Unlike feature films and television, games are not always expected to include a story. Indeed, a movie or show without a tale to tell would be considered a huge risk. In games, the reverse is often true, and actually bothering to incorporate a story is the risk. Beyond the far-too-likely outcome that a game’s narrative is bad, as soon as a developer decides to tell a story, they begin to make creative choices that limit the game’s worldwide appeal.
A story-less game, such as Tetris, has no genre—the mechanics are more universal than a crossword and can cross boundaries in an instant, becoming one of the most popular games in the world. On the other hand, the Uncharted series requires someone not only prepared to play an action shooter, but also one that likes cinematics, an adventure story, a quippy hero, the list goes on. In the same way, Red Dead Redemption‘s western trappings are a good reason why that particular series will never beat Grand Theft Auto in worldwide sales success: westerns are simply not as universal as the crime genre. However, the game reaches far beyond the limitations its genre might suggest, due to astronomically high quality in both story and presentation—though being from the same company as GTA certainly helped.
SEGA’s latest 3D brawler, Yakuza Kiwami, will also not be to every gamer’s taste, not least because it contains many hours of subtitled cinematics. Nonetheless, as with Red Dead, the high bar of quality and smart storytelling choices make the game a paragon of its genre and a hearty recommendation for all fans of brawlers and gangster movies. Whether exploring the fictitious Tokyo neighbourhood of Kamurocho, punching thugs, or watching the dramatic story play out, Yakuza Kiwami is a privilege to experience and an incredible rescuing of a mistreated PlayStation 2 gem.
Kiwami (translating to ‘Extreme’) follows the series’s main protagonist Kazuma Kiryu and uses the same engine technology and fight mechanics as Yakuza 0. As a full-blown remake of 2005’s Yakuza, Kiwami is both an excellent entry point to the series and a continuation for the players of Yakuza 0. Thanks to better music, additional story scenes, and more detailed character animations, series fans will likely want to skip the PS2 original from now on, and treat this remake as the definitive version.
At the start of Kiwami, Kiryu’s sworn brother, Nishiki, shoots and kills their boss in the yakuza, Sohei Dojima. To protect Nishiki, Kiryu takes the blame and goes to prison for 10 years. When he is finally released in 2005, Kiryu finds the organisation has changed dramatically and Nishiki most of all. The only person who has not changed is Goro Majima, Kiryu’s frenemy and rival, who still wants to be the one to kill him.
Since the story was originally gamers’ first taste of the neighbourhood of Kamurocho, the web of crime families, and the series as a whole, Kiwami‘s plot unfolds as a stand-alone mystery, and, as such, a deeper description would be a spoiler. Rest assured that players will find plenty of melodrama and colourful characters within, as well as a handful of wonderfully-executed story arcs that foreshadow the more sophisticated twists and turns that develop later in the series.
As in popular mafia films, the game abounds with ruthless power struggles, underworld dealings, and implied philosophy about the place of traditional masculinity in modern society. However, unlike many mafia films, Yakuza‘s morality is closer to that of an old-school western or samurai film. Despite his tough attitude, Kiryu is unwaveringly compassionate, shown in the same light as Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales. This strength of character is juxtaposed nicely with his brutal hand-to-hand combat skills, which make up the bulk of the interactive part of the game.
As players explore Kamurocho’s incredibly detailed depiction of an inner-city neighbourhood, they must engage in thunderous brawls with street punks, other yakuza, and, most of all, Majima, who shows up unexpectedly throughout the course of play. Much as Uncharted‘s treasure hunting inevitably results in shooting at pirates from behind low walls, Kiryu’s problems in Yakuza Kiwami always boil down to a good punching. With a light attack, heavy attack, grabbing, and throwing, as well as Yakuza 0’s Heat system that allows the charging up of bone-crunching special moves, these battles resemble nothing less than an arcade beat-em-up in 3D.
All of this is supported by impeccable music and sound that completely replaces those of the PS2 game. Inside battles, music is a blood-pumping mix of rocking beats and synth that recalls SEGA’s arcade origins. The sound of blows connecting with faces, of enemy barks, as well as the various smashes and whooshes that accompany Kiryu’s Heat attacks are all clear enough that they weave into the player’s understanding of the battle arena, becoming especially helpful in tougher boss encounters. Exploration, on the other hand, puts the focus on the ambient noises of the city—groups of NPCs chattering, distant sirens, and all of the little sounds spilling out of buildings the player walks past—which helps establish the verisimilitude of the neighbourhood of Kamurocho even more than the neon visuals. Above all, the dialogue deserves special praise, as the vocals are performed with appropriate gravitas, and the English subtitles do a good job in capturing the meaning for gamers who do not understand Japanese.
The visual presentation of Yakuza Kiwami is the one area where it is not quite so outstanding. Even though the title takes advantage of the extra power on PS4 to run at 1080p and 60fps, Kiwami is technically a PS3 game, so lacks many of the flashy effects and realistic touches of recent games. Lighting looks okay here and there, but is often just flat, as are the faces of unimportant NPCs. The core cast boasts some excellent character models, but their facial animation can still occasionally seem more puppet-like than human. However, if the player comes to Yakuza Kiwami for the twists and turns of a crime story or enjoys the virtual tourism of exploring a small section of Japan, these visual issues are unlikely to be deal-breakers.
Many other commendable aspects to Kiwami have gone unmentioned here, such as the optional missions on every corner or the RPG mechanics of levelling up Kiryu’s fighting prowess, but gamers will relish the opportunity to discover these for themselves. The game’s world and characters are as involving and well-written as any Rockstar game, made to the same exacting detail, but in miniature. Yakuza Kiwami might not be the best looking release of the year, or the best in its series, but it provides a polished and refreshing counterpoint to the huge open worlds of 2017’s biggest hits. Instead of going for the scale and breadth of an Ubisoft game, Kiwami‘s tiny open world feels like a realistic attempt at depicting an inner-city block. The game’s classic crime movie tone and melodramatic characters are unlike anything seen in the likes of 2017’s most popular action games or even the criminal antics of other JRPGs such as Persona 5, and that distinction will be enough to see some players through. Others will appreciate this look at Kiryu’s backstory, chronicling how he went from the young star of Yakuza 0 to the more jaded protagonist of the rest of the series. Finally, the fact that the battles, the world, the storyline, and characters all complement each other makes Yakuza Kiwami a rare success in video games: a great story that elevates every other element to recommend it beyond the limitations of its genre. Far from “Japanese GTA“, this freshly remade introduction to the Yakuza series proves that it can be the Red Dead Redemption of crime games.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4