Variety is the spice of life so it’s always a good idea to step outside your comfort zone and try something new every once in a while. In that sense my free time has been very spicy for the past few months. Some friends got me back into watching Japanese anime, I started learning how to swordfight, and whenever I fell back into the comfortable familiarity of video games I dedicated most of that time to starting a brand new series I’ve never touched before. The series in question being Yakuza, a franchise created by Sega over 15 years ago that exploded in popularity on the internet a few years back thanks to a certain song you’ve definitely heard at least once if you keep tabs on video game culture.
When I started researching the series I found that there were actually quite a few starting points, but ultimately I decided to start with 2016’s Yakuza Kiwami, a remake of the original Yakuza game from 2005, released for the PS4, Xbox One, and PC. The game uses 2015’s Yakuza 0 as it’s foundation for both the graphical and gameplay improvements over the 2005 original. So let’s look past the memes and find out if Yakuza is worthy of its reputation.
In Yakuza Kiwami the player takes on the role of Kiryu Kazama, a stoic Yakuza enforcer known throughout Japan’s criminal underworld as the Dragon of Dojima. However, when Kiryu’s best friend Akira Nishikiyama kills the patriarch of the Dojima family to protect their childhood friend Yumi Sawamura, Kiryu takes the fall in Nishikiyama’s place and is sent to prison for ten years. When Kiryu is released on parole in December of 2005, he finds the world he once knew has been thrown into chaos. Nishikiyama is now the ruthless head of his own Yakuza family, Yumi has gone missing, the Tojo Clan’s third chairman has been assassinated, and the clan’s reserve of 10 Billion Yen has been stolen.
Sounds like a pretty exciting set up for a story right? Well keep your expectations in check because on the whole the plot is pretty simplistic and predictable. There weren’t any twists or revelations that really caught me off guard which says a lot considering the fact that I’m not super familiar with a lot of crime thrillers or mafia dramas. However, it’s not lost on me that this is a retelling of a story written 17 years ago when video games didn’t have the high standards for storytelling we have now, but Kiwami certainly tries its best to meet that standard. The graphics and cinematography are top notch and the voice cast is packed with some darn good performances. I wasn’t expecting to find many depictions of good Catholic virtues, if any, in a game about organized crime, but I was pleasantly surprised to find several honorable characters who try their best to help others even though they are caught up in a life of violence.
Probably the most striking of the recurring themes I found throughout the story was fatherhood and all the positive fatherly role models it presents. Kiryu takes the role of a father and protector when he takes young Haruka under his wing. Detective Date, though divorced from his family after being disgraced by the police department, still cares deeply for his daughter and always protects her no matter the costs when she gets targeted during his investigation. Even Kiryu’s adoptive father Shintaro Kazama, despite being a deadly hitman in his youth, builds and maintains an orphanage out of a self-imposed penance for his sins. Characters like these remind us that no matter what situation we may find ourselves in we must always step up and be the fathers (or mothers) others need us to be, just as our Heavenly Father has been to us in our darkest times. So despite my grievances it wasn’t a completely irredeemable experience narratively speaking. Plus the game’s story takes place during the Christmas season and though the religious aspects of the holiday aren’t addressed it’s still a nice touch to see wreaths hanging on bar doors or convenience stores playing soft piano renditions of Christmas carols like Silent Night while you shop.
In between all the story cutscenes the player will spend most of their time exploring the Kamurocho district of Shinjuku. Kamurocho is a pretty rough part of town with hostile street thugs and patrolling Yakuza roaming every corner so be prepared to throw down at a moment’s notice. The game’s combat mostly consists of stringing together light attacks, heavy attacks, and grabbing attacks to form combos that build up Kiryu’s heat gauge which can be spent on devastating finishing moves. Kiryu also has 4 different fighting styles called Brawler, Rush, Beast, and Dragon. The player can switch between these styles during combat depending on what best suits their current situation. Additionally, as the player wins fights they’ll gain experience points they can use to upgrade Kiryu’s abilities and learn new moves. However, while the combat sounds pretty good on paper, in practice I would only call it serviceable at best. While there is some depth to be had here, it’s not on the level of other action games like Devil May Cry or literally anything Platinum Games has ever made.
Outside of combat there are plenty of other activities to occupy your time in Kamurocho. Various shops and convenience stores around town sell items that can increase Kiryu’s stats in combat and eating at bars or restaurants can quickly recover missing hit points. There’s also a wide assortment of entertainment centers like a bowling alley, karaoke club, slot car races, batting cages, arcades, underground gambling establishments, and a whole lot more. These places are where the game’s mini-games can be found, but they’re pretty simplistic and only worth experiencing in small doses. On top of all of this the player will often bump into strangers with side quests they can complete for rewards like money, experience points, and special items. Some side quests are short encounters with quirky characters and low stakes, but others are more serious stories that unfold over multiple quests. All the above-mentioned mini-games and side quests can double or even triple the length of the game, but they are technically optional content so players are free to ignore them and focus on the main story if they aren’t interested.
That covers the basic gameplay loop of a typical Yakuza game. Fight bad guys, explore the city, complete side quests, play mini-games, and enjoy the story. As far as I’m concerned, Kiwami doesn’t do too much to shake up this formula, save for one brand new system called Majima Everywhere. One of Kiryu’s main rivals throughout the series is Goro Majima, an unhinged Yakuza patriarch with an eyepatch absolutely obsessed with fighting Kiryu. In Kiwami, Majima takes this obsession to a whole ‘nother level by stalking Kiryu around Kamurocho. You’ll bump into him walking around, you’ll bump into him at restaurants, he’ll challenge you at the bowling alley, he’ll disguise himself as a police officer to inspect you, he’ll jump on you during street fights, he’ll jump out of manholes, he’ll jump out of trash cans, no matter where you go or what you do Majima has probably found a way to set up an ambush. The upside to this system is that fighting Majima is the primary way to unlock new skills for Kiryu’s Dragon style so despite the frequency of his interference the benefits are worth it. So keep your health bar topped off and be ready for anything because MAJIMA. IS. LITERALLY. EVERYWHERE!
All in all, Yakuza Kiwami was an experience I’m glad I took a chance on. The game isn’t particularly exceptional in any way, but it has its charming moments and definitely made me interested in trying out more games in the series. I’d recommend getting it on sale if you can just in case it doesn’t end up being your cup of tea, but you could certainly make far worse investments. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to keep running away from Majima until I get my hands on the next game.
Morality and Parental Warnings: Yakuza Kiwami is a game set against the backdrop of violent conflicts in the Japanese criminal underworld. The fights are often brutal and even bloody when bludgeons, blades, and firearms are involved. There’s a lot of strong language in the game’s dialogue including the f-bomb and the Lord’s name in vain. Story cutscenes sometimes depict torture or murder. There are several bars, underground gambling establishments, and exotic dance clubs the player can visit. Excessive drinking will inebriate Kiryu. There are scantily clad women, but no full nudity or sex scenes. There are a few instances of cross dressing. There are hostesses in the game that can be dated, one of which mentions she prefers women over men.