A remake, a sequel, a starting point; Yakuza Kiwami is many things to many people, but whatever it might be to you, it remains a great game regardless.
Yakuza 0 was my first experience with the series, and if you haven’t played the game and/or read my review, I encourage you to do so before proceeding. The reason is that even though it isn’t essential to have played 0 before Kiwami, the latter is still nonetheless built off the former, and in many ways, to understand one is to understand the other.
In truth, this comes more from a mechanical perspective than a narrative one, as both titles purportedly use the same engine. This comes through in a variety of ways, as both games largely tend to look, feel, and sound the same on a fundamental level. I don’t personally see this as a bad thing in any way, but at the same time, the fact that this comes from designing both games to run on the PlayStation 3 (in Japan, at least), some minor things like occasional pop-up do spring up from time to time.
Taking control of Kazuma Kiryu tends to feel much the same as well, though I found early on that using his various fighting styles felt slightly different to me than they did in Zero, though that may have simply been my being used to the more leveled-up versions in that game before having to go through the process again in this one. That process is an interesting one in itself, as you do have one of those sorts of “resets” that takes you from a powered-up Kazuma at the start of the game to a point where you have to work your way back up.
In fact, this works against the game at one point early on. I thought the difficulty was uneven as some mooks went down in no time flat, while bosses were like wailing away at a brick wall (though knowing Kiryu, he’d probably do better against the brick wall). It turns out that this is due to a sloppy implementation – or rather, education – of a feature newly added to this release: The Kiwami Heat action.
Basically, during the course of a boss battle, you build up your Heat Climax meter, and when the boss gets winded, they’ll glow with a colored aura that corresponds with one of your fighting styles as they regenerate health. When you’re in that style, you can perform an extra-special damaging move that halts the process and makes the battle a lot easier.
Unfortunately, without getting into too much detail, they decide to introduce this concept before effectively stripping you of it without really telling you. Getting it back is simply a matter of applying experience points to the appropriate leveling-up chart, but you’re not informed of this in any way, thus leading to some confusion (and YouTube videos explaining what to do) I’ve witnessed around online.
Oh, and on the note of leveling up: Since making fat stacks of cash was more of an 80’s theme in the original, it doesn’t play into “buying” moves and levels as it did in Yakuza 0, and enemies don’t have cash flying when beaten. Instead, leveling up is done in an altogether more traditional fashion. It’s understandable, but slightly disappointing after the thrill of mad money flying everywhere.
Speaking of difficulty, another new feature in Yakuza Kiwami is the “Majima Everywhere.” Early on in the game, you meet up with Yakuza 0’s other playable character, Goro Majima, and he pretty much wipes the floor with you, setting up the idea of him attacking you at random to help restore the Dragon of Dojima to his former glory. I was worried that these battles would prove cumbersome to deal with, but relieved to find out that would not be the case.
Instead, Majima Everywhere is a true highlight of the game – you really can’t be sure where he’ll come from, and he goes to some crazily absurd lengths to draw the attention of “Kiryu-chan.” There came one point where his attacks became relentless and were actively preventing me from progressing in the story, but he soon backed off and allowed me some time to do what I needed to do. That brief period aside, Majima is a delight to encounter, save for the occasions you simply run into him while roaming, as he sadly has only one script for every such encounter. Those are still fun, mind, but feels like they’d have been better had Majima been given more to say.
Sadly, one disappointing thing about Majima is that he doesn’t really feel much like the same character we met and played as in Yakuza 0. Maybe there’s room for a “Yakuza 0.5” to tell the rest of his story?
The Kamurocho area feels much like Yakuza 0 as well, but with some 17 years of change applied to it, allowing the map to feel both familiar yet fresh at the same time. Of course, without Sōtenbori to run around in as well, the play area of the game is only about half the size of its prequel. Even so, some different things have been done to freshen things up, such as the locker keys and game cards which now litter the streets, replacing the phone cards from before.
Incidentally, another carryover from Yakuza 0 is that when you come across someone being victimized, it seems the goons and Kazuma’s dialogue is lifted straight from that game.
In terms of story, Yakuza Kiwami comes from a kind of weird place, as it remakes a game that did not have a predecessor behind it. As such, you don’t really have to have played Yakuza 0 to follow along in Kiwami. It’s beneficial, to be sure, as there are indeed various references dropped throughout, and even an entire side-story which calls back to the prequel, but for the most part, you’re given all the context you need to follow along with what’s happening in the here and now without having played the first one.
Even so, I really do recommend playing Yakuza 0 first. For one reason, it’s just a great game, but for another, it will help to enlighten you to some of the main characters, their relationships, and their hardships in this game. In fact, in some ways, Yakuza Kiwami on its own feels less like Kazuma’s story than it does his friend Akira Nishikiyama, which unfolds throughout the course of the game. But playing Yakuza 0 beforehand helps reinforce the bond the two have, helping make Kiryu’s tie to everything feel that much stronger.
Beyond that, a word of warning worth heeding is that the story can be fairly confusing at first, presenting the player with a number of flashbacks (and I think even some flashbacks within flashbacks) that can be a little much to take in. Fortunately, it’s not long before things straighten out a bit and everything makes more sense as it runs smoothly, so I encourage you to stick with it if you’re trying to get a grasp on things and it feels like a bit much.
Yakuza Kiwami is a bit of an odd one, a game that feels as much like a sequel as it is a remake, which makes sense as it is both. In some ways, one could also say it feels like a sort of second episode or expansion to Yakuza 0, as it’s a shorter game that focuses on half the main characters and settings of that title. As a remake of a game that’s 12 years old and had plenty of time to see numerous refinements and growth, there is only so much one can be expected to do to bring it up to modern standards.
Still, just as I loved Yakuza 0, I love Yakuza Kiwami. It has its quirks and foibles, sure, and I might even like its recent prequel just a little more, but damn if I didn’t enjoy every moment I played (and will continue playing, as there are still plenty of sidequests left to handle). I can’t say the game is without faults, but none of them were ever enough to bring me down in the face of all the goodness it has to offer.
Yakuza 0 set a new standard for the series as the best place to start, but if the lower-price is more of a draw, then you’ll of course still do well by jumping in with Yakuza Kiwami. And if you’ve already played Yakuza 0, then this soft reboot is a great way to keep the good times rolling.
I’d end by saying “Bring on Yakuza Kiwami 2,” but since Yakuza 6 stands between the two releases, I’ll just have to hope it will be as friendly to series newcomers and veterans alike as this was.
+ Shorter, single-character narrative makes for a tighter experience
+ Majima everywhere is a blast, and helps make up for the lack of him as a playable character this time
+ All fighting styles from Yakuza Zero are available right at the start
+ Some punks, a dog, a rock, and Kazuma. You’ll know why when you see it
– Really could have introduced players to Kiwami Heat actions better
– No vintage SEGA games to play at the arcade this time
– The number of multiplayer games feels limited compared to the number of mini-games featured in the main campaign itself
– No Mark Hamill as Majima. [Note to self: Ask him to squeal “Kiryu-chan!!” for me on Twitter]