The Yakuza franchise is one I’ve studiously ignored over the years for no discernable reason. I can remember – very vaguely – trying the very first game out back on the PS2 as a youngster; there was something about a snazzily-dressed Japanese mobster and some fighting? That was more or less the extent of my experience with the franchise, and I promptly put it out of my mind, the game relegated to the ever-expanding pile of “stuff to get to” that eventually got boxed and then sold once I moved away from my home to go live with my then-fiancee. During that time I was half-aware that the game I once tried for ten minutes and then put aside had launched into a franchise, with sequels and prequels and apparently even a zombie-themed spinoff. I wasn’t really aware of the extent of the Yakuza franchise until very recently when I began to look into the games after I picked up Yakuza Kiwami, a remake of that very first game, on sale. And so, ever the dutiful gamer, I decided to return to a franchise I’d not really thought of since 2005 and see just what I’d missed.
Yakuza Kiwami (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One)
Released Jan 2016 | Developed: Ryu Ga Gotoku | Published: Sega
Genre: Action-Adventure, Beat-em-up | HLTB: 18 hours
Our hero here – well, actually, indulge me a moment – can we really call any protagonist of a crime game a “hero”? If you’re used to other major crime game releases – consider Grand Theft Auto, Saints Row, Mafia, even stuff like Watch_Dogs – then that probably seems a straightforward answer: no. None of the main characters of these games are even vaguely close to being heroic in any sense; it’s the same draw as the Corleones in Godfather, or Goodfellas’ Henry; these characters push the plot along and they are our viewpoint, and they may even confirm to their own moral code which separates them from our villains, but by no stretch can they be called heroes. Part of what makes them entertaining is the freedom from a strict sense of right and wrong that can sometimes constrict traditional hero roles.
So, naturally one would expect our protagonist, a yakuza lieutenant named Kazuma Kiryu, to be much the same. It’s striking then that he defies that expectation, and is actually portrayed fairly uncritically as a good-hearted chap. It really threw me – I was so prepared for the game to be cynical and dark like many other crime dramas that the sharp turn into something far more charming caught me completely unawares.
Well, in fairness, the story certainly starts starkly. Kiryu isn’t just a mid-level yakuza; he is known around town as the highly respected and feared “Dragon of Dojima”. However, when his best friend Nishikiyama murders the Dojima family’s boss, Kiryu chooses to take the fall and heads to prison in his stead. A decade later, Kiryu returns to his home turf of the Kamurocho district in Tokyo. Kiryu strikes a compelling figure as the prologue comes to an end; he is at once bewildered by the rapid advances made in technology across the last decade that he missed, dismayed by the deteriorating condition of his old stomping ground, and keenly aware of his status as a pariah to the yakuza that remain active in the area.
What I find interesting though is that Kiryu doesn’t immediately try to re-ingratiate himself with his old family; he follows a strict honor code, and he knows that he is an outcast to the yakuza, with no hope of ever rejoining their ranks. Instead he seems to accept his position as just another spod in a grim town. When he inevitably finds himself drawn back into the world of the yakuza, he does so with no small amount of grim resignation.
Thing is, the world of the yakuza has fallen into turmoil in the ten years Kiryu has been inside. The fallout from the murder that put him away left the families of Kamurocho in a state, and amidst the furor Nishikiyama has risen to prominence as the head of his own family. He’s no longer the wilting violet that Kiryu knew before though, as a decade on has reforged Nishiki into a cruel and bloodthirsty yakuza leader. Shortly after he returns to Tokyo, Kiryu is informed that the chairman of their entire clan has been murdered and his clan’s money to the tune of ten billion yen has all been stolen. As Nishiki’s family begins a power grab in the wake of all this, Kiryu also finds himself forced to care for Haruka, a young girl who has wandered into the streets of Kamurocho looking for her mother, a woman related to one of Kiryu’s closest childhood friends.
Take a breath. As I’m sure is apparent, Yakuza features layers upon layers of storylines, with each one adding more to the overarching plot. Trying to follow them isn’t as hard as it seems though; it definitely makes more sense in action than trying to write down what the disparate threads are. Each chapter doesn’t so much escalate the threat as force it forward with explosive fervour; it really feels like the writers were given free reign to say “oh, and what about if we do this?!” and then a blank cheque was slapped onto the desk. It’s this brand of bombast that gives Yakuza a far more engaging identity than other similar games that I’ve tried, with every line screamed or over-acted, and every scenario introduced with rushing camera work or characters making the most over-the-top decision they could possibly choose.
That on its own might wind up being a bit draining, particularly across a 15-20 hour game, so it’s just as well that Yakuza balances things out both with fantastically-written characters and a bevy of side content to interrupt the breakneck pace. The central trio of Kiryu, Haruka, and down-on-his-luck cop Date are all written earnestly, and I think that entirely to the game’s credit; it keeps them grounded amidst the increasingly zany directions the plot goes. Haruka in particular is that rare beast, a well-written child, who acts as the moral compass for Kiryu; she never quite stops him from resorting to violence in the face of his trials, but over the course of the game he evolves from trying to look after her out of obligation to his childhood friends to genuinely being a papa wolf that stops at nothing to protect her. I empathized with Date even more though; his character begins as a fairly standard trope character but, just as with the plot, the layers of characterisation are built upon his weary shoulders and he cuts a deliciously tragic figure as Kiryu’s most reliable ally.
Of course, no review of Yakuza would be complete with mention of what is by a long way its most popular breakout character, Goro Majima. When he is first introduced it’s as a sadistic yakuza captain who finds himself reigned in and defeated by Kiryu; I don’t mind telling you this but the first time he shows up I was gritting my teeth at every second spent near him, fully ready and expecting to hate him. Now I’ve finished the game however I’m happy to report I’m fully onboard with the Majima fanclub. After Kiryu returns to Kamurocho, Majima quickly confronts him, positioning himself as a thrillseeker and rival who pledges to constantly challenge Kiryu to fights in order to force him to return to the heights he commanded as the Dragon of Dojima. What this means in practice is that Majima is always interrupting your exploration of the gameworld; sometimes he’s dressed up as a character to get the jump on you, other times he’s hiding in the scenery, and occasionally he just muscles his way into otherwise completely unrelated fights you’re having. Every time though he does so with the same screeching glee at throwing down against his “Kiryu-chan”, and it’s simply impossible not to love his reckless enthusiasm for getting his face punched in.
Speaking of face-punching, this game has an awful lot of that. Not just that, though, oh no; Kiryu is a man of many talents, including curb-stomping, wall-mashing, and general maiming. He does this through utilising four different combat stances, with each one bringing a different style of fighting to the table. Three of these fall into standard archetypes: you’ve got your slow but powerful Brute style, the fast but weak, death-by-many-cuts Rush style, and the Brawler style that sits between the two. These are joined by Kiryu’s unique Dragon style, which is figured as Kiryu’s signature combat stylings, but in my experience mostly felt similar to Brawler. These stances can be switched between freely during combat so you are granted significant tactical flexibility, and once you get a handle on when each style is at its best you can switch things up to lethal results.
As Kiryu fights he builds Heat, which is used to access brutal takedown moves. These can be activated when an enemy is grabbed or on the floor, but many more are contextual with different attacks playing out depending where you and your foe are positioned. These are all eye-watering, delivered with crunching animations that genuinely can make you wince as Kiryu casually crunches faces against walls or stomps down on a prone yakuza’s face. Bosses even come with their own particular weaknesses that, once they are at a low enough health level, can be exploited in the form of special attacks that divest them of huge chunks of their remaining health. While watching attack animations play out might sound like it could get tiring, not only are they always entertaining but doing so also rewards you with a glut of experience points that can be spent on the three twisting and extensive upgrade trees that Yakuza features.
I mentioned that the game has side-content but I don’t think that quite does it justice. Despite the fact that the district of Kamurocho is relatively compact, the developers have managed to stuff it with an incredible, almost intimidating amount of extra stuff to do, particularly once the game opens up in chapter 4. Most of your time is going to be spent in fights. As you run around the district you’ll find yourself accosted by gangs of hoodlums and yakuza, as well as the occasional drunk or someone trying to pull a fast one on you. Every time it happens a huge crowd gathers around to box you in, and they always conclude with a slow-mo shot of your last attack so they consistently feel like an event.
In between the fights you might also run into one of the game’s massive plethora of side quests. A lot of these pit Kiryu against the gamut of seedy goings-on in Kamurocho beside the business of the yakuza clans; between these and the steady stream of thugs and ne’er-do-wells bothering people in the street, Kamurocho is brilliantly sold as a distinctly grim place to eke out a living. Kiryu remarks early on that the district has become significantly shadier in the decade he was away, and it certainly feels like it, though of course that doesn’t stop you from interacting with it. Funnily enough though a lot of the extra content is actually a bit more light-hearted; taking swings at a batting range is an unsurprising activity for a country that loves its baseball, but I have to admit I wasn’t ready for the extensive children’s card battling game (with a wry joke made as Kiryu pontificates on the unsuitable artwork on the cards) or the minigame based around building and racing an RC car (once again against literal children).
I don’t mind admitting there was almost too much in Yakuza for me. That might sound like an odd comment – after all, not all that long ago I spent over 130 hours utterly completing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and talked about it at length on this very blog, and surely these modern games have even more content than a remake of a PS2 game from 2005? Well, yes, but the difference is in the nature of the content. Yakuza is an older game, back from not just the pre-DLC era but also a time when bigger open-world games were still a bit more of a novelty and developers hadn’t settled on the Ubisoft publisher-safe formula for designing massive worlds. This means that the time you spend with the quests is actually spent on, y’know, quests and dialogue rather than clearing out Kamurocho’s fifteenth bandit camp or climbing the local radio tower to fill in a map square. That makes Yakuza kind of exhausting to play, but in a glorious way!
In the end, I had to put side quests aside and just focus on the story until I beat Yakuza and crossed it off my mental list, and, honestly, I kind of liked it better than way. There’s still a lot to Yakuza even just when pushing through the campaign, and I couldn’t say I felt like I’d missed that much in playing it this way (although I did enjoy going back afterwards and dossing about Kamurocho). I was left knackered but satisfied, like at the end of a breakneck action film that keeps you on the edge of your seat – except stretched out over a far longer time since the pace really ramps up towards the final act. But unfettered action only takes you so far; no, the thing that elevated Yakuza for me and what keeps it in my head weeks after beating it was the effort put into the wonderful character writing. Yakuza was a kind of unique experience; both a serious crime drama and also an exaggerated, silly and goofy romp, but one with a strong sense of control, never letting one override the other.
6/7 – EXCELLENT.
Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.
3 thoughts on “Yakuza Kiwami”
Games are excellent. Some of the later installments are a little tedious, but I dig ’em overall.
I can’t wait to try them out!
Hope you have tons of fun!