Yakuza Kiwami

Sega has had an epiphany.

They have realized that what people want out of their Yakuza games is “more”. More fights, more Kamurocho, more mini-games, more deadpan naivete from their trademark Mobster With A Heart Of Gold, Kazuma Kiryu. And also more Yakuza games, period.

Explaining the Yakuza games is difficult. To borrow a phrase from the late Douglas Adams, the Yakuza games are almost, but not quite, entirely unlike Grand Theft Auto. Our own mpc goes into some detail on the games in the Tea Leaves review of Yakuza 0, which I encourage you to read; his knowledge of the games, and the world in which they exist, far outstrips my own. Though I’ve spent about 4 games wandering through Manly Gangster Japan, I have still only scratched the surface.

To compare Yakuza to Grand Theft Auto is simultaneously to be perfectly reasonable, and also to totally miss the point. Like GTA, you traverse through a videogame version of a busy city, committing crimes. Like GTA, there is fighting, and killing, and big money heists. There are dating minigames. There is drinking. There are distracting, optional side games (“Cousin! Let’s go bowling.”) Aren’t these games just the same beast in different skins?

Match girl No. There is a central different between the games, and that is that Yakuza has a heart, and the GTA games do not.

(There are other differences as well, such as that Yakuza is entirely on-foot, and doesn’t involve driving, and that the combat in Yakuza is a creditable fighting game in the tradition of Sega’s earlier game Virtua Fighter, while the combat in GTA is a pile of garbage, but let’s set those aside for now.)

GTA is, at its heart, a mayhem simulator. Setting aside the plot, GTA really wants you to murder bystanders, to come up with creative ways to crash cars and, eventually, be shot to death by the cops. We know this because of the loving detail put in to those game systems. Yakuza, contrariwise, wants you to make a mess, but only to make a mess inside its sandbox. You generally can’t target random civilians, and even when you’re fighting mobsters the game will go out of its way to establish for you that you are punching people who were really asking for it.

Yakuza Kiwami is an amped up re-telling of the first Yakuza game, with some notable changes. Probably foremost among these - apart from the expected graphical upgrade - is the Majima Everywhere system. Long-time Yakuza antagonist (and, in Yakuza 0, player character) Goro Majima lurks around every corner in Kamurocho, wanting to fight the player again and again. Each time you defeat Majima, you unlock skills in the “Dragon” combat tree, which will, as is right and proper, result in you being ludicrously overpowered by the end of the game.

Kamurocho is the in-game representation of Tokyo’s Kabukicho district. A night-life area full of restaurants, drinking establishments, hostess clubs, strip shows, pawn shops, and gambling parlors, Kamurocho is similar enough to its analogue that you can pretty much use the game as a map to navigate in real life. As you might expect from the setting, the game has gender issues from beginning to end, alternatively treating women as damsels to be rescued or resources to be financially or sexually exploited. There’s really no way to soft-sell this, and being able or willing to put up with it as part of the genre is more or less a price of admission to the game.

Probably the most painful expression of this is the game-within-a-game “MesuKing: Battling Bug Beauties”. Let’s see if I can get this into one sentence. Half-naked female fairies, who are also insects, are controlled by players using rock-paper-scissors to determine which wrestling moves they will use against each other (if you’ve played Yakuza 0, this is the “Japan Catfight Club”, with nearly the same assets and wrestlers, to which has been added a Pokemon card mechanic.) More disturbingly, this is presented in a framing story wherein most of the players of the game are pre-teens. It’s part of the mystery of Yakuza that I am at a complete loss as to whether this is an intentional decision to make the player feel creeped out, or just a tone-deaf decision. You can never actually tell.

I will give a shout out to the game for adding a gay hostess in one of the hostess bars, and more importantly doing it in a matter of fact, straightforward way. Kiryu doesn’t react in any offensive or immature way to this; it’s just presented as yet another facet of that NPC’s character. This is a step in the right direction. Then, taking three steps back, in rapid succession I encountered Goro Majima in a dress (which I will admit was hilarious), followed by a “You encounter a trans person, who is evil” sidequest. So be forewarned: the sexual politics of the game might bother you; make your decision about joining in accordingly.

How one sidequest resolves Speaking of sidequests, this is an area where the game lives up to its “Kiwami” billing. Traditionally, Yakuza games thread many sidequests throughout the game world. in Kiwami, they are so thick on the ground that you can ignore the plot for hours at a time. Before you know it, the map will be covered with the sidequest markers. They range from one-off encounters that are resolved within a conversation to longer threads connected to minigames.

Nearly all the minigames from Yakuza 0 return including among others bowling, batting cages, shogi, karaoke, various dice games, and mahjong. This reviewer was glad to see the “pay a one-time fee, gain access to unlimited mahjong touraments” feature is still here. The Yakuza mahjong minigame is one of the best versions of riichi mahjong I’ve found (at least, for those of us who don’t read Japanese). Being able to play as much as I want without worrying about money is a nice perk.

Kiryu gains skills through the traditional Yakuza mechanic of spending experience points. The “people you fight are piñatas made of money” aspect of the game that was present in Zero has been removed. I miss it; it added to the silliness in a good way. Although Kiwami has its moments of levity, on the whole it is a more serious take on the game’s world.

This seriousness does make some sense. Kiwami is more or less retelling the story of the first Yakuza game, wherein Kazuma Kiryu becomes, through coincidence (or was it fate?) the custodian of the orphaned Haruka, who may or may not be the key to finding 10 billion yen that has gone missing from the crime syndicate’s bank accounts. The game begins with a prologue wherein Kiryu takes the rap for a hit he didn’t commit. When he is released on parole, 10 years later, he comes back to a Kamurocho that is even seedier and more cynical than the one he left.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us in a world that, if you want it, can be all-Yakuza, all the time. Kiwami is one of a storm of Yakuza games that are arriving on PS4 with an almost dizzying cadence. Apart from last year’s Yakuza 0 and Kiwami, Yakuza 6: Song of Life is coming in early 2018, and Yakuza Kiwami 2 is slated for mid-2018. Sega seems to have decided they have a winner of an engine, and are going to bury users under an ocean of content. Is there enough of an appetite (at least in the West) for our favorite gangster-wtih-a-heart-of-gold to support such an ambitious release schedule? Time will tell.

As for me, I’ll be standing directly in front of the firehose. Laughing.