Taking remasters to the extreme (you’ll get that gag in about 2 sentences), Sega brings us Yakuza Kiwami which is an update of the 2005 original game, brought up to date for the PS4. Well, sort of because it actually released in Japan in January 2016 for both PS3 and PS4, and has only just gone through the localisation process so we can understand what’s happening everywhere else in the world. Kiwami – meaning Extreme – is the definitive version of the game and has not just had a graphical overhaul, the loading times have benefitted and it’s also had some nips and tucks to the story to provide something easier to get to grips with, as well as tie into the recent Yakuza 0. Given we’re due the sixth in the series soon it’s also very timely, enabling new players the chance to start from the very beginning. Is now the best time to absorb yourself in the intricate world of Japanese organised crime?
Kazuma Kiryu was sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He did his time and returned to the Kamurocho underworld. Today, still wanted by the Yakuza he offended, he survives as a fixer of sorts. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find him, maybe you can hire… sorry, got sidetracked there. However, Kiryu-san is pretty much the problem solver for the district that you frequent through your time with Yakuza Kiwami. Using the power of his fists there’s nothing he can’t resolve, though the first order of the day is finding your missing love, Yumi, and a small case of a stolen 10 billion Yen of ill gotten gains. Along the way you’ll have to take care of the mysterious little girl Haruka, work with the police, and deal with the bad blood between Kazuma and the man he protected from jail, Nishikiyama. Then there’s hostess clubs to run, model car racing to dominate, drinking, eating, and fighting. Lots of fighting. The series is renowned for providing a lot to do, and it’s clear this was the case right from the first instalment.
I’ve never had the pleasure of wandering the virtual streets of Kamurocho until I started playing Yakuza Kiwami – this is my first outing with the games – but I have walked the real streets of Tokyo, and was impressed at how it captures the look and feel of a Japanese city. Whilst the crowds can’t match those in real life, there’s a buzz and vibrance to the world that pulls you into it and makes you think you’re at home in what would be for most of us, a massive culture shock. You’ve no idea what the brightly lit signs are offering, or why you’re being given random things in the street, or even comprehend the meaning half of the conversations you’re having in the beginning; yet weirdly, it doesn’t alienate you. If anything it’ll just put your Googling into overdrive (top tip: don’t search ‘soapland’ at work). It’s the blend of the stoic nature of the protagonist coupled with the very well worn honorable sacrifice storyline that makes you feel at home regardless of the setting. Once you’ve got to grips with that then it’s time to explore your new home and get to know the streets well.
Strutting through the town trying to stay low key isn’t going to work, Kiryu is just too memorable for the inhabitants, and that means you’re going to get attacked. I genuinely wasn’t sure what Yakuza Kiwami was going to be about, or what genre it is (and it probably defies easy classification), and that won’t stop me from calling it a fighting game. That’s about as close to the core mechanic as I can get. It’s a free roam brawler with RPG elements where your time in prison has caused you to forget most of what made you bad ass, and you need to relearn the skills and techniques that made you so formidable… you will be the Dragon of Dojima again. There are four fighting styles at the start (Rush, Brawler, Beast and Dragon), and each can be swapped between during combat if you can find a small window. Block, dodge and throw are staples in nearly all the styles, and to assist the beatdowns there’s Heat as well. The Heat bar fills with successfully landed moves and allows Kazuma to wade in with overpowered assaults when it’s full. Add on top of this the part that makes this Kiwami, ultimate heat moves which can only be used in boss battles when they pause from the beating you’re giving them. Match the fighting style to the boss health regen (telegraphed by the pretty colours on the screen) and you can unleash a devastating barrage of attacks.
Combat is deep, much deeper than some core fighting games I’ve played, with a wealth of counter and evasive moves; and each stance has strengths and weaknesses that you need to match to your opponents. There’s plenty of chance to do that with the amount of pain you’ll dish out to the unsavoury residents. If you’re not a fan of scam artists then here’s the place to take them down, for some reason they’re like a plague. The main motivation for improving your skills though is in the Dragon style, and pretty much the only way to do that is to fight the absolutely insane one-eyed Goro Majima. He’s like a Metal Gear villain with the crazy dialled up to eleven, and is pure entertainment whenever he’s on screen taunting Kiryu. He needs you to fight him for the competition, he wants you to be the best again, and he’s not going to let anyone else finish you before him, and whilst he’s rock hard to beat, there’s never dread when he shows up. Though that might be because he turns up in outlandish outfits or hides in giant traffic cones, or even (and it’s a particularly haunting image) shows up pole dancing in a bikini bar. As a mechanic for levelling up he’s definitely one of the most unique I’ve ever seen. Originally he was voiced by Mark Hamill, and you can see it immediately working, though sadly Yakuza Kiwami is subtitled only. There’s the joy of the original Japanese, but the heartbreak of not hearing ridiculous lines from the man that went on to provide a stellar performance as The Joker in the Arkham series.
Majima provides a distraction from the main adventure, but the real draw is the city itself. Initially you’ll look at the map and think there’s not much to it, but it hides how dense it is very well. Most activities and locations are available from the off, and stumbling across new things is part and parcel of exploring the district. If you manage to miss something, there’s most likely a mission or side quest that will push you in the right direction. It constantly seems to give you a surprise as it reveals a pastime or activity you’d not seen before. I remember at the 15 hour mark I was still delighted with having new things to do thrown at me, especially when I thought I’d worked through quite a lot of the variety. Near enough everything is designed to have a benefit to Kiryu, including eating and drinking – they all add XP for the all important fighting skills. If you thought GTA had plenty of options when you weren’t on a mission, then you’ll be amazed here. Side missions start to appear fairly early and there are lots of them ranging from quick encounters to multi-layered fetch quests. Pool, darts, poker, roulette, dice, blackjack and more make you think the design team spent far too long nailing those mechanics and AI competencies. Then there’s a full on fighting tournament to take part in because you couldn’t really not include it in this game. Spoilt for choice and overwhelmed with options, there’s tens of hours of content to steal your time.
It might be 12 years old, and over 18 months since this version was actually put together, but Yakuza Kiwami is a great game with a sharp, detailed and engrossing story. I’ve had a proper late to the party moment with it and wished I’d got into them sooner… though with rumours of Kiwami 2 on the way I might get that chance to play through them all remastered at some point. Sure, there are elements that don’t gel particularly well like the invisible barriers at the end of some streets, and the doorways and stairs you think you can use but just deadend you, and the random way blocking and dodging seems to work in the beginning. Yet it’s from a time when nobody really cared about those things because this was a rich open world brawler where you could lose yourself for days. The lead character is you: you make the decisions and kick the ass, and it feels all the more real for the normal(ish) setting of the game; but he’s also Kazuma Kiryu, the Dragon of Dojima, and that understanding of who you’re playing and his motivations are the stand out points of the game. It’s a depth rarely achieved, and makes this a game I have to highly recommend.
A PS4 review copy of Yakuza Kiwami was provided by Sega’s PR team and the game is out now on the PlayStation store or in shops for around £29.99.