Yakuza games do two things very well: grab you with dramatic stories and over-the-top characters, and make you laugh with oddball side missions that knowingly lean into their absurdity. The latest game, Yakuza Kiwami, is no exception. It's gripping and funny, juvenile at times and self reflexive at others. It's a difficult game to categorize, but its unbridled spirit is immediately identifiable, and acutely unapologetic.
Some people had their first taste of Yakuza when it debuted in 2005, and for them, Kiwami is a remake of the game that started it all. It is for the most part a straightforward recreation of the first Yakuza game, albeit with minor adjustments made to account for the current state of the series' extended narrative and contemporary combat systems, but it's largely a faithful adaptation where it counts.
For other people, Yakuza Kiwami is the follow-up to Yakuza Zero, the prequel that arrived earlier this year. Barring the Japanese-exclusive Samurai-themed spinoff Yakuza Ishin, Yakuza Zero is the first in the series' current timeline, and the first Yakuza game on PlayStation 4, making it the perfect starting point for newcomers.
Kiwami is a natural sequel for recent Yakuza inductees, despite its 2005 DNA. You travel the same streets of seedy Kamurocho--a play on Tokyo's red-light district, Kabukicho--to right wrongs and protect the innocent. Chivalrous Yakuza idol Kazuma Kiryu remains in the spotlight, and though the world around him has gone through some technological and cultural growth, he's still the same-old suited gangster with a furrowed brow, a heart of gold, and fists of fury.
Kamurocho is full of interesting sights and sounds: there are an array of restaurants, arcades, and clubs to visit. You can buy and sell miscellaneous goods at a pawn shop and stock up on energy drinks and alcohol at the many corner convenience stores. Kamurocho both a reflection and an exaggeration of Japanese cities, though it always errs on the side of amusement.
Kiwami's primary story is heavy, defined by murder and betrayal, and while it can be wholly captivating, the game's lighter pursuits provide necessary catharsis from your life of crime.
The game's 13 chapters follow a familiar pattern, presenting a self-contained mini conflict that plays into the bigger picture with opportunities to explore the city between cutscenes. Kiwami generously provides waypoints for your next major objective, so you always feel comfortable setting main missions aside as they are easily picked back up again. But when you do, Kamurocho's footprint is rather modest compared to contemporary open worlds, meaning you're repeatedly sent to the same few locations over and over again. At some point, you grow weary of running to one corner of the map knowing full well that whomever awaits is just going to direct you elsewhere after the briefest of conversations.
It doesn't help that you're frequently interrupted with menial combat encounters along the way. Fights on the streets of Tokyo play out in an outdated beat-em-up format where stiff controls and swarms of enemies lead to frequent battles of attrition. And despite offering an impressive amount of character progression, which includes earning extremely violent takedowns as well as strategic maneuvers for your various fighting styles, Kiwami's battles remain consistently underwhelming after the initial joys of brutalizing street toughs wears off.
Though you don't get to control Zero's standout character, Goro Majima, this time around, he's still a prominent part of the overall experience. Goro delights himself in picking fights with you to satisfy his own masochism and to help you regain atrophied skills after a stint in prison that occurs early on in Kiwami. Along with wonderfully weird side quests that pop up as you explore Kamurocho, these surprise events give exploration a sense of purpose. Kiwami's primary story is heavy, defined by murder and betrayal, and while it can be wholly captivating, the game's lighter pursuits provide necessary catharsis from your life of crime.
Beyond its lighthearted substories, Kiwami also offers a host of mini-games that can take hours to master. Many of these, such as darts and Mahjong, are straightforward and traditional experiences, and closely mirror Zero's renditions. The same goes for the RC car races, bowling, and batting cages. Others pursuits such as the bikini-clad-women-cosplaying-as-bugs fighting game, are, well, essentially there for titillation, opting to be sexy rather than challenging. In this regard, Kiwami offers plenty of adult pursuits that aren't shy about leaning into the game's pervasive machismo.
Despite that combat remains more of a bump in the road than a rewarding pursuit, it's a no-brainer for existing fans of the series, and shouldn't be overlooked by newcomers, even if Zero passed them by.
This same lack of restraint can also be credited with Yakuza's more prominent qualities. Cutscenes are often hyper-emotional exchanges backed by impassioned Japanese voice acting that, despite the language barrier, strike a chord. Likewise, Kiryu's finishing moves in combat display a fair amount of creative delight in the unusual ways he's able to take advantage of the environment and nearby props-turned-weapons. These don't always turn a boring fight into an exciting one, but creative violence--along with far-out humor and sexy distractions--is part of the reason Yakuza games are uniquely exhilarating, despite the presence of obvious flaws.
Kiwami does a great job as both a remake of the original Yakuza game and as a sequel to Zero. Despite that combat remains more of a bump in the road than a rewarding pursuit, it's a no-brainer for existing fans of the series, and shouldn't be overlooked by newcomers, even if Zero passed them by. There's nothing else quite like Yakuza, and Kiwami isn't afraid to show it.