There’s a reason only a small number have played the Yakuza series. The original released on PS2, and the story’s so charmingly convoluted that playing a newer entry and getting yourself up to speed was never a friendly option. Hence SEGA have taken Yakuza to the earlier timeline with a prequel, Yakuza 0, and now a remake of the first game set thereafter, Yakuza Kiwami.
Even still, I haven’t heard of many playing Kiwami or even expressing their interest to. That’s probably because it sounds like another sequel or spin-off. They could have done what Square Enix have and put “remake” in the title, simply called it Yakuza, or Yakuza: The Master Chief Version. Kiwami on the other hand, means “extreme” – as in an extreme edition of the original Yakuza. As in, an extremely good version.
For those with no experience, you’ll probably envision Yakuza as a brutal brawler, and you’d be kind of right – but that’s only part of the picture. The Yakuza games are actually JRPGs that happen to include brawling. Your 25 hour cultural introduction will be spent knee-deep in cutscenes and old school text-box conversations. The rest will have you helping random passerbys with often peculiar tasks, either embracing or avoiding street altercations, stocking up on sushi because the bosses are hard, and indulging Tokyo’s nightlife.
Yakuza has always been as much an RPG as a theme park of Japanese culture. This is probably the most Japanese game you’ll ever play – like an interactive presentation of every quirky fetish and fad you could ever find in Tokyo.
There are hostess clubs for those who like to practice their romantic wiles on virtual women. If you want something a little more practical, you can visit the arcade for Battle Bug Beauties, an insect-themed female wrestling game based on rock-paper-scissors. It’s as pandering as it sounds, but that’s the point.
Half-naked women rolling each other to the ground isn’t surprising enough for a Yakuza game. What’s surprising is the side-quest framing it. The mini-game is facilitated by kids hanging out in the arcade who appear to think they’re playing an innocent card-game. Needless to say, being the only adult participating in such a blatant perversion amongst players too young to know better creeped the shit out of me – and I later realised the game had done its job.
Yakuza – for all its sexual anomalies – doesn’t always perpetuate perversion. Sometimes it subverts it.
Battle Bug Beauties is actually a new addition since the PS2 release. Kiwami is a balls-out remake in the style of the recent Ratchet and Clank or the upcoming Final Fantasy VII. This is not just a remaster. Kiwami will be recognisable to anyone who’s played Yakuza 0, as they share many of the same systems. There are now four battle styles, whereas the original only had one.
Goro Majima, a playable character from the prequel, now actively hunts Kiryu for fisticuffs. The two had somewhat of an unspoken rivalry during the 2005 game, and SEGA have capitalised on their adversarial relationship. Waiting to see what contrived and clever excuse Majima would concoct as a pretext for fighting Kiryu was a constant joy.
I should mention this is my 6th Yakuza game, which isn’t important in itself. It’s important because the majority of these games take place in the same square-mile. Some people might argue otherwise, but this series isn’t an open-world one. It’s a small, confined space. Each street looks different because each street has different shops, replete with a variety of neon advertising. The space is small enough that it can be filled with characteristic detail, instead of vast generic spaces with little of note in-between.
The small scale is also part of the problem, as is the repetition, because walking the streets of Kamurocho is something between nostalgic joy and deja vu. Only in later games do other cities begin featuring, but even then Kamurocho is always among them. This will be a non-issue for anyone starting their Yakuza career with Kiwami. For the more initiated, the issue is more apparent.
Kiwami proves itself the better version of one of the most endearing stories I’ve experienced. Sometimes you don’t want to revisit old flames because you’re afraid your fond memories will be crushed by the new lens of adulthood. Yakuza Kiwami didn’t really do that. It showed me I was right to like this game to begin with. I’m right to like it now, and so are you.
Ben received a digital copy of Yakuza Kiwami from Sega for review.