Quite often, remasters and even remakes are little more than quick cash grabs. They’re great because they allow game publishers to raise funds which are mostly reinvested in making new games, but they offer little to those who already own and played the original games.
Now, erase that concept from your brain, because Yakuza Kiwami is the polar opposite: the development team scrapped the old engine and assets, and completely remade the game in the same engine used for Yakuza Zero, resulting in a title that could easily pass for new if you didn’t know about the original. On top of that, they added a ton of new elements to bring it closer to its most recent sequels (and prequel), creating an experience worth playing even for those who enjoyed every single moment of the old and glorious Yakuza for PS2.
If you’re fresh from playing Yakuza 0, the switch over to Kiwami is perfectly natural: since 0 is a prequel of the series, and this game is a remake of the original. Stoic protagonist Kazuma Kiryu is ready to take command of his own family under the umbrella of the Tojo Clan and things appear to be looking up.
After a birthday party which sees Kiryu this close to declaring his feelings to the beautiful hostess Yumi, the girl is kidnapped by Sohei Dojima, Patriarch of the Dojima family. Kiryu’s childhood friend Akira Nishikiyama rushes to the rescue, but things turn bloody, and Dojima himself turns into a corpse.
Kiryu, orders Nishikiyama to run away with Yumi, and takes responsibility for a murder he did not commit.
Expelled from the clan, he spends ten years in jail, until he’s released on parole. Yet, the world has changed while he was absent. Nishikiyama has taken control of his own family, and he appears to have changed radically, while the theft of ten billion yen shakes the whole Tojo Clan to the core. Yumi has disappeared, and her daughter, Haruka, suddenly appears to completely change the hero’s life.
Of course, this is just a fragment of a complex and dramatic story that serves as the perfect introduction to the Yakuza saga. It’s hard-boiled Japanese crime drama at its best, with the addition of a Ryu-Ga Gotoku trademark: genuinely likable and beautifully deep characters.
While many erroneously compare Yakuza to some sort of Japanese Grand Theft Auto, Sega’s series – including Yakuza Kiwami – simply runs circles around the western franchise in terms of character design and of the ability to make the player really care about them.
An important element of this remake is that it expands the story by quite a bit, and especially Nishikiyama’s change mentioned above is handled much, much better than in the original game, filling one of the biggest plot holes of the whole series.
Despite that, if you have missed the original Yakuza, but you have played the more recent chapters of the franchise, it’s worth mentioning that Yakuza Kiwami feels smaller, mostly due to the fact that the story is almost entirely located within the fictional district of Kamurocho in Tokyo, and it’s not exactly a big world. The series’ tradition of juggling Kamurocho and a second location somewhere else in Japan started with Yakuza 2.
That being said, this is definitely offset by the game’s price. I don’t know if it has to do with the world’s size or not, but the decision to sell it at $29.99 is absolutely sweet. Considering that – while smaller than other Yakuza games – Kiwami is much, much bigger and content-rich than 99% of the action-adventures that you’ll find out there, it’s worth its price tag many times over.
The team also added quite a lot in terms of minigames (including the absolutely addictive mini-4WD-like racing, that returns from Yakuza 0), features and gameplay. A relevant example is that Kiryu can fight using four different styles, while he was limited to one in the original game.
Everyone’s favorite wacko Goro Majima isn’t playable this time around, but he still gets plenty of additional screen time thanks to the new “Majima Everywhere” feature, that will see him literally stalk Kiryu in the hope of getting some good fights and nurture him back to his original strenght. It’s funny, and perfectly appropriate for a character who carved a place in the fans’ hearts with his hilarious – yet cool – alternation between crazy and dead serious.
Graphics are, of course, one of the biggest changes included in this remake. They do suffer slightly from the fact that the game is a year and a half old, victim of Sega’s ludicrously long localization process. It’s also the last Yakuza game built to release both on PS4 and PS3 (even if the PS3 version did not make it to the west), and this holds it back just a bit.
That being said, you can forget those remakes that just slap new textures on old models. Everything has been improved massively, from models to environments and effects. The presentation in full 1080p and 60 FPS (with occasional drops) is pristine, and much superior to the original 30 FPS (with a lot of drops) on PS2.
Earlier, I mentioned the fictional district of Kamurocho, but I kind of lied: if you’re familiar with the series, you know that Kamurocho is basically a renamed and rebranded copy of Shinjuku’s red light district of Kabukicho. To be precise, this is a copy of what the district looked like in 2005. Nowadays it’s quite different, since Kabukicho has undergone extensive redevelopment (which unfortunately included the demolition of the historical Koma Theater, that also appears in the game), but since my first visit was eight years ago, in 2009, the version included in the game is feels impressively familiar, and brings back a lot of fun memories.
The level of detail of the environments of the game is simply fantastic, and this is actually one of the most fascinating aspects of the Yakuza series: since the games were pretty much all released in the year they portray (excluding 0, of course), they also faithfully reproduce the evolution of Kabukicho, providing a sort of digital time machine that is rather unique in the gaming industry.
Beyond that, from the convenience stores to the way people behave and the general atmosphere of the locations, Yakuza Kiwami is a wonderful deep dive into Japan and its culture. If you happen to like this sort of thing, you’re in for a real treat.
The only small flaw I found in Kiwami‘s visual presentation involves some occasional micro-stutters during the in-engine cutscenes. Since most are a 1-to-1 reproduction of the originals (which were actual CGI videos), I can only guess that adapting the same animations to the new models was a bit touch-and-go. Yet, this is just a personal theory, and it doesn’t happen nearly often enough to be a big problem.
Unlike with the original Yakuza, Sega wisely decided to stick to the Japanese audio track, which is as usual top notch. Many of the actors involved are star-level, and it’s really a pleasure to listen to, enriching further the quality of the superb character design.
The effort made by the localization team to stick closer to the feeling of Japanese culture, mostly with the preservation of honorifics, is commendable. Yet, there are still a bit too many liberties taken, even in the use of the honorifics themselves: for instance, Kiryu addresses Goro Majima as “Majima no-niisan,” which reflects the respectful yet familiar relationship between Yakuza similar to that between a younger and an older brother. In the English subtitles, “no-niisan” is arbitrarily changed to “san,” which is the generic honorific used for pretty much everyone. Since they went this far, they might as well have gone all the way, and it’s a pity that they did not.
Gameplay benefited greatly from the move to PS4, and that goes beyond the much improved fluidity granted by the sixty frames-per-second. The fixed camera of the original game has been replaced with a much more serviceable player-controlled point of view.
The map has also become seamless, and transitions between exploration and combat is instantaneous, which creates an enormously more enjoyable and less disjointed experience throughout the whole game. The continuous interruptions were probably the worst flaw of the original Yakuza, and now they’re completely gone.
Combat has never been the peak of complexity in Yakuza titles, but it’s definitely enjoyable, even more so thanks to the additions that brought it up to par with later titles of the franchise. It’s intuitive and quite easy to pick up, but do keep in mind that this is far from a politically correct game. The heat action finishers are absolutely brutal, so this isn’t a title for the easily offended. Of course there are plenty other aspects and themes that compound this assessment, so you have been warned.
Kazuma Kiryu is a likable criminal, but he is still a criminal, and he comes packed with plenty of vices. The whole series is advertised as entertainment for adults, and it definitely plays that part well.
Of course you won’t just go around Tokyo beating every thug and chinpira (low-level Yakuza) you meet on the streets. There are a ton of activities to be enjoyed, including many minigames ranging from karaoke rhythm games, courting the hostesses, pool, darts, cards, full-fledged traditional Japanese games and many more
This is a game in which it’s very easy to get lost, and experiencing everything will take several tens of hours or more. The amount of variety is staggering compared to most other games on the market, and the value-for-buck is simply off the charts.
Ultimately, Yakuza Kiwami is a fantastic game, and a real benchmark for how remakes of old and glorious titles should be done. While the explorable area is a bit more limiting than in other games of the series, the rich content, fantastic story, enjoyable gameplay, beautiful environments, and likable and deep characters, combined with the extremely affordable price, make this game simply a must-have, that I can recommend to nearly everyone (who isn’t easily offended) without reserves.
Given the quality of this remake, I can only hope that Sega will soon announce a Yakuza 2 Kiwami, because the second game of the series really deserves the same treatment. We might hear something this week, since the publisher promised new announcements on the 26th.
Until then, I will keep my fingers crossed, because the only thing better than a fantastic remake of a beloved game, is two fantastic remakes of two beloved games. Yet, whether the sequel will come or not, Yakuza Kiwami will go down in history as one of the best remakes ever created, for a game that was already great on PS2.