In 2017, I played two new Yakuza games. In 2018, I’ve played two more, with a Fist of the North Star spinoff on the way. The latest, Yakuza Kiwami 2, is a modernized remake of Yakuza 2, made in the new Yakuza 6 engine. Life … is good.
When the PlayStation 2 version of Yakuza 2 was originally released in North America in 2008, I didn’t dare envision a future so rich with Yakuza content that I could spend two years living almost exclusively in a virtual Japanese neighborhood, immersed in a world of bad-but-good suits, bicycle-smashing brawls and deeply meaningful slot car races.
I also couldn’t imagine being among so many other Yakuza initiates — so many friends with whom to share screenshots of business chickens and zombie dances. The world has changed in the time between Yakuza 2 and Yakuza Kiwami 2 — as much as the game itself has changed between iterations.
Yakuza Kiwami 2 functions as a sort of “greatest hits” in terms of gameplay. The Dragon Engine from Yakuza 6 returns, which means a seamless open world and hilarious physics-based combat (in other words, you throw a guy and he knocks all his friends over), now bolstered by returning content from previous games.
Yakuza series protagonist Kiryu has access to a larger library of context-sensitive, cinematic “Heat Action” attacks than he has in the last few games, including some from the PS2 release of Yakuza 2 that recruit locals to help Kiryu in a street fight. Sometimes one man isn’t enough; he needs someone to toss him a plunger. Kiryu can, as in the PS2 game, keep weapons he takes off of enemies, and have them maintained by the resident weapon doctor, Kamiyama. This feature, missing from recent Yakuzas, adds a lot more possibility for weapon experimentation.
UFO Catcher machines are back. The cabaret club management is back from Yakuza 0. Beloved, snakeskin be-jacketed madman Goro Majima is back in both a new version of the RTS-ish “Clan Creator” game from Yakuza 6 and his first playable scenario since Yakuza 0. Golf is back. There is, as always, an arcade full of Sega classics to play, this time beautifully emulated versions of Virtua Fighter 2 and Virtual-On, joined anachronistically by Toylets. If you’re not familiar, Toylets is Sega’s real-life urinal gaming system, localized in North America for the first time and playable via Kiryu’s digital bladder.
Most importantly, Yakuza Kiwami 2 offers a balance of two opposing forces, held together by self-aware videogaminess: intense drama featuring intense dadly themes, and absurd substories that shine a light on the silliness of the Yakuza world’s residents, turning Kiryu into a kind of street-level superhero who will always be there when someone needs emergency underwear or emergency voice acting services.
Yakuza 2’s story is considered one of the best in the series, with a villain who remains memorable and intimidating even after Yakuza 0 retconned him into a pants thief. As in the previous Kiwami, Sega got the cutscenes right the first time, opting just to remake them shot-for-shot in the new engine rather than change the substance. One location in the original game has been cut (and its content moved into the existing cities), and there was some hostess club stuff that has been replaced with the Yakuza 0-style club management game, but overall this Kiwami remake is additive, feeling like the excessively overstuffed playgrounds I’ve come to love.
It’s likely that Kiwami 2 will be the first version of Yakuza 2 that many people play; the Yakuza fandom has grown significantly since 2008, and Kiwami 2 is in a better position to find an audience — if only for the simple reason that it’s being released on a more active platform. Yakuza 2 was released on PlayStation 2 in 2008, two years after the PlayStation 3 came out. There’s less lead time between the Japanese and Western releases as well. We waited two years for that localized release of Yakuza 2; Kiwami 2 is here eight months after its Japanese release. These speedy localizations are welcome for a community who had to wait three years for the eventual digital-only release of Yakuza 5 in 2015.
The prequel Yakuza 0 provided an easy entry into the series, offering an introductory story that didn’t presume knowledge of who was lieutenant of which family within which clan, or whose betrayal of whom was avenged in a rooftop fistfight. “Prior to the release of Yakuza 0, the series was arguably lurching along with the misconception that it was a Japanese [Grand Theft Auto], along with the numbering of the series, which created a massive barrier to entry,” Atlus director of production, and certified Yakuzologist, Sam Mullen told me. ”People thought that it wasn’t for them, and even if it was, it was too late to get on board.” Yakuza 0’s relaunch brought in new players, and Sega/Atlus’ aforementioned machine-gun localizations have kept serving them.
“People realize now that Yakuza is not a open-world GTA clone; it’s a crazy over-the-top action RPG, and if you have any interest in Japan or Japanese content, you’re bound to love it.” As a result of this booming audience, Sega is now localizing the Yakuza studio’s first licensed game, Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise.
An informal Twitter poll confirmed the assertion that Yakuza 0 was an enticing entry point, but for some, an even more enticing entry was the follow-up, Yakuza Kiwami. As a remake of the first Yakuza, it also provided a baggage-free introduction — at a $20 price point. Another factor cited was my habit of talking about Yakuza all the time, but that’s likely limited to my own Twitter followers.
The PS4 itself provides one important vector for the spread of Yakuza fandom.
Yakuza games are brimming with funny moments that work even better out of context than they do in the game, and the PS4’s share button is right there on the controller, ready to turn every perfectly localized joke into a tweet, and every tweet into new eyes on Kiryu’s exploits. Back in 2008, sharing a Yakuza screenshot was functionally impossible, unless you happened to have early video capture equipment, or you took a picture of your TV … with your digital camera.
The original Yakuza 2 was unfairly overlooked. Not every game gets a second chance like this: Instead of a late sequel to an underplayed game on a near-dead platform, Yakuza Kiwami 2 is following up on a series of extremely recent releases designed to be free from any baggage. It leverages a state-of-the-art engine to present a story that holds up, with gameplay refined over a dozen years. It makes its debut on a console that makes it easy to share the moments that can really only come from this series.
Let’s raise a glass of Yamazaki whisky to the new world.