Review: Yakuza Kiwami is a Majima-mad mashup

Yakuza Kiwami is an amalgamation of disparate pieces for disparate audiences. It’s a project of convenience as much as it is one of veneration, of recycling as much as innovation. It tries to be a lot of things to a lot of people in ways that pull it in different directions, but ultimately, none of those motivations pull it away from being a solid Yakuza game.

Developed as an anniversary project, Kiwami remakes the first adventure ten years after its PS2 debut. It’s not the origins of Kazuma Kiryu’s story — those are covered in the prequel, Zero, released here earlier this year — but it is the first story told about his life. It’s a focused tale as a result, not splitting its time between different protagonists and locations. Conveniently, these locations are largely ones found in Zero, likely the result of planning both simultaneously. In some ways it’s a straightforward remake, though an “HD collection” of remasters of the first two games already existed in Japan. So it’s not just that.

This is indisputably the best version of the first Yakuza to play.

The typical motivation for remaking an original game in a series is to update the experience for new players. In that sense, taking that original release and fixing poor localization decisions (like bad dubs and wrong names) on the way to a higher-resolution experience is worthwhile. This is indisputably the best version of the first Yakuza to play. We won’t say the game has modern conveniences, as it’s still stuck in the Japanese edition of open worlds from around the PS3-PS4 transition, but it’s not so painful to play it if you’re used to today’s games.

Conflicting with this aim is its desire to turn that adventure into a sequel to Zero. Yakuza 1 is a small game, and in recycling Zero assets for this, moves were made to keep using all the work put into things like the Pocket Circuit. New side activities include sequel stories referencing the events of that game, and they feel really rewarding for Zero players. Kiryu remarks when he comes upon similar happenings (a lot), even if the activities themselves were in the first game. It’s a bit frustrating that all these references to 1988 exist without any real unspoken history from the seven years between that and this game’s prologue; oblique references to other developments would make the world feel more lived-in.

Each of these are legitimate, but they compete with each other. Those who’ve played Zero will find a much shorter (if cheaper) game with one character, one location and fewer side activities. They’ll find occasional side stories with characters that never got the full high-def treatment and are noticeably lower-resolution than others around them. They’ll find recycled minigames that may have started to wear out their welcome. Those starting with Kiwami will see constant references to events they’re seemingly supposed to know in a game that, they thought, was supposed to be the starting point in its series. They’ll get a sense of scale and production quality they’ll assume is indicative of the newer games in the series, even though it really isn’t.

But there’s a third audience here: series super-fans. Those who’ve seen Goro Majima antagonize Kiryu for a decade. Those who’ve played all the arcade games and all the silly side stories, and want a release that celebrates that spirit. And that audience will find itself catered to quite well here. The new “Majima Everywhere” system is an excuse to have the two stars banter back and forth for a full game, battling using their full wealth of abilities and testing just how well each can push themselves. Sure, it’s just a bunch of random fights with Majima atop the random fights with, well, random people, but the goal is not the explicit “fight Majima and regain special moves” premise. The goal is to amp up the action, beyond realism, beyond reason, out all the way to the grandest scale. The title’s inclusion of Kiwami, which means “extreme” or “zenith” in Japanese, is no coincidence.

The title’s inclusion of Kiwami, which means “extreme” or “zenith” in Japanese, is no coincidence.

Also all these audiences get to play MesuKing, a version of arcade bug-fighting card game MushiKing that now features women in costume. Because it’s Yakuza and who knows.

Which group fits you best may not matter, though. Sure, you should play Zero first, but Kiwami is still the best way to play this part of Kiryu’s story, and it’s a story worth following. That there’s less fun here doesn’t mean that it isn’t fun, and it has the courtesy to understand its limits and ask less time of players to tell its tale. Next year’s Yakuza 6 will be a truly modern game and we’re excited to play it, but Kiwami‘s very different ambitions still have merit. And you may as well get ready for 6 by catching up on the full adventure.

But, um, good luck playing Yakuza 2 at this point, though. Yikes.

Score: 8/10
Publisher: Sega
Release Date: August 29, 2017
Developer: Sega
Platform(s): PS4
Questions? Check out our review guide.
A review copy was provided by the publisher or developer for this review.

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