in a fresh way, even if some poorly aged parts drag it down a little.