Yakuza Kiwami benefits tremendously from the games that came before (and technically after) it, but that doesn’t mean it surpasses them.
Yakuza Kiwami is anything but a straightforward remake of the original Yakuza for PlayStation 2. In addition to using current-gen assets for its world and its cast, it brings in contemporary mechanics to smooth out many elements of the source that otherwise wouldn’t have aged well. Kiwami’s story has also been tweaked to fill in or completely overwrite some of its original inconsistencies, not to mention lace its new substories with ample feel-good throwbacks and foreshadowing alike. In fact it’s hard to talk about Yakuza Kiwami without also discussing its prequel, Yakuza 0, because they bleed into and reflect each other so much.
But this metamorphosis of a niche classic hasn’t happened smoothly or painlessly. With its commitment to simultaneously preserve the old and squeeze in the new come some noticeable inconsistencies (not to mention familiar shortcomings). My enjoyment of Kiwami often hinged on just how willing I was to overlook those problems.
Kiryu Kazuma, the series’ most prominent protagonist, is no longer the naïve young man he was in the late ’80s. Life (and also prison) has hardened him somewhat, and the same can be said for those around him. If Yakuza 0 is the story of young men finding their places in society, then Yakuza Kiwami is the story of patriarchs and would-be patriarchs finding theirs.
Things kick off with a true throwback: the “abilitease.” Before finding himself behind bars, Kiryu is at peak performance. He’s essentially come fresh off of someone’s 100 percent save of Yakuza 0, with every skill mastered and every move learned, tearing through his foes as if they’re wet paper. But as he spends 10 years in jail for the alleged murder of the Dojima family patriarch, these skills atrophy. Kiryu is back at square one, relearning his abilities and simultaneously trying to take care of a lost child and unraveling all that’s happened in the lives of his friends and family during his absence.
Also, he has to figure out how to use a cellphone, and all the schoolgirls are wearing those huge baggy socks that they have to glue on because it’s 2005. How do you feel about singing Eurobeat remixes at karaoke? Because I feel great about it.
But let’s be honest: Kiryu is going to spend more time punching people than singing. And fighting is one of many things that Kiwami has modernized rather than relying on Yakuza’s original systems.
Those who played Yakuza 0 (and who completed the real-estate storyline in particular) will recognize the four fighting styles Kiryu employs in Kiwami. In addition to Brawler, Rush and Beast, Dragon of Dojima is now also a permanent fixture, accessed using down on the D-pad. [Correction: A previous version of this review stated that you could only access weapons by switching into the Dragon of Dojima fighting style. This is incorrect, and the review has been edited to reflect this.]
Kiwami keeps the more recent branching ability tree structure rather than returning to the system present in the original game. Fighting, completing substories and even eating at restaurants all grant experience that can be exchanged for nodes in three of the ability trees. However, Dragon of Dojima tree upgrades can only be unlocked after meeting conditions, either with Kiryu’s trainer or through the new and much-publicized Majima Everywhere system that has the leopard-printed fan-favorite character leaping out at Kiryu whenever he least suspects it. Access to Majima Everywhere is loosely tied to story progress, hence why it takes quite a while to get the Dragon of Dojima style into anything resembling a useful form.
That said, Majima Everywhere impacts more than Kiryu’s abilities. Fights with Majima happen with stark regularity and are often unavoidable, and they risk dramatically whittling down Kiryu’s health and stock of healing items while he’s running around the city. But despite his own ever-multiplying health bar, Majima battles turned out to be some of the easier boss encounters in the game, if only because it was easy to read his moves from the time I spent playing as him in Yakuza 0. When I saw him kicking into one of my favorite Slugger style combos, for instance, I knew immediately to get out of his way rather than try to block it. Without this advance knowledge from a previous game, however, I could see myself getting frustrated with these seemingly endless fights.
In spite of the over-the-top jokiness of it all, Majima Everywhere is actually a very good example of how Kiwami aims to bridge the gap between itself and Yakuza 0. As the pair interact, they share bits and pieces of their lives with each other. Scattered nods to the prequel are placed all throughout Kiwami, but they are particularly dense when these two are talking between bouts. Majima’s constant intervention feels a little more ingrained in the story, providing some character depth that the original game lacked.
That said, the fact that Majima was part of the first game’s story as well makes for some occasionally disjointed moments. It sometimes feels as if core-plot Majima and street-stalking Majima are two different characters doing completely different things at any given time, with one acting like it’s a pleasant surprise to see Kiryu while the other may have fought him mere moments ago. Majima’s an eccentric figure, so this doesn’t stand out as much as it might have with a slightly more mellow character in his place, but it is one of Kiwami’s more visible seams.
Unfortunately, that’s true of a lot of the storytelling Kiwami does. Original story scenes are often recreated shot for shot, complete with some intensely mid-2000s camera movements and action shots that, much like a pair of those iconic loose socks, have not aged well.
These moments weren’t exhilarating the way I had come to expect of Yakuza. Some of them were downright laughable, steeped in exactly the kind of utterly rote, try-hard attempts at action-hero coolness that are largely absent from the more recent entries in the series. The story itself suffers from similar issues, grasping at being a badass, gritty tour of Kamurocho’s underbelly while leaving many of the actual details of its plot half-formed or tenuously connected.
That may not have been as noticeable if not for the inclusion of an entirely new facet to the plot that is absolutely up to the series’ current dramatic standards. Flashbacks chronicling the downfall of Nishiki — Kiryu’s longtime friend turned smirking Yakuza bigshot — punctuate every chapter. They’re brand new to Kiwami, and they are without a doubt the soul of the game.
One of my favorite activities in this series has to be speaking with hostesses and club girls, largely because of the expressiveness on their faces as they speak. They’re emotive in a way that sets them apart from other characters in the game (or, indeed, in most games). And Nishiki’s story weaponizes all that fascinating, near-hypnotic emotiveness.
Every moment of grief, of hurt, of anger gets written on his face, in the curl of a lip or the twitch of an eye. Paired with some stellar voice acting, these scenes are some of my favorite cinematic moments in any game, not just the Yakuza series. It speaks to their effectiveness that I feel that strongly even while much of Nishiki’s storyline verges on cheap. For instance, he’s largely motivated by a sick sister who is never once shown, despite being brought up in the majority of his scenes. Even so, I found this virtual performance so powerful that I didn’t get hung up on those underlying flaws. You’re watching a man be torn apart from the inside, in essence, with every bit of anger and heartache laid bare in expressions. Flawed as it may be, this adds more to Kiwami as a whole than I would have ever thought a dozen or so cutscenes would.
Kiwami is in many ways a collection of highs and lows with very little in between. That’s clear in its storytelling, and that’s also clear in the way it handles LGBTQ+ people.
One of my biggest complaints about Yakuza 0 was its handling of the Pleasure King, a character that reads as a trans stereotype and is initially introduced as “Effeminate Man.” So was I surprised to see that Kiwami pits Kiryu against multiple trans characters? No, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t disappointed.
More often than not, Kiryu’s dialogue in his encounters with LGBTQ+ characters is fine. He’s clearly accepting of the individual, if not the individual’s actions in trying to scam him or whatever excuse the game provides for them to fight. Their existence doesn’t disgust or amuse him. I adore many of the conversations that Kiryu can have with Rina, a gay hostess who banters comfortably with him about everything from her exes to Japanese adoption laws for same-sex couples. It’s not even a spoiler that she’s gay — it’s one of the first things she explains about herself, and Kiryu accepts the fact without leaning too hard into any confusion comedy or straight-dude titillation on the subject. She’s not treated like a red herring or a waste of Kiryu’s time; she’s just one more person in the city that he gets to know.
But then I started meeting (and fighting) transgender characters, as well as a couple of male characters in drag. It’s the tone of these encounters that gets in the way of whatever accepting words might be framing them. The butt of the joke remains that players are supposed to see something about this character as “incorrect”: a pretty woman with a deep voice or a “strange” laugh, a hostess with facial hair and broad shoulders. In case it’s not clear how the game expects players to read these scenarios, the “comedy” substory music fades in.
More to the point, there is a greater context for the act of a cisgender man beating a transgender person into the ground, and the fact that Kiryu is a nice guy and says he thinks they're fine or whatever as long as they don’t mess with him does not erase that context. There is no situation that a game in which I’m playing as a large, strong cis dude could give me to make beating a trans person feel OK. None. That’s the limit of trying to do a fundamentally bad joke “right.”
In my eyes, the real power of the Yakuza series is in how it takes what would otherwise be a standard action spectacle and humanizes it. It leads the audience to laugh with its characters, to cry with them, to seethe with them, to feel pride and excitement when they pull off something cool, and to utterly deflate when something goes awry. The pathos of Nishiki’s side of the story could almost carry this game on its own because of that power. These are games where the big strong guys leap through windows but also sob openly and often, and I love them for that. I just wish the series would extend that same humanizing touch to everyone who’s a part of it, and let go of its favorite easy punchlines once and for all.
Yakuza Kiwami makes it clear just how far the series has come, and just how far it still has to go. It’s keenly designed to bring newly minted Yakuza fans more firmly into the fold by providing all the contemporary comforts they might expect, while also giving longtime fans more to chew on than a shot-for-shot remake ever would have. It’s a patchwork, for better and for worse, and as much as I enjoyed my time with it, there’s no denying that some of those patches are looking more tired than others.
Yakuza Kiwami was reviewed using a final “retail” downloadable PlayStation 4 code provided by Sega. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.