When it rains it pours, right? It feels like we were all recently lamenting the distinct lack of Yakuza games in America, and then Sega of America drops the bomb on us with four massive games in the span of eighteen months. To be honest, it’s a bit overwhelming and a little difficult to parse at times. The series has seen almost yearly releases in Japan following its debut on the PS2, and at this point every main series entry — including the weird zombie spinoff Dead Souls — has made it to the West. My own experience with the series began with Yakuza 0 (pretty dang great), followed by Yakuza 6 (also great, if lacking a bit of what made 0 so special), and then Kiwami (a remake of the original game that wasn’t much fun and a fairly frustrating experience). I was actually hoping we would see Yakuza Kiwami 2 while reviewing 6 just a few months ago, and Sega surprised everyone when it announced both it and Fist of the North Star would come out in 2018. So, how does the remake of Yakuza 2 stack up? I personally found it to be the most well balanced and enjoyable entry in the franchise yet, though it does ask a lot of the player in more ways than one.
Yakuza Kiwami 2 (K2) picks up immediately after the events of the previous game. Kazuma Kiryu , having left the Tojo clan, is living with his adopted daughter Haruka and doing his best to avoid the seedy underbelly of Kamurocho. Things quickly turn south following the assassination of a Tojo clan bigwig, and Kiryu is forced back into the life in order to deal with the dreaded Omi Alliance as well as various actors working behind the scenes. The story certainly goes to some interesting places, and there were moments where it felt like giant tangents would take away from the central conflict. Thankfully, however, the plot manages to tie up the various narrative threads in an incredibly satisfying way, though there is a great deal of melodrama and cheese thrown in for good measure. Yakuza games take their story very seriously, which is why it’s so easy to crack a smile when Kiryu is “busy” playing a urinal minigame in his spare time.
Part of the reason Kiwami 2 works so well is because of the brilliant antagonist Kiryu gets to play off of. Yakuza Kiwami and 6 struggled a bit in the story department since the main Big Bad only shows up at the very end of the narrative, robbing our hero of any real villain to interact with. Goda Ryuji, however, is front and center both in the marketing and in the actual story of Kiwami 2, and the narrative is all the better for it. He’s almost the polar opposite of Kiryu (complete with his own distinctive dragon tattoo). Where Kiryu is calm and thoughtful, Ryuji is crass and emotional. It certainly gives a bit of a Batman/Joker dynamic, allowing the two characters to act in distinctive ways that intersect quite well. What’s more surprising is how little screen time Ryuji actually gets. He may only have the spotlight for a few key moments, but his presence and methodical machinations are always felt in the background. Going forward, the Yakuza games would do well to give a proper foil to play off of. It makes things all the more intense when the eventual showdown happens after hours of buildup (see also Goku versus Vegeta).
If there’s one problem with Kiwami 2’s story, it’s how much it asks of the player at times. I know Sega is always marketing Yakuza games as standalone experiences, but I honestly don’t see how a newcomer would understand the various plot threads or feel any satisfaction with what’s going on in K2. Acting as a direct sequel to K1, seeing the fates of all the characters you’ve come to know and love is part of the experience. In many ways, K2 feels like the second season of a grand crime drama, and while you can certainly jump into the second season of The Sopranos, it won’t have the same emotional impact if you don’t know all of the backstory going in. You should, at the very least, watch a couple story synopses for Kiwami 1 (one is provided in K2 but doesn’t come close to giving you the full picture) on YouTube if you plan on taking the plunge.
It’s strange that in just one year the Yakuza series has taken a similar place in my heart next to Mega Man or Dragon Quest. What that means is you pretty much know what to expect after you’ve played one or two of these games, and the various improvements and minor differences don’t add up in the grand scheme of things. You’re still walking the streets of Kamurocho (or several different districts in some of the other games) punching random thugs in the face and completing various side quests and activities as the story progresses. The key difference between the games for me is how the side content plays in with the main campaign and vice versa, and here is where I think Kiwami 2 strikes the right balance when comparing all of the titles I’ve played so far. The game runs on Yakuza 6’s Dragon Engine, which brought an emphasis on physics-based combat and more a realistic look to the city’s visuals (and you can read my review of Yakuza 6 if you want a more general idea of how K2 plays overall). But Y6 is often derided by fans because of its limited scope and small number of side stories, and while I personally enjoyed the focus, it was probably the Yakuza game I spent the least amount of time with. Kiwami 2 rectifies this issue by giving you way more to do without falling to the bloated trapping of Yakuza 0.
K2’s substories are not only hilarious and heartwarming at the same time (a personal favorite being the old lady who keeps finding herself assaulted by various mafioso wandering the streets), but they also give you direct benefits in and outside of combat. You’re constantly earning the five types of experience points just like Y6, but you’re also gaining allies who might help you on the street by tossing you a guitar or perhaps a new item to unlock an ability or skill. This helps to incentivize you to investigate and get into trouble around the city. That’s probably the best way to handle all the side activities in an open-world game or large RPG. It never feels like you’re wasting time in Kiwami 2, and it’s the reason I’ll be playing this game for many weeks to come.
The two main minigames are a mix of old and new. The hostess management simulator sees a very welcome return, so get ready to initiate fever time and bleed your patrons dry with booze and precious gifts while you try to compete for nightlife dominance in Sotenbori. I found the hostess club to be a little more forgiving than the one from Yakuza 0, though that may be because I spent so much time with it just a few months ago. The other minigame is a slightly different spin on Y6’s clan wars. This time you’re tasked with an interesting take on tower defense as you try and protect Majima’s construction company from assault by local rivals. Controlling a smaller number of soldiers instead of spawning an endless series of nameless henchmen fits much better this time around, though I really wish I could control this real-time strategy element with a mouse. It feels a bit unwieldy and awkward at times, but it’s a lot more addictive than what we had in Yakuza 6. Best of all, you’ll unlock new hostesses and gang members by completing side content, which helps to tie all the various systems together in a very elegant way.
Combat has always been a bit of a sticking point with me and the Yakuza games. I enjoy the brawling quite a bit when I get into a groove, but often you’ll come upon a boss or mob that plays in a decidedly unfair or obnoxious way that robs you of feeling anything other than extreme aggravation. It’s hard to feel like a badass when Kiryu is flopping on the ground from an errant knife attack from off screen, and it’s extremely demoralizing to have a boss ignore your strongest attack and pound you into the dirt out of nowhere. Kiwami 2 applies a band-aid to this bullet wound with mixed results. There’s a much greater emphasis on weapons in this installment; I found myself swimming in various blunt instruments and sharp objects after just a few hours (you couldn’t hold onto weapons after combat in Yakuza 6, and now you can assign three different weapons to the d-pad). Weapons trivialize most of the combat in Kiwami 2. Heck, I walloped a few bosses before they could even lay a hand on me thanks to a few trusty wooden katanas that I could easily repair with a brief visit to a local shop. On the one hand, it certainly made Kiwami 2 the least frustrating entry in the series I’ve played so far, but it also took some of the sport out of the big set piece moments. Still, I sometimes wake up screaming about that one encounter on the helipad in Kiwami 1 (you know the one), so I would rather have things be easy than grotesquely hard. Extreme Heat Mode returns from Yakuza 6 (and the camera is still way too close, and I wish Kiryu would stop picking up random signs and bottles while attacking), though I found myself using it less thanks to all of my various armaments. I did notice some slight problems with the Heat Move prompts during combat. Pulling off a devastating counter attack just didn’t feel reliable, and there were definitely moments where the triangle prompt never came up and I was left flailing like a doofus.
Yakuza Kiwami 2 feels like the Goldilocks of the franchise. It’s a great story that feels earned just like Yakuza 0, but it avoids the bloat and meandering nature of that entry’s more trying chapters. The new engine and combat system from Yakuza 6 feel more fleshed out, and there’s a greater emphasis on side content that gives you more options in and outside of combat. It isn’t the biggest Yakuza game, but it also feels like the most refined and thought-through entry I’ve played so far. It may not be the best place to start, but it certainly shows a bright future for the franchise.
And, yes, part of the reason I gave this game an Editor’s Choice award is because of the infectious Majima theme that plays during the construction company minigame. You’ll be humming that earworm for weeks after you’ve heard it a few times, and I can’t help but smile at how cheesy it is.