Yakuza: Kiwami Review
Yakuza 0 was a hidden gem of mine while I dealt with the immense pressure of living with COVID-19. After spending over 100 hours on the game and getting hooked completely into the series, I decided to play all the games in their entirety.
Once I completed Yakuza 0 – which is perhaps one of the best games I’ve played in recent years – it was time for me to focus on the next game chronologically. Yakuza: Kiwami, a remake of the original Yakuza, uses Yakuza 0’s game engine and looked pretty dang interesting from the outside-in.
So, how does it stack up? Let’s find out.
1 - Visuals
A remake of the original Yakuza – which released in 2005 for the PlayStation 2 – Kiwami features updated graphics, thanks to Yakuza 0’s game engine. However, unlike 0, which was filled with neon lights and exuded a more carefree aura, Kiwami’s depiction of Kamurocho is much darker and the atmosphere is more grim.
This time around, gone are the bright lights and loud outfits from the 1980s. In their place are monotone suits, muted signage and an overall murkier feel, which properly mirrors the events of the game and real-life Japan at the time.
For context, in the 1980s, Japan experienced a massive economic boom thanks in part to a shift in focus to real estate and domestic demand, hence why Yakuza 0 was flashier and money was more readily available. After seeing record economic numbers across the board, Japan experienced a massive recession in the 1990s – called the “Lost Decade” – which some claim to have continued to the present, leading to a more dour atmosphere altogether.
In that same vein, the character models are done well to reflect the more serious tone of Kiwami, as some NPCs wear quieter outfits and there are more homeless people lining the streets. Because the game takes place in 1995 and 2005, series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, Akira Nishikiyama (Nishiki), and series deuteragonist Goro Majima all look older, more rugged, and generally more experienced.
The game does have some issues when it comes to loading textures, but it doesn’t happen frequently enough to be an issue. The cutscenes are also done well, featuring the same setup as 0, so there’s nothing out of the ordinary there.
In all, Yakuza: Kiwami’s visuals get four stars.
2 - Audio
The game is exclusively in Japanese, so Takaya Kuroda’s dulcet tones as Kiryu continue to stand out. As Kiryu is 37 by the time Kiwami begins in earnest, there doesn’t seem to be progression in how Kiryu sounds, as Kuroda essentially uses the tone that he used in 0.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but considering that a sizable portion of time has passed – at least chronologically speaking – between this and the previous game, it would have been nice to hear Kiryu sound differently.
Meanwhile, Hidenari Ugaki does a great job of conveying the inherent lunacy of Majima, though there is always more than meets the eye. Ugaki and Kuroda’s portrayal of their characters really lends itself to Majima and Kiryu’s strong dynamic and makes their characters that much more believable.
That being said, perhaps the most memorable performance has to go to Kazuhiro Nakaya’s portrayal of Nishiki. Nakaya’s ability to convey Nishiki’s strong emotions and feelings – even if it’s in another language – makes it almost impossible not to feel for him and his path.
In a particular scene where Nishiki is faced with an incredibly depressing situation, Nakaya is able to portray Nishiki’s anguish in such a way that very few voice actors can, regardless of language. Nakaya’s performance really makes the players empathize with Nishiki and understand his pain and struggles.
While Kiwami’s soundtrack doesn’t have as many memorable tunes as 0, the final boss theme is still worthy enough to get special mention here.
With that, Yakuza: Kiwami’s audio mixing gets four-and-a-half stars.
3 - Story/Progression
The Yakuza series has always been known for its captivating storyline, and Kiwami is no different. The story starts out with Kiryu taking the fall for a murder of a high-ranking official in the Tojo Clan, which leads to his arrest and imprisonment for 10 years. After his prison sentence, Kiwami continues Kiryu’s rise to becoming one of the most feared men in the Tojo Clan and his ascension to becoming the Dragon of Dojima, albeit with some roadblocks along the way.
Being a remake of the original game, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio (RGG) added new elements to the storyline to flesh it out, such as a more-developed backstory for certain characters, to make the story flow better. In particular, RGG’s focus on Nishiki’s life while Kiryu was in prison really helps explain what he went through, the struggles he faced and his motivations.
The story is gripping, gritty and, in some ways, downright depressing as Kiryu and Nishiki take center stage to show how the Yakuza life changes people, especially best friends. If anything, Kiwami’s story is a cautionary tale of those glamorizing the Yakuza lifestyle: though there are discernible changes in one’s way of life, that change doesn’t come free and more often than not, it comes at the cost of a person’s humanity.
Kiwami shows that living a life of organized crime is not fun; rather, it’s a sad and lonely life where everyday you worry about your safety and those around you. While 0 had some moments of levity, Kiwami seemingly has fewer moments and is generally a more serious game throughout.
As such, Yakuza: Kiwami’s story gets four stars.
4 - Gameplay
Since Kiwami uses 0’s game engine, many gameplay aspects are very similar to 0. However, because Kiryu was in prison for 10 years, his “Dragon of Dojima” abilities naturally dissipate. As a result, Kiwami introduces the “Majima Everywhere” system, wherein Majima – Kiryu’s superior/friend – will continually spawn in different areas of the map to fight Kiryu.
Continually beating Majima allows the player to level their “Dragon of Dojima” abilities back up to pre-prison levels, allowing Kiryu to be a nigh-impossible opponent to beat. Also, instead of using cash to upgrade their other abilities, players will have to use XP, which can be accumulated through completing side stories, playing minigames, beating Majima, and finishing chapters.
Along with “Majima Everywhere,” players can continue to play minigames such as bowling, smashing arcade games at Club SEGA, racing Pocket Circuit cars, or even singing a new version of “Baka Mitai” at the local karaoke bar.
As a whole, there’s not much to write home about regarding Kiwami’s gameplay, especially for fans who have played 0. There are also substories available, but they aren’t as memorable as 0 as they often consist of “go here,” “fight this person,” “wait a few days,” “have another fight,” and so on.
In all, the game packs tried-and-true gameplay that works, though it’s a bit uncreative.
Yakuza: Kiwami’s gameplay gets three-and-a-half stars.
5 - Context
Although it is a remake of the original game, Kiwami sold well during its release week. As a whole, the Yakuza series has shipped more than 14 million copies worldwide with about 20% of the lifetime sales coming in just the last few years, around when Yakuza 6: The Song of Life released.
Digging further, in 2015, it was reported that the series had sold seven million copies. From 2015 to 2018, Yakuza 5, 0, Kiwami, 6 and Kiwami 2 all released in English-speaking markets, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the release of 0 and Kiwami helped spur the series’ strong sales in recent years.
Kiwami has been well-received by critics and gamers alike, with the PlayStation 4 and PC versions getting 80/100 and the Xbox One version getting 81/100 on Metacritic. As a whole, Kiwami may not be as deep as 0, but considering it is a remake and not a standalone title, this makes sense.
Additionally, representation isn’t Kiwami’s strong suit, especially since the story focuses primarily on Kiryu and Nishiki’s dynamic. Overall, considering that Yakuza is an extremely niche series meant for a specific audience, this isn’t too much of a detriment. Like 0, there aren’t many accessibility options, so if a person has certain disabilities, they may not fully enjoy the game.
Yakuza: Kiwami’s context gets three-and-a-half stars.
After playing Yakuza 0, I was more than thrilled to know that the entire Yakuza series was on Xbox Game Pass. Thus started my journey to play through the series, and Yakuza: Kiwami was next in line. Now that I’ve played Kiwami, I can honestly say that it doesn’t live up to the standard that 0 set. Then again, very few games can live up to that standard.
Still, Kiwami is a good game in its own right. It’s visually appealing, even if the graphics look dated in some aspects; the story is engaging, especially as it explores the humanity of Nishiki and Kiryu; and the voice acting is simply phenomenal.
Though the gameplay is derivative and the context may be lacking, Kiwami is still an enjoyable experience all around. Players can still have fun wandering the streets of Kamurocho, looking for substories to complete, or just going Pocket Circuit racing to their hearts’ content. If players just take Kiwami as its own game and don’t compare it to 0, then Kiwami is by and away a very solid title.