There’s no denying that Yakuza Kiwami, a remake of the series’ first installment (originally released on the PS2 in 2006), oozes originality. The game follows Kazuma Kiryu, an exiled yakuza who, after spending a decade in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, is released only to get entangled in a sticky web of deceit, backstabbing, and conspiracies involving his former clan. His personal mission to unravel the mysterious disappearance of a dear childhood friend leads him on a crime-soaked journey that’s far more entertaining than it has the right to be. During this journey, he’ll beat hooligans to a pulp, visit nightclubs, and even partake in a card game with rock-paper-scissors combat that stars extremely scantily-clad faeries dressed as insects.
Aside from its overall weirdness, Kiwami’s main draw is its cinematic script, equal parts melodramatic and endearing. Throughout my time with the game, I grew to genuinely care about its cast, which fluctuates well between serious and goofy. From a precocious young girl searching for her mother to a hardboiled detective who clings to the past, and even a delightfully unstable (and seemingly just as unkillable) yakuza who lusts for brawls, there’s a great amount of variety in the personalities of the core characters. If there’s one thing Kiwami does right, it’s finding the extremely important balance between drama and comedy. Just when I thought the script was getting too stupid, I’d gasp from the shocking turn of events it would throw at me. Becoming invested in the plot of Kiwami is akin to getting addicted to a cheesy soap opera that’s full of ridiculous twists.
With this remake, SEGA has added some additional features on top of overhauling the graphics to current-gen standards and re-recording the dialogue. Battle styles return from the previous entry, Yakuza 0, which allows you to adapt to combat situations on the fly. I was a big fan of the “Rush” style, which allowed me to move and strike quickly; I’d then change to the “Beast” style, which saw me adopting a heavier stance that added more heft to my attacks and allowed me to wield weapons.
There’s also the Majima Everywhere mechanic, which is both interesting and annoying. Kiryu’s fourth combat style, “Dragon of Dojima,” can’t be upgraded through experience points. As his pal Goro Majima explains, the decade Kiryu spent in prison has softened him up, and it’s only by fighting Majima in randomized boss battles that he can upgrade his legendary style. It’s a neat gimmick, but it can grow tiresome to suddenly be challenged by Majima when you’re just trying to make your way around the city.
The problem with Kiwami isn’t that it’s bad, but that its entire existence can’t escape a feeling of vapidness. From its weak beat-’em-up brawler gameplay to its lackluster side activities, there’s just not much the game has to offer in terms of gameplay; it’s all style and no substance. Aesthetically, Kiwami has a lot going for it. The streets of Kamurocho feel alive, and brutal finishing animations give the combat a real sense of kinesis. Unfortunately, if you attempt to dig past the surface, you’re not going to find anything.
Battles are downright tedious and at times feel like a pain. While I had a fair number of chuckles from the substories, I never truly cared about the citizens that inhabited Kamurocho because I couldn’t connect with them—their purpose was to be wacky rather than sympathetic. While I understood that, it doesn’t change the fact that this prevented me from actively wanting to do as many substories as possible. The NPCs failed to be engaging, so I didn’t care enough to help them out and see their stories through to the end.
I certainly understand the appeal of the Yakuza series. It’s a flashy and stylish crime-driven soap opera that’s over the top. Kiwami had plenty of fun moments in its narrative, some of which were sensationalized and some of which were truly surprising, and I have to imagine that other games in the series have equally enticing stories. I tried my best to embrace the absurd vibe of the game, but I struggled to do so because none of the gameplay was hooking me; in fact, I dreaded fights in the last few chapters simply because I was tired of mashing buttons to win battles.
Fun can definitely be had with Kiwami. I know there are people out there who are going to love roaming the streets of Kamurocho to beat up baddies, stopping to take a break only because they passed by an arcade and want a new prize from the claw machine. Unfortunately, from a mechanical perspective, everything about the game seemed completely shallow. In the end, Yakuza Kiwami felt more like a novelty experience than it did a rewarding one.
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.