Yakuza is a game franchise I’ve been a massive fan of ever since the original release of Yakuza in the west – yes, even with the forced on dub of clearly relatives of the localization staff. It was so different from almost anything else in gaming (perhaps still is); being some weird yet well-done mish-mash of a beat-em-up, a fighting game, and an RPG all surrounding an epic (in the old real meaning of the term) story with so many involved organizations and characters, heel-turns, and general twists to the very last minutes of each typically very long release that are connected to all sorts of stuff in all the prior games too that it makes the lore of Kojima’s games come off as childish and too easy to follow.
Kiwami is a newly released remake of the very first game in the series and thus very important as it’s the start of the now 7 game long main storyline. The series has always been a game that builds on itself on an insane level that I can think of no comparison for because of just how many deep cuts you find every game to shit you never gave a second thought prior. Hell, the end 1/Yakuza has a cutscene where money from that game’s final boss fist fight on the roof of the Millenium Tower with millions of yen (all the Yakuza games end this way pretty much) falling from the sky. Jump to Yakuza 4 and you learn that money fell, well, right onto the city below – and one of the many people gathering it up was Akiyama, a bum who 4 games prior was fired from his bank job and had his life ruined because of a scandal he was used as the scapegoat for. Said scandal being the ENTIRE PLOT OF THE FIRST GAME.
This makes the importance of 1 even more than you’d expect, as without it nothing else in the entire series could happen at all. Most of the more recent releases include a way to watch all cutscenes from the prior games, similar to how Kingdom Hearts 2.5 handled the games it didn’t actually have for you to play, so while nobody was left missing most of the main important events if anyone skipped to, say, Yakuza 4, even if they watched the hours of 1-3’s cutscenes you miss out on the finer details and the actual full experience. Still a great option and one you absolutely need to do if you don’t play the games in order though. So bringing back the start of it all was a great idea for those players, and for ones like me who simply want to go through that part again and remember what got me so in love with this franchise in the first place.
So how well does Kiwami handle such an important release in such a massive series? Sadly, kind of terribly.
Let’s start with the biggest positive and arguably the most important aspect – the story. It’s essentially identical to the original release with a few little new bits or new assets thrown in but overall it’s probably even mostly the same script, which means playing this gets you the same quality of story but with MUCH nicer graphics (this game looks great and the tech they use for faces for these games is unbelievable at this point, copying the actor’s pretty much perfectly), Japanese audio rather than the hilariously bad early-PS2-era dub of a Japanese release, and on a modern console for ease of access to it – plus there’s the nice bits and bobbles like trophies and some added content (the mini car racing thing, which is too hard anyway).
The characters also fit into the “pretty much identical so very good” aspect. Well, except one. Yakuza 0, the second newest game in the series (newest in the US) is a prequel to Yakuza(1) and it very heavily focuses on Goro Majima, a fan-favorite since the very first game as well as a personal favorite of mine. He’s always been one of those Joe Pesci in Goodfellas types or maybe a less erratic Fango from 91 Days; he’ll be acting normal but then go just dangerously insane to the point of killing a person for no reason aside not reacting the way he wanted them to about something, or he’ll be laughing merrily while threatening to kill your family (or actually killing them), yet other times he’s totally chill. He’s edgy, but he’s one of those fun-edgy types who is wild, over the top, very fun, very charismatic, and yet also extremely tense to be around and the games did a fantastic job of that UNTIL 0 in which they destroyed his entire character and never even attempted to fix or explain how it fits with who he becomes later.
In 0 Majima is a goodie-two-shoes little bitch-boy who acts like a pussy any time someone talks down to him, dresses super proper, keeps his hair super proper, talks super proper, and most importantly refuses to kill because it’s such a horrible terrible bad thing to do! I’ll say I don’t mind the CHARACTER they were creating here – if they named him some other thing and didn’t make him Majima then this would be totally okay, the guy is alright and has some charisma, but it is ABSOLUTELY not fucking Majima. They never explain this nor do they explain how it changes, in fact the end of 0 just has him RANDOMLY becoming insane, there were many chances for them to explain it with this or that in the story but they made those outcomes impossible/not the canon and he just ends up crazy in the last maybe 90 seconds of the game because they remembered he’s an established character with that personality. There are loads of events from what happened in his past (seen in 4 and obviously the entirety of 0) that occur that could easily explain how he turns into what he is…but that just never happens.
In Kiwami he’s handled the same way but in the opposite direction – now instead of being threatening at all or overly sensitive and afraid to kill, he’s essentially just a complete joke character to laugh at and about. In the original Yakuza he shows up only a few times total in the story and never otherwise and each of those times does a fantastic job getting across how scary this guy is and what a loose cannon he is, you never feel comfortable when he’s around because chances are he’ll try to kill you or someone else for reasons you just can’t comprehend because he’s that type of guy and yet you really want him to be around because he’s incredibly intriguing and fun. Now? Instead of Pesci, he’s turned into Jared Leto’s take on Joker in Suicide Squad thanks to the Majima Everywhere system making him just be an edgy silly goof with no subtlety or seriousness to him – yes, it’s pretty hilarious to see him pole-dancing for Kiryu, pretending to be a cop, acting like a poppo-mart clerk, or popping out of a fucking sewer, but it all takes away anything EXCEPT his comedic value from him. While I could see Majima doing these things because of just how broken his head is, it goes way too far with it and turns him into nothing more than an actual literal clown of a character. So it’s something a bit of a hit and miss at the same time because sometimes it’s just so goddamn funny and perfectly fitting, but other times it’s just a reminder that he no longer is anything except a joke.
They also took “Everywhere” too literally, you run into him every 2 to 4 minutes typically, and that’s not me exaggerating or joking or some rare occurrence, sometimes it takes only up to 30 seconds for him to pop right back up even the next street over. It’s ridiculous and becomes just annoying and un-fun after the first couple hours of playing, only growing worse and worse as the hours start stacking up. They also made a lot of mistakes within the narrative with him due to his constant appearances. In Yakuza (I’ll just say that to refer to 1 from now on actually) Majima appears right essentially at the start of the game like he does here, but then he doesn’t appear again until he forces you to go to the batting cages in the plot to collect something important that he had his goons steal from Kiryu. There – in both Yakuza and Kiwami – he very clearly states how it’s been so long since he’s gotten to see Kiryu and how he’s waited all this time to fight him once he got out of prison. That works in Yakuza as he’s nowhere to be found aside the earlier cutscene until now, but it doesn’t work so well in Kiwami where you’ve fought him about 20 times including probably 90 seconds prior to the cutscene taking place because he was probably Majima Everywhere’d a block away. It’s small things like this that really chip away at the quality of this release and show a clear lack of attention and care put into it.
Another issue with the Everywhere system is mixed with them bringing over the shitty 0 combat Styles system to Kiwami – and specifically making one of those styles based entirely around fighting Majima. That in itself sounds fine at first but you quickly realize they expect you to fight him like 200 times to actually max out the style, not only that but have to fight SPECIFIC FORMS of him which are near-impossible to trigger taking upwards of hours sometimes just to get 1 fight with the right Majima (most notoriously the cop form). In the time I spent with the game I always fought Majima when possible even though it was obnoxious and I still only ran into cop Majima ONE time in the entire game, never his final form, and still had not fought him enough overall to trigger more emails (triggering progress in the style) or unlock even half of the Dragon style. It’s so based on random chance mixed with the already not fun combat system that it makes encountering him nothing but a drag aside the funny ways he pops up. It also impacts the storytelling as I felt the focus of the game was more on Majima’s goofiness than the actual plot now which is a really bad thing to do with some side joke element of a game that’s incredibly serious in terms of the main plot. The internet seems to sadly agree, google image search Yakuza Kiwami and like all of the images are Majima, someone who has almost no relevance to the story at all and had a total of maybe 10 minutes of time in the original game.
Speaking of the combat, it’s pretty bad. The styles system already is a big problem and was in 0 as well for multiple reasons. The biggest is that it sort of destroys how the game originally played and how cohesive the combat was, now it’s just a mess of random things you can only do in certain styles and such. Beyond that, it really fucks up the later games and the novelty of 4 which was the first game with multiple protagonists. One of the most fantastic aspects of 4, beyond the writing and characterization both probably being my favorite in the series so far, was that all 4 playable characters had EXTREMELY different styles of combat and forced you to learn them for their portion of the story and none of them played similarly at all. Now, well, if you played Kiwami or 0 then went to 4 you’d actually feel the opposite of excited about the concept – you’d feel like they took a massive fucking stumbling fall onto their asses instead of progressing forward because you’d assume they took the styles system and instead of bolstering it just cut it into pieces and said “okay this is just this other character”. They certainly all have much more diverse moves and systems compared to the Styles in play but conceptually it just comes off if you play those first that 4 and on just come off as lazy and like they gave you less content in terms of combat. And damn, imagine Yakuza 5 with the Styles system – that’d mean having 20 different modes of combat that all differ from one another and nobody would even use more than the 5 proper ones anyway.
Another shitty aspect in that forward looking way is that honestly when you got to Yakuza 4 and get to play as Taiga? Holy shit it was fucking cool – you’re a massive slow heavy dude but you’re LIFTING FUCKING MOTORCYCLES AND SHIT TO SMASH PEOPLE WITH. Now? Eh. Kiryu does it because he just fucking can. There’s no thought put behind the things the characters can do now which you might think is fitting because of how hilariously over the top these games are, but no. In 4 and 5 they don’t just have different very unique styles for each character, those styles are well thought out for the person DOING them. Taiga is incredibly powerful and can do crazy shit like that. The cop guy in 4 has a REALLY cool style that is entirely based around evading, dodging, and slapping cuffs on downed enemies who you down with defensive techniques based completely around counters. Haruka in 5 has literally straight up rhythm game dance battles. Obviously those aren’t the only characters, but I just wanted to give a sample. Now it’s just “everyone does everything* because why not!”. *Except dance battles.
Anyway, the point is the system sucks. It’s bland, it forces you to use “styles” that feature like 2 fucking combos a piece. It’s lazy, it repeats the same Heat moves constantly in both 0 and Kiwami while all the other Yakuza releases have a shit ton of varying ways to fuck people up. It feels sloppy and nonsensical and just not fun really. I found myself just using brawler mode in any non-boss fights with basically one fucking combo over and over and equally just spamming another one combo in beast mode for bosses/Majima.
That isn’t the only problem with the combat though, nor the biggest honestly. That honor probably belongs to the sheer amount of guns and knives in the game used against you and the incredibly long and obnoxious animation that takes place if you are hit by either at any point in any situation. Here’s a thing I hate in video games – when I don’t have control of them. I don’t mean cutscenes or things like that, I love those, Xenosaga is my favorite fucking video game of all time. What I mean is when I SHOULD be in control but the game decides “no, not right now” and you simply can do nothing when you usually would otherwise – and this game suffers from an insane amount of that especially later on. Get touched by any sort of bladed weapon – hell really just any melee weapon at all but ESPECIALLY bladed ones? Sit here for several seconds watching this seemingly endless animation of Kiryu doing a big ouch looking animation and falling to the ground then spam X for a year and he finally gets up like a fat piece of shit. Get shot? Wew lad, this reaches next level shit. Watch Kiryu for like 10 seconds as he (for some reason) always animates as if he just got shot in the ass, hobbles around a bit while grabbing his buns, and finally falls to the ground BUT NOT ALL THE WAY then flops down all the way, THEN spam X for a year and he finally gets up! Would this be okay RARELY? Sure. Is it rarely? No. It’s fucking constant. Worse, any time you are up against any enemy with either a blade or a gun its usually either multiple or someone who just spams it and you get stuck watching this shit over and over and over with maybe less than a full second between being forced back into the animation again.
Worst of all about that though is that the game teases you with a broken, clearly unprogrammed skill that SPECIFICALLY states it makes it so bullets and bladed damage WILL NO LONGER MAKE YOU FALL. It doesn’t work. It literally doesn’t. Not “it mostly doesn’t”. No, not a SINGLE FUCKING TIME does it actually fucking work. It does jack fucking shit aside taunt you into thinking FINALLY this garbage mechanic will fucking stop. NO SUCH LUCK. It doesn’t even lower the rate or something it literally does absolutely nothing. To make that issue worse, as I sort of mentioned, knives and guns are incredibly common to run into in the game.
Why? Because – another problem – they didn’t fucking bother re-balancing the game at all for the new combat system. Instead they threw in two obnoxious things to fuck up the game. The first one is just mass amounts of guns and swords. The second, which is equally fucking terrible to deal with, is that bosses now can – and do often – heal along with having i-frames the entire time they do it. There’s a (yet another) BROKEN system in place to stop them from doing it but it’s random chance if you’re allowed to trigger it or not. The best bet is to grab anything nearby, switch to Beast, and just normal heat them, but that’s not something you can always do nor is it what the game fucking tells you to do. I assume there’s a proper way to do it but everything me and my friend tried continually proved to be inconsistent even when we thought we were onto something. Later on the bosses heal way more, way faster, and way more often as well. I’d have preferred they’d just made their HP bars longer – that’d make things feel less obnoxious at least, but no lets make it as fucking infuriatingly annoying as possible. Even then this was just another problem related to them not bothering to balance things and just throwing in a cheap and quick “ehhhh this is probably good enough” solution.
Somewhat related to the combat, they also didn’t bother programming the game to stop leveling up or giving you skill points. I maxed out 100% of the skills you can buy and was just stuck still gathering more and more skill points because they couldn’t be fucked to code in a limiter that stops you from gaining more after you’ve gained enough for 100% of the skills. It’s a small thing but it’s just more proof of how little care was put into this product.
I’d love to talk about the story and characters but really that’s more of a review of the original game not this remake. I will say, as I have already, the story is fucking great and INCREDIBLY important to the rest of the franchise – almost every single plot string in the series begins here, even ones that don’t pop up until 4 games later. The cast is great, Kiryu made his first appearance in this game obviously (the original, anyway) and it really set up who he was perfectly and honestly there are some ways Kiwami managed that aspect a little better with new additions like the Karaoke visualizations and his feuds with children in slot car racing and bug lady battles showcasing his sillier cuter side of him. Kiryu has always been understood to be a big dumb oaf who is super loyal, super caring, super honorable yet kind of fucking retarded and super gullible and Kiwami certainly takes that aspect up a notch but without going full-retard like they did with Majima. Date’s daughter I honestly don’t remember if she existed in the original release, but if she didn’t? GREAT ADDITION. But a fantastic very-literally rehashed story and cast just doesn’t make up for everything surrounding those aspects. The side content is lacking (partially the fault of the original, but they could have added more than rock paper scissors and hold-left-stick-so-this-specific-minigame-takes-less-time), the combat is awful, the side stories have NO meat to them whatsoever making the incredibly unfulfilling and unrewarding to do unlike most of them in the series – now it’s just “go fight someone” for practically all of them, majima is too literally everywhere, and so on.
Yakuza Kiwami feels like it was made by the same B-team that made Yakuza 0 but with much less effort put into it than 0 had. Exactly the same engine, exactly the same assets, exactly the same combat system, exactly the same minigames (of the ones that are in both), and a story that was already written for them a decade ago. It could have been fantastic but instead of updating the parts that are NOT exactly the same as 0 they just threw in a few real shit mechanics or over-did the couple of conceptually cool things and made them a total hassle and annoyance. Yakuza Kiwami is just Yakuza 0 with the first game’s story thrown in, and this is why the game somehow makes itself into a fairly disappointing release. As a return player I enjoyed a lot of the basic story stuff like seeing Haruka as a little girl and taking her in again (she’s in every single game growing up each time and is as important as Kiryu – and you basically act as her step-dad so you get attached), the puppy, Reina, Shinji, and especially Yuya who is another recurring friend character but starts off on a bad foot with Kiryu and is possibly the ugliest person to ever be a successful Host – but all the gameplay made it insufferable and put me into an “I’m gonna just mainline the rest of this and ignore side content now” mindset about halfway through. It’s playable, the story is still a fantastic over-the-top tale of two sworn brothers in the Yakuza having to go up against each other and the emotions that carries for each of them, the cast is still incredible…but really I might recommend playing the original over this if that’s a viable option. I’d like to say I can’t hate a Yakuza game but Yakuza 3 exists; I don’t hate Kiwami but it probably just ranks above the only one I do and is really the only one ASIDE 3 that I’ve had such a complete lack of fun with.