Yakuza Kiwami review

This remake of the first entry in Sega's beloved organized crime series has some notable upgrades.

With seven games in the series (not including spinoffs), Yakuza has had an awful long time to refine its manly brand of melodrama. Series lead and sometimes yakuza himself, Kazuma Kiryu, has always been a stoic, un-aging badass, but the conspiracy-ridden world around him has only gotten wackier since they both debuted on the PlayStation 2 in 2005.

Yakuza Kiwami, a full-blown remake of that original game, even acknowledges this fact. In one of its many, many side quests an interviewer asking Kiryu what makes DILFs like him (the game's words, not mine) so universally popular. It's the kind of blunt, silly substory that's more common in the latter games. Sega clearly leaned harder into Yakuza's singular blend of inane optional missions and overly theatric main plot over time, because Kiwami is just a hair light on both.

I'm comparing it to Yakuza0 here: the series' last RPG brawler and an immediate prequel to the events of Kiwami. There's a lot to compare between the two games, in fact, since Kiwami doesn't just use the same engine as its immediate predecessor. Many environments, character models, and even the vast majority of Kiryu's attacks are straight-up lifted from the prequel. So don't be surprised when, despite the games taking place decades apart, you get a sense of déjà vu.

The trade-off is that Kiwami includes plenty of new story beats not seen on the PlayStation 2 original. The main tale still chronicles the Tojo Clan's search for 10 billion missing yen, but the new focus is on character development. Specifically, the game follows the corruption of Akira Nishikiyama — Kiryu's sworn brother from 0 and one of the series' original antagonists.

While the more explosive criminal intrigue of 0 is cut off from the rest of the series, Kiwami's new content does create an emotional bridge between the two. In the original game, Kiryu goes to prison for 10 years after taking the blame for a crime Nishikiyama committed. By the time the game really starts, Kiryu's supposed best friend is already an opportunistic asshole with his sights set on leading his clan. We never saw him at his best, or really understood why Kiryu once trusted him.

Yakuza 0 filled in that gap. Kiwami takes it a step further with flashbacks to the inferiority complex and tragedy that turned Nishikiyama into his 2005 self. It's a good up-sell not just for Kiwami, but for its predecessor as well.

Sadly, Kiwami still leans on a lot of the same tropes that Yakuza hasn't shaken fully even after 12 years. In fact, they are even denser in this blast-from-the-past remake.

Yakuza is a game about manliness, see. They rip off shirts and jackets in single motions to reveal fearsome tattoos before settling their differences the only way they know how: screaming, a lot of arched eyebrows, and long strings of pro wrestling moves. It's distilled soap opera and martial arts movies in interactive form. It just doesn't leave much room for women as anything but objects of ogling and plot devices.

It's in everything from collectible cards sporting bikini-clad bug women to, yes, Nishikiyama's new tragic past. It's not a new problem for Yakuza, but it's yet another layer on a story that already features a lot of murdered and kidnapped women. Some casual transphobia during select side quests adds to the discomfort, even while there are surprisingly frank and accepting discussions of being queer in Japan in other corners.

Speaking of uneven elements, Kiwami's combat isn't nearly as refined as it was in Yakuza 0, although it does lift the three-stance system from that game. Rush style is all about fast punches and ducking between attacks. Brawler has your typical strings of "light attack, heavy attack, grab" and Beast mode lets Kiryu slowly tear through large groups of enemies. Using any combat stance builds up the Heat meter, which lets players unleash context sensitive finishing attacks just like in every other Yakuza game.

The problem isn't the combat itself. The multiple combat styles add a whole lot more flair and strategy to the many fights between lengthy cutscenes. The issue is with the enemies you point Kiryu's fists at.

The rhythm of Yakuza's combat is about knowing when to dodge, when to block, and when to sneak in a punch to knock someone off balance before a harsh combo string. It's not unlike a fighting game. Kiryu just happens to be the most overpowered juggernaut on the character select screen. Which is fine! It's all part of that (usually) lovably hokey machismo.

What's not fine is when Kiwami lets its bosses "cheat." Continuing the fighting game comparison, they'll glow with Super Armor that lets them slap Kiryu even through combos that normally stagger enemies. There's one boss who can never be knocked down, despite knockdowns being a major part of crowd control tied to nearly every combo. That's not too bad on its own, except he's just one of two beefy goons you face during that battle. Which means there's no way to keep one enemy at bay long enough to get a swing in at the other.

Worse than all that, though, is the remake's reliance on guns — especially in the back half of the game. Getting shot doesn't just do damage; it usually lays Kiryu flat on his back for several seconds. It doesn't matter what combo you have going, or how much crowd control you just managed to scrape together. A single gunshot from off-screen will completely halt a fight's momentum as Kiryu staggers back up to his feet.

Now, picture all of these annoyances — the super armor, the guns, getting outnumbered, and the "cheating" — in a single fight. That is what the majority of Kiwami's last boss battles look like. Maybe a better Yakuza player than me won't have a problem, but there was no way through for me but to guzzle healing items and hope for the best.

Thankfully, Kiwami does have a lot of great one-on-one fights that show the combat at its best. It's all thanks to Kiwami's new "Majima Everywhere System."

Goro Majima, one of Kiryu's fellow Yakuza, was only a minor side character in the first game. Since then, he's become a fan favorite — culminating in his role as one of 0's two playable characters. His obsession with and pretty obvious (at least to me) attraction to Kiryu has led him to do some pretty nutty things in past games. In Kiwami, Sega dials it up to 11.

Majima will hide inside car trunks, disguise himself as a police officer, and burst into unrelated scuffles: just to ambush Kiryu and force him to fight. The game is full of one-off gags and the best ones are much sillier than what I'll mention here. There's a gameplay benefit to the rivalry, too, since the battles level up a new, fourth combat style. Although it takes so much time and so much Majima hunting to upgrade that I rarely dipped beyond the main three.

What's great about Majima Everywhere is that it incorporates the bombast Yakuza eventually developed over more than seven games back into the original. Most of the older side quests, a massive part of the pseudo-open-world game, aren't nearly as ridiculous. Kiryu doesn't teach a dominatrix to be more aggressive, or learn to dropkick by watching a horny grandma jump a moped. It's mostly just fetch quests and excuses to fight street cons.

Yakuza Kiwami gets close to bringing the original game up to speed with what the series has become when it injects some of that retroactive wildness, as with Majima Everywhere. Most of the time, though, it's more like Nishikiyama's flashbacks. It's a piece of the puzzle that was missing before — a next step for fans who hopped aboard the series with Yakuza 0.

Given Sega is selling it for just $30, the publisher seems fine with it being a littles three-quarters step for the series. I'm fine with it, too, despite the frustrating bosses and disappointing portrayals. It still has enough of what's now the series' signature tone and drama to justify the time I spent with it. Coming so quickly after its superior prequel, it's hard not to want just a little more "Yakuza" from the original Yakuza.

Verdict: Yes