As it’s set in contemporary Japan, or modern Japan circa the mid-2000s, referring to the setting as the main descriptor for a title like Yakuza Kiwami isn’t as lazy as it sounds. Yakuza, from SEGA, is a franchise that has always had a distinct Japanese flavour. We’re talking the brightly-lit streets of Tokyo, hostess bars, and general culture shock that comes from ducking into a baseball range to hit a few balls alongside some men in business suits. Yakuza Kiwami, a proper HD remake of the PlayStation 2 original with new visuals and gameplay features that take advantage of both time and the extra power of the PlayStation 4, is an interesting if very specific type of experience.
The nearest comparison that we could come up with, and this is merely to play a game of like-for-like is that it’s Shenmue meets Double Dragon. When playing Yakuza Kiwami, you’ll be doing one of three things. Watching a cinematic cut-scene designed to progress the story and possibly confuse you with the sheer number of Yakuza families that happen to fall under the same banner. Walking the streets of Tokyo and taking in the sights and sounds and hostess bars on offer. Where you can also simulate dating, in one of the many mini-games. And of course, fighting. Lots of it too, with many groups of thugs, punks, and Yakuza gangs to punch, kick, and fight your way through.
Perhaps the greatest compliment that one could lay on this and the Yakuza series as a whole is that when playing you’ll feel like a tourist. A tourist that also happens to be in the midst of a Japanese gangster film. The story, which once again focuses on series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, opens up considerably once he’s released from prison after serving a ten-year sentence for killing his family’s patriarch. And that’s Yakuza family. Of course, he didn’t do it, and thanks to the many lengthy cutscenes the strange story filled with honour and revenge is one that stands the test of time. As a remake, in addition to the revamped visuals, Sega spent the extra time flesh out some of the narrative beats with new sequences that were created specifically to better explain the intricate goings on.
As a huge fan of Shemue, the appeal of Yakuza Kiwami is strong. Distinct Japanese storytelling filled with strange surprises and unexpected turns is a hard one to resist. As is a tale that attempts to fill a void in the gaming landscape who’s only real contemporaries are its own sequels and films set in the Yakuza underworld. The only real downside is that the fighting mechanics don’t feel modern at all - like they were lifted directly from the 2005 original. Improvements and updates taken from subsequent Yakuza titles have of course been retrofitted into Yakuza Kiwami, but the floaty movement and lack of accurate aim for melee strikes takes a while to get used to.
That being said, combat in Yakuza is deep and with RPG-like progression and various fighting styles on offer things improve as the game goes on. It’s a shame then that the more difficult encounters feel a little silly when you need to keep eating and drinking to restore health and slowly chip away at a boss figure’s health bar. For newcomers, and well, anyone really, playing on easy comes recommended. For a game that is about story first, and getting to explore Japan second, having to deal with fighting that can often devolve into frustrating bouts of dodging and toying with the limited mechanics isn’t worth it. And a frustration-free Yakuza Kiwami experience means more time spent at one of the many hostess bars.