SEGA gets a lot of flak for its long-running series slowly going off the deep end and forgetting what made them enjoyable. Shinobi floundered until it just disappeared, the most recent Valkyria Chronicles has had painful reviews, and the less said about Sonic the better.
Yakuza (Ryū ga Gotoku in Japan), however, is a long-running Sega property that has continued to go from strength to strength. With six main sequence games, it has become the gaming equivalent of box set television. A sprawling crime epic of sworn brotherhood, angry stares and brutal finishing moves that will still somehow only KO the opponent even though you just jammed a dagger straight into his guts.
The games follow Kazuma Kiryu, the bastard lovechild of Akira from Virtua Fighter and Jotaro Kujo, and his adventures with an ever-expanding cast of friends, ex-yakuza family, ex-yakuza rivals and Goro Majima. In Japan, six main sequence games cover Kiryu’s story as well as a generous amount of side games. Yakuza is a bankable cash-cow franchise in its native country.
With each game, the fighting improved as well as adding new and fun things to try out in between the story missions. Yakuza 6 and Yakuza 0 are far more enjoyable games than the, now twelve-year-old, original. It seems a clear decision that, with Yakuza so popular as a series, the flawed original game should be remade with the new engine used in Yakuza 0.
I say remake, but Yakuza Kiwami borrows a lot more from Yakuza 0 than its engine. If you played Yakuza 0 you will notice lots of familiar faces from Yakuza 0 that have been brought over into the remake. From Kiryu’s Pocket Circuit friends to the suspiciously familiar insects of Mesuking, Yakuza Kiwami feels more like a sequel to Yakuza 0 that replaces the original game than a remake.
Leading some seventeen years on from Yakuza 0, Kiryu is now a rising star in the criminal underworld, ready to become the patriarch of his own subsidiary family and he also has a maxed out skill tree you can try out for the first few fights. Sadly, Kiryu’s swan brother, Nishiki, kills a high ranking official about to assault Yumi. A character that we are told means a great deal to Kiryu and Nishiki even though we barely see them interact. Kiryu takes the rap for Nishiki’s murder ending up in jail for ten years.
Unsurprisingly, in the ten years spanning 1995 to 2005 everything has changed. Cellphones are everywhere, a new ‘millennium tower’ now dominates the skyline, Nishiki is now a real big-shot in charge of his own family and a mysterious young girl quickly finds Kiryu and asks if he knows her ‘ant Yumi’.
So, if you are a fan of the original story, then do not worry as everything from the first Yakuza game has been lovingly recreated so now you can see all your favourite scenes with a polygon count high enough to show Kiryu’s now gigantic skin pores. Yakuza’s first story will feel refreshing to those who only know the later games as this story was written long before popular characters have been able to get merchandise powered plot armour and truly anyone can die making it feel a whole lot more like a crime novel then the soap opera it will later become.
There are also extra scenes that add to the story from the original; those that fill in Nishiki’s back-story in the ten years that Kiryu was in jail are particularly impressive, saving Nishiki from being the cruel cypher he was in the original game. While these scenes give Nishiki fantastic context for his actions in the story when viewed as a whole, they are oddly placed between the story chapters with no connective tissue at all making it a bit sudden when you go from Kiryu’s epic throw-down at a yakuza funeral to Nishiki barely managing to keep his new family under control is more than a little jarring.
But, hands down, the most unusual addition is the Majima everywhere system where fan-favourite Goro Majima will ambush and fight Kiryu in order to toughen him up to the level he was at ten years ago. These start off with Majima just rushing Kiryu in the street when he sees him like any other enemy NPC but eventually reaches Looney Tunes levels of silly with Majima jumping out from inside manholes, sneaking up and playing every mini-game against him and even dressing up as a zombie and attacking in character. I always found Majima fun and his rise from unique mid-boss to supreme bad-ass on par with Kiryu was one of the best things about the Yakuza franchise. But it is best to see most of his appearances in Kiwami as a separate, sillier, story about how Kiryu gets his punching groove back with a little help from a very enthusiastic Majima.
But like with the flashbacks mentioned earlier, the old and the new can clash in some bizarre ways. For me, I had just finished a story mission that ended with Majima taking a blade in the stomach meant for Kiryu and being dragged off to the hospital, his fate uncertain. I then left the story area, walked around a corner, and found Majima hiding under a traffic cone waiting to jump out at me. I found this disconnect a rather fun addition to the bonkers tapestry of Majima’s character but I can bet that others would be less forgiving of such a jarring sequence of events.
Sadly though, while Majima is all good fun, there are a few odd side stories that feel very uncomfortable. Sadly, there was one mission where the story boiled down to ‘Oh, aren’t trans/genderfluid people so weird, how can you understand such people ha-ha’ and essentially forced me into a fight that for Kiryu was totally out of character and seemed really mean-spirited, invoking the idea that trans-women are trying to pull some kind of trick on people. This myth that has caused friends of mine such pain in their lives really seems a bit out of place, especially in the more comedic side stories. It’s like if in the middle of Sesame Street Grover sat down to talk about how Elmo really should get circumcised now while he is young.
But when it comes down to the fighting that you, Kiryu, will be spending about half the time doing, Kiwami is a mile more impressive than the original. Mainly because it is now possible to have Kiryu fight a whole bunch of people in a climactic showdown without it being a slow painful slog even when everything is going your way. Get into the right rhythm in Kiwami and Kiryu becomes Sonny Chiba reborn as he grabs the head of the last mook in the room and smashes it through the door into the next area full of more dudes to fight.
It can get a bit weird that in a plot of interconnected Yakuza families robbing and conning each other in increasingly complex backstabbing, the only thing the player as Kiryu does is go to the right place and beat up the right people, everyone currently standing. But it works in Yakuza games because these increasingly bizarre crime plots and even more bizarre characters add emotional stakes to every fool that stands in your way after you just broke his mate’s kneecaps. Yakuza uses this to make nearly every big fight at the end of a chapter have the weight of a final boss and the final boss itself something that lesser games would spend a trilogy to build to.
In the end, despite some clear and unfortunate flaws and the fact that it cannot match the synergy of the story that Yakuza 0 managed, Yakuza Kiwami cannot top its siblings as a whole experience. But as a remake of the first Yakuza game, this is an absolutely essential piece of media. It reforges the first game’s story in the engine of the more recent games and makes it possible to enjoy the first adventure of Kazuma Kiryu as it feels like it was meant to be experienced.
Yakuza Kiwami has really brought me back into loving the Yakuza series again by remaking the very game that made me drop it. Now that is exactly what a remake should do. Now I'm really looking forward to the sixth game and the remake of the second. In the meantime, I shall catch up on all that I have missed.