By Robert Marrujo:: Full confession: I've never played a Yakuza game before. The massively popular Sega-made sandbox series focuses on the nominal organized crime syndicate and attempts to tell a story that shows a slice of life from that seedy corner of the underworld. Yakuza has tended to focus on protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, a somewhat enigmatic antihero who hails from the Tojo family. Yakuza Kiwami is a remake of the original Yakuza that debuted on PlayStation 2 back in 2006. While I can't speak for veterans of the franchise, as someone walking in with zero expectations I had a fun time with Kiwami.
The game opens with a murder mystery: Kiryu's boss lies dead at his feet, the murder weapon in his hand. The true killer, his friend and fellow Yakuza Akira Nishikiyama, was forced to take the boss's life after he'd tried to force himself on Kiryu's fiancee Yumi. Kiryu is filled in about the events that unfolded that night and decides to take the fall for Nishikiyama. Then, Kiryu is quickly tried and convicted of the crime, at which point he's expelled from the Tojo family and imprisoned for 10 years. The game picks up the day of his release.
As far as narratives go, Kiwami is very cheesy, but in a good way; imagine something like the movie Roadhouse, where it's so bombastic and cringe-inducing that you can't help but love it. That said, Kiwami also has moments of genuine drama and intrigue, but overall it's an over-the-top portrayal of life as a Yakuza member. Part of the mission with this remake was to beef up the storyline and fill some of the holes that the original suffered from. I had no problem following the story, which is told via Japanese voice acting with English subtitles, but despite Sega's good intentions this is a convoluted adventure, to say the least.
This might irk some, but given the soap opera-like nature of Kiwami and the Yakuza series as a whole, it fits perfectly. I enjoyed all the betrayals and action, but I will admit that the actual structure of the narrative can be rough. There are a number of side missions that spring up and pull the player away from the core story, sometimes at really inopportune times that kills the momentum the narrative had been building. If Sega had focused on making the storytelling flow a little more logically it would have been a real boon to the experience. Instead, Kiwami can feel a bit disjointed at times, as a result.
One of the biggest saving graces of the storyline is Kiryu himself. Despite being a criminal, Kiryu is depicted as a rather traditional Japanese hero. Stoic, respectful, and composed, he seems to operate with a distinct set of values that lean heavily on respect towards other people. He might not be a typical good guy out to save the world, but when Kiryu has the opportunity to fight or kill he rarely takes it unless there's no other choice. It made it easy to root for the guy and helped suck me even further into the game.
What the game lacks in story it makes up for with the action. Kiwami is set in the fictional Japanese district of Kamurocho, which is a reimagining of the real world Kabukichō district in Tokyo. It's a wash of neons and high rise buildings, with numerous shops, people, and more to interact with. One of the funnest parts about making my way around Kamurocho was running into a variety of thugs and Yakuza to crack skulls with. The street fights seamlessly work their way in to your travels, beginning at random and quickly transition you form puttering around town to full-on fight mode.
Kiryu can utilize one of three different attack styles: Beast, Brawler, and Rush, with a fourth unlockable one called Dragon. Each allows for different ways of beating down opponents, though the game doesn't really spend any time explaining the ins and outs of them. Instead, players are encouraged to experiment with the styles on their own. It can be a little frustrating, but I didn't have much problem figuring out the different styles as I made my way through the game. Kiryu even has a rival named Goro Majima who follows him around town and will randomly initiate battles in order to strengthen Kiryu. It's quirky and fun, and very emblematic of the tone of the entire game.
Touching once more on Kamurocho, it's a testament to the improved graphics of Kiwami that the region looks so good. The game is lush with detail, from packed streets of people that Kiryu will bump into as he walks, to a surprisingly robust number of different locations to stop at. I spent a ton of time looking at magazines in a convenience store and doing karaoke, as well as a whole host of other activities. All of this variety of gameplay mechanics is one of the hallmarks of Yakuza and it's as endearing here as it is in any other installment in the series. It also serves a practical purpose, as the more fights and activities Kiryu engages in, the more experience he can gain to improve his fighting prowess.
Considering the spine of this title was made back in 2006, Kiwami still comes across as a fairly modern sandbox game. Some of the cinematics are a tad dated even with the boosted graphical fidelity, but in general Kiwami has taken the original Yakuza and both preserved and expanded upon it. I really enjoyed my time with the game and hope that other Yakuza newbies with give it a look. I can't speak for longtime fans, but I think that Kiwami is a wonderful remake that offers just enough new to lure them back to giving Yakuza another go.
SCORE: 8.0/10 (GREAT)
Positives: The bright Tokyo nightlife of Kiwami is brought to life with the updated graphics offered in Kiwami; excellent character models and lighting; fun, though convoluted storyline; a ton of side activities and storylines to engage in; tight combat; seamless battle integration; Kiryu is easy to root for.
Negatives: Narrative can feel disjointed at times; a shorter game by modern Yakuza standards; some cutscenes look a little dated despite the graphical improvements.
Binx was provided with a copy of this game by a third party for review purposes, but this in no way impacted our recommendation. For every review, Binx.News uses a standard criteria.