Ten years ago, Sega introduced us to Kazuma Kiryu, a badass ex-Yakuza who keeps getting sucked back into the world of Japan’s underground organized crime. Yakuza Kiwami is a trip back to Kiryu’s first adventure, complete with all-new visuals, a restored Japanese dub and gameplay enhancements that bring it nearly up to the level of more recent Yakuza games. While it’s a great way to re-experience how the Yakuza saga began, Yakuza Kiwami also showcases just how much the Yakuza series has improved since that original outing.
While the riveting crime drama story of Kazuma Kiryu emerging from a prison stint after taking the fall for a friend remains the same as the original Yakuza, the details on the character models and backgrounds have been completely reworked to look on par with other Yakuza games on the PS4. That gives Kiwami a cinematic feel that helped me get into the twists and turns of its betrayals and action. The graphical upgrade also helps Kamurocho feel more vibrant and alive as a recreation of a bustling Japanese nightlife area, Tokyo’s neon-lit Kamurocho, and is packed with attention to detail (including real-life brands and stores). The distinct feel of the Japanese setting is one of the most appealing parts of the Yakuza series, and Kiwami continues to nail it.
Gameplay has seen a substantial improvement as well. Instead of the clunky-feeling combat in the original we get something much more like the recent Yakuza 0, where Kiryu can use several different fighting styles and earn upgrades to boost his power and learn new moves. Kiryu’s brutal beatdowns feel like the kind of raw, unrefined fighting you would associate with a criminal underworld. While three of Kiryu’s selectable fighting styles – Brawler, Rush, and Beast – carry over from Yakuza 0, Kiwami does drop the ball in teaching you how the styles differ and how they’re best used. In contrast, Yakuza 0 went to great lengths to teach the ins and outs of each fighting style, helping you grow acquainted to combat more thoroughly.
You’ll encounter the lovably weird Goro Majima.
Besides combat, exploration and character interactions have also seen an overhaul. Fighting randomly encountered enemies as you explore Kamurocho’s back alleys is seamless, and when you see innocent people in need you can intervene to help them out for rewards. And sometimes, when you least expect it, you’ll encounter the lovably weird Goro Majima, who’s determined to help Kiryu re-learn all the fighting prowess he lost while imprisoned by using the strangest means possible.
Fan-favorite side quests like visiting hostess clubs, chilling at the batting range, and belting out songs at karaoke make their return alongside some new activities. The oddest is a bizarre female wrestling game like the one seen in Yakuza 0 – only this time, it’s framed as a spinoff of an actual Japanese Sega arcade game about fighting insects. Yeah, I’m a little puzzled by it, but it’s this kind of offbeat weirdness alongside high drama that gives the Yakuza series its distinct charm. You’ll see plenty of other peculiar people and bizarre situations across Kiwami’s side stories, though compared to some of the strange scenarios in Yakuza 5 and Yakuza 0 they seem a bit tame.
Even with new additions, however, Yakuza Kiwami feels especially light on content compared to recent series games like Yakuza 5 and Yakuza 0, which can run more than 70 hours. The main story is around a third that long, and most of the side stories are easy to clear. That does explain why Sega is selling Kiwami at a lower price than usual.
The first couple hours of are not great.
A much bigger problem with Yakuza Kiwami is that Sega passed up a crucial opportunity to improve the overall flow by trimming out and refining parts that never worked well. Honestly, the first couple hours of are not great: they involve an obnoxious fetch quest to retrieve a ring and a tedious stealth sequence infiltrating a funeral. Only after slogging your way through these are you able to see the first of several lengthy, fun action sequences and have the whole of Kamurocho open up to your exploration.
The structure of Yakuza Kiwami’s story also has some pretty significant flaws. Time jumps and flashbacks out of nowhere make following certain story threads confusing, and there are points where the main plot gets frustratingly sidetracked just as things are getting interesting and it focuses instead on side characters. The fact that there are some entirely new story cut scenes added in some of which make this problem worse leaves me wondering why Sega didn’t do a more dramatic revamp to bring the flow more in line with the modern Yakuza games, which put a lot of similar character development into the optional sub-stories instead.