The Yakuza series is a vastly underrated collection of games that seems to have come into a new renaissance as of late. Always a niche title that we were lucky if SEGA even decided to localize (an in a case of a few of the games in the series, got localized with chunks removed for cost and “cultural” reasons). Lucky for us though, the last several entries in the franchise (Yakuza 5, Yakuza 0 (the set in the eighties prequel I reviewed here) and even the zombie spin-off Yakuza: Dead Souls) did get to make the trip to our shores, and thankfully the game we’re here to talk about today, Yakuza Kiwami, got the US localization treatment as well.
Yakuza Kiwami (Japanese for “extreme” I am told) is a remake of the original PS2 game in the series, simply titled, Yakuza—which kind of puts it in a weird place. It has to go up against the recently released Yakuza 0, all while being a remake of the oldest game in the franchise. That’s a lot to juggle, but luckily Yakuza Kiwami mostly succeeds.
The Yakuza series is sort of a delicious gameplay soup of Final Fight style beat’em-up mixed with a Grand Theft Auto style open world city (or more specifically a district of a city), and an intense Japanese crime drama filled with a lot of angry Japanese organized crime types giving each other intimidating grimaces while shirtless and displaying their intricate back tattoos. It’s a formula that sounds like it could be a mess, but it absolutely works – mostly because outside of its over-the-top serious storyline, it’s not afraid to stop taking itself so seriously every once in a while.
Yakuza Kiwami doesn’t stray from that formula (which being a remake is no surprise). You’ve got the excellent fighting system that seems like it would get repetitive fast but somehow doesn’t, you’ve got the district of Kamurocho as your playground once again, with plenty of ridiculous mini-game diversions, and you’ve got the fantastic crime drama as well. The only problem is, when you set it up against its older brother Yakuza 0, things just don’t stack up.
Yakuza Kiwami has a lot of the features that Yakuza 0 had, but it just doesn’t have as much. Sure it’s got the same kind of amusing sidequests, but they don’t seem to come nearly as often or be as entertaining. It’s got some great mini-game diversions—darts, bowling, batting cages, hostess clubs, heck even a collectiable card battle game (that reuses the female wresting mechanics of Yakuza 0) where scantily clad women dressed as different kinds of bugs wrestle it out for superiority. They’re all well and good and make it feel like Kamurocho is a real live place, but no of them are as good as stuff like Yakuza 0’s real estate or hostess club management games. Even the arcades seem sadly empty—gone are Yakuza 0’s timeline appropriate SEGA classics. Only the UFO catcher remains (and of course the lady-bug wrestling game, MesuKing). I know SEGA wants to hold on to its later classics so they can make you buy them again in poorly emulated iPhone ports, but would it of killed them to put at least one original 2005-era appropriate game in there? When was the last time you did anything with Super Monkey Ball?
Speaking of things being “timeline appropriate”, this may seem like a nit-pick, but Yakuza 0 just doesn’t have the same sense of time as Yakuza 0. Sure, the 80s were longer ago and a 1980s economic boom is much easier to characterize than the sort of nebulous mid-aughts are, but Yakuza Kiwami doesn’t give you the same feeling of being in a certain place AND time as Yakuza 0 does. I’m interested to know the Yakuza developers interpretation of being a Yakuza dude in Japan in 2005. Yakuza Kiwami feels like it could take place anytime between 2005 and now. Even the map doesn’t feel like much has changed in all that time (barring the Millennium Tower, of course).
Yakuza Kiwami is still a great game that is fun to play, and if you loved Yakuza 0 you’re going to have a good time with Kiwami too. It’s just missing a few things that could make it truly great. It actually makes a great starting point for beginners (being a remake of the first game and all) because you won’t come into it with the expectations that Yakuza 0 and Yakuza 5 create. Then you can be wowed by Yakuza 0’s larger breadth of content and amazing sense of time as well as place. If you like beat’em-ups, ridiculous Japanese drama, or just have an off-the-wall sense of humor the Yakuza series is worth checking out if you haven’t. Yakuza Kiwami isn’t the best game the franchise has to offer, but it is a good place to start.
Yakuza Kiwami was reviewed using a digital download code provided by SEGA.