Crime stories often invoke familiar themes. Fraternity and loyalty, duty vs. intimidation, the corruption of power, the decay of an institution. The Yakuza saga, now eight core games and numerous spinoffs and adaptations, begins with the story of Kiryu Kazuma, an up-and-coming enforcer for the broader Tojo Clan’s Dojima Family, surrendering ten years of his life to take the fall for a murder he didn’t commit. Yakuza Kiwami, released in 2017 alongside prequel Yakuza 0, commits to retelling the story of the original 2005 Yakuza as part of an effort to revitalize the franchise.
Yakuza’s story, that of Kiryu Kazuma breaking away from his foster brother Nishikiyama Akira, is the story of a man realizing he’s not young anymore. It’s the story of a man realizing that in order to protect the people he loves, including a young girl looking for the woman he left behind when he went to prison, he can’t protect everybody. It’s also the story of how getting something always comes with a cost, and Kiryu ends up spending a lot of time solving other people’s problems. Kiwami is a messy story, one full of tangents and setpieces before arriving at a more dramatic conclusion.
Where Kiwami succeeds is as an action game and an open world. The core brawling combat of Yakuza Kiwami, with four separate movesets divided into “stances,” is a delight to play and rewards thoughtful preparation and adaptation to different opponents. Every enemy you fight is named, helping to build the sense of place Kamurocho is building. And Kamurocho, the red-light district that is home to several Yakuza games, is bustling with life, sidequests, and teeming with fun minigames and details. Wandering around from the taller buildings in the Hotel District to the tight alleyways of the Champion District, you’ll find everything from slot car racing to batting cages. It’s a gorgeous rendition of city streets, and the loving attention to detail in each step of Yakuza’s world helps to ground its beloved characters.
Since the revival of the Yakuza franchise, I think most people are familiar with the games’ heightened sense of comic absurdism and representations of positive masculinity. It’s true – Kiryu is the definition of a criminal with a heart of gold, a man whose head isn’t always on straight but whose most powerful traits are his sense of empathy and his unbeatable fists. The Dragon of Dojima has helped more victims of abuse and exploitation, offered more empathy to queer people on the end of their ropes, and nonjudgmentally entertained strange hobbies or kinks more than any other character in gaming history. The colorful world of Yakuza leads you to many strange corners, but it generally comes away with a smile or accepting laugh rather than reflecting a close minded worldview.
Yakuza Kiwami…isn’t as kind as its sequels. While the new content in the remake reflects that generosity in spirit (and a couple dated sidequests have been rewritten to match the modern series’ tone and inclusivity,) the core story of Yakuza is being told as it was in 2005. A comparison of cutscenes between the 2005 and 2017 games reveal that most of the main storyline is in fact replicated shot-for-shot in the modern engine. That means that the story hasn’t improved on any weaknesses present in the story from the beginning, and that includes the absence and eventual violence against women throughout the story. The Yakuza franchise, in general, is a franchise where characters die dramatically, and characters you’d hoped to see for the next five games have their storylines ended in moments. But Kiwami occasionally fails to treat those deaths with the gravity of subsequent entries, and it can be jarring and off-putting compared to the reputation of this series.
The real question regarding the sudden popularity of the Yakuza franchise in the West is “why now?” After Yakuza 0 and Kiwami, the franchise has become one of Sega’s most beloved franchises outside Japan, leading to an effort to remake and remaster entries 2-5 before moving to an international release model going forward. The answer is, I think, quite simple – the games successfully iterated into their more modern incarnation with Yakuza 3, but the sprawling, epic story of the franchise was hard to enter for newcomers with the games’ latter entries. Rebooting the story with accessible entry points allowed people to get in on the ground floor, meeting the characters for the first time.
One other motivating factor – Kiryu’s counterpart, Majima Goro. Majima is the second protagonist of Yakuza 0, a game where Kiryu and Majima’s parallel stories only briefly intersect to tell the broader narrative of the prequel’s superior story. He was included in the original Yakuza, voiced in the English dub of the PS2 game by Mark Hamill, and was essentially a miniboss you fought a couple of times. Now, in 0 and Kiwami, he’s presented as Kiryu’s blood rival, the Mad Dog of Shimano, and much of the new content in Kiwami is centered around providing new opportunities to duke it out in increasingly absurd situations. Hiding underneath giant traffic cones, luring Kiryu into soaplands for private parties, and simply howling the word “Kiryu-chan,” the Majima Everywhere gameplay system adds a gameplay villain comparable to the Resident Evil remakes’ Mister X and Nemesis, always a threat wandering the open world and ready to shake you down. Majima’s zeal for life brings out the best in the Yakuza franchise, and this is the best possible introduction to the character.
Which brings out the question – okay, this isn’t the best representative of what’s great about Yakuza, so is it where I should start? I’d probably still argue yes – while its story is more simplistic, the strengths it has in introducing characters and thematic underlining is a pitch-perfect way to meet Kamurocho’s Tojo Clan. And the anchoring relationship between the found family of Kiryu and a little girl named Haruka-chan makes this must-play stuff for understanding where Kiryu will go forward. But if you start it and the story starts to lose you, go ahead and drift off to Yakuza 0 or Like a Dragon and see if those set off the fireworks before you come back. I say – if you’ve never tasted Yakuza’s particular blend of soap-opera melodrama, peak absurdist comedy, and genuinely badass action before, you probably won’t be able to get enough.
Yakuza Kiwami is available on PS4, Xbox One and Xbox Series X consoles, and PC, for around $20. The game is also available on Xbox Game Pass, along with the other Yakuza games in the Kiryu Kazuma saga.