"...a delightfully melodramatic plot with over-the-top characters, crazy twists and turns, and some genuinely funny side stories along the way."
My biggest issue with a long-running game series is that it can be challenging for a new player to break in. The Yakuza series, for example, is made up of eight entries (not including spinoffs) released since the PS2 original. That's a lot of gaming history to plow through! Thankfully, we are in the age of remakes, and SEGA has taken the template of its prequel, Yakuza 0, to rebuild the first game from the ground up: Yakuza Kiwami.
In Yakuza Kiwami, you play as Kazuma Kiryu, a former Yakuza who takes the blame for a murder committed by his best friend, Akira Nishikiyama. After spending ten years in prison, Kiryu is released only to discover his former best friend is now a powerful crime boss, and his lover, Yumi, has been missing for years. Pulled into a vast conspiracy that will determine the new chairman of the Yakuza, Kiryu must navigate shifting loyalties and alliances to reunite with Yumi and leave his past behind. It's a delightfully melodramatic plot with over-the-top characters, crazy twists and turns, and some genuinely funny side stories along the way.
The pacing of the storytelling, however, is less enjoyable, ranging from well structured to randomly disjointed. The prologue set in 1995 is particularly a mess, with flashbacks layered upon flashbacks and few visual cues to differentiate between time periods. This style of storytelling continues well into the game, as every cutscene awkwardly ends with a fade to black, even if another cutscene immediately follows it. This lack of smooth scene transitions could be an artifact of its PS2 origins, but it especially stands out given the otherwise modern presentation.
Graphically, Yakuza Kiwami has received a considerable upgrade from the original, looking like a polished late-era PS3 game. The character designs are distinct and, in the case of Kiryu's white suit, iconic. While the graphics look mildly dated, with most characters vaguely resembling marionettes, character animations are excellent, giving the combat a wonderful sense of fluidity. The PC release also received a substantial frame rate update to 60 FPS, making it a pleasure to watch on screen.
The fictional Tokyo red light district of Kamurocho looks and feels like a real place (likely because it is based on the real district of Kabukicho). The streets are always crowded, filled with people just going about their day. Everything feels very "lived in." You can run across this small open world in less than five minutes, but there is a lot of content packed in there, including dozens of side quests.
Littered around Kamurocho, side stories range from the emotionally touching to the sublimely ridiculous. Unfortunately, the solution to every side story is always the same: beat the stuffing out of someone. It would have been nice to have multiple paths to resolve these stories, even if this kind of choice wasn't a big part of the original. Everything else about the game was updated, why not the roleplaying mechanics of the side stories?
The Yakuza series is known for minigames, and the variety in Kiwami doesn't disappoint. You can shoot pool or play darts in a bar, engage in RC car racing tournaments, go bowling, or head to cabaret clubs to engage the hostesses in conversation (and maybe more). And that's just scratching the surface. These minigames are extremely high quality and offer multiple fun diversions if you wish to take a break from the main quest.
The level of authenticity in Yakuza Kiwami is a delight. There's no bad English dubbing here (the original had an infamously bad English audio track). Instead, there are English subtitles, helping to immerse you in a way that most other RPGs cannot. Unlike, say, Ace Attorney, this is not a game that has undergone an extensive localization to cater to a Western audience. That said, I did find occasional cultural differences and values that clashed with my own. For example, a side story where you beat up both a transwoman and a transman left me feeling very uncomfortable, especially because the scene is played for laughs. I realize the original was released in 2005, but this kind of transphobic content should be unacceptable in 2019.
The battle system is a solid mix of JRPG random encounter and arcade brawler conventions. Once you enter into a random battle, the passersby on the street turn into a raging crowd, gleefully cheering on the fight. At first, these encounters are fun, offering you an opportunity to learn how the intricacies of the combat system work. Eventually, they become tedious, especially once you have become unstoppably powerful near the final chapter. It would have been nice if the encounter rate could have been reduced based on your level to prevent boredom in the late game.
The combat system itself is a massive improvement over the original. Button mashing could theoretically have gotten you through the original Yakuza, but I wouldn't recommend it in Yakuza Kiwami. Here, you can switch between Kiryu's four fighting styles on the fly; the fast but weak Rush style, the slow and powerful Beast style, the balanced Brawler style, or Kiryu's signature dragon style. You will need to pay close attention to your enemies to figure out which of these styles best counters theirs.
You start in the first chapter with all of your skills, but after spending ten years in prison, your fighting abilities have been reduced to nothing more than three button combos. To recover your abilities, the game relies on two systems. The first is a traditional experience system where you gain points for beating enemies or completing story objectives. You can then spend these points upgrading the Rush, Beast, or Brawler styles to allow for longer combos, stronger attacks, finishing moves, and expanded health.
The other style, Dragon, can only be upgraded through one of Yakuza Kiwami's new mechanics: Majima Everywhere. Your best "frenemy," the gloriously bizarre Goro Majima, will randomly challenge you while you are roaming the map. He might see you in the distance and chase you down, he could push his way into an already-in-progress fight, or he can randomly pop out of a garbage can.
Throughout most of the game, this system is a delight. Not only is Majima an incredibly entertaining character (and one heck of a dancer), but the more often you fight him, the faster you regain your lost skills and abilities. Where this mechanic gets tiresome (to put it mildly) is after you complete Majima's entire side story. Even after you beat him for the "final" time and have nothing more to learn, he will still pop up randomly and attack you. This makes getting around during the endgame a frustrating challenge of trying to avoid Majima, lest you get sucked into yet another five-minute fight with no payoff. Frenemy indeed.
Yakuza Kiwami is considered to be an action RPG, but the actual roleplaying elements are very light. Many traditional aspects of RPGs are here, including experience points, skill trees, an inventory system, and random encounters, but underneath these trappings, the game primarily plays like a brawler. The story is linear, with a complete lack of meaningful choice to influence the plot. It's a shame that we aren't allowed to play more in the grayer areas of this world.
I am thrilled that SEGA decided to release Yakuza Kiwami for the PC, allowing new players to get into this old series on the ground floor. Knowing that I have five more Yakuza games ahead of me (and one behind, thanks to the prequel) is an exciting prospect. Having given the "beginning" of the series a chance, it's easy to see why it has become such a beloved series. I can't wait to see what else lies in store for me in the district of Kamurocho!
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.