Yakuza Kiwami Review

I’m always a bit conflicted when it comes to remasters; while I appreciate the opportunity to revisit past classics, I can’t help but feel that the time and money would be better spent bringing new games to the market. Still, if you are going to remake a game, you might as well follow in the footsteps of the largely brilliant, Yakuza Kiwami. While other games are happy with little more than a new lick of paint, this is closer to that of a full remaster, albeit one with a great deal of reverence for the original game. While that does lead to an experience that is occasionally at odds with itself, the underlying quality and obvious effort that has gone into this remake ensures that it remains a viable option for newcomers and veterans alike.

Being a big fan of the series (I insisted on a pilgrimage to Kabukichō on my last trip to Tokyo), having the chance to revisit the first Yakuza game, but with the kind of visual trimmings you would associate with Yakuza 0, proved a welcome invitation to return to a series that, while well known for continuously iterating on the original template, has arguably become a tad bloated in recent years. Yakuza 0 bucked the trend to a certain extent, but after the relatively epic scale of Yakuza 4 and Yakuza 5, it proves an oddly pleasant change of place to return to a more mechanically and narratively streamlined experience.

Those coming directly from Yakuza 0 and without the nostalgia associated with having played the original Yakuza back in 2005/2006 might find its somewhat simplified structure and decidedly paired back take on Kamurocho a tad disappointing, but after years of increasingly expansive locations and a wider and wider range of Japanese cities to be explored, going back to the streamlined original proves undeniably liberating.

The actual narrative might be rather basic in comparison to its more recently released sequels, but Yakuza Kiwami’s story is arguably the series’ best, and with updated voice work by the exceptional Japanese cast (there is no option here for the decent but comparatively weak English dub found in the original), is more cinematic than ever for this tweaked but largely reverent take on the original tale.

After a 10 year stint in the big house, Yakuza’s beloved anti-hero, Kiryu Kazuma returns to the tough streets of Kamurocho to find the Tojo Clan in disarray and in quite a bit of bother with the Japanese criminal underworld. This invariably leads to much back-stabbing, plenty of madness and, of course, a hell of a lot of fist fights. There is of course much more to it than that, and like all Yakuza games, the original is as melodramatic, emotional, ridiculous and utterly self-aware as ever, but as always, it’s bizarre mix of tones and storytelling techniques lends the series a uniquely and somewhat defiantly Japanese tone. It might be a relatively major international hit at this point, but this game remains as brilliantly Japanese as ever.

If anything, the subtle changes to the structure make the game more resolutely Japanese than ever before. Take the all new, ‘Majima Everywhere’ system for instance – this mode, while providing a unique way to improve your abilities and fighting style after 10 years out of action, provides a huge adrenaline fuelled shot of fan service to proceedings. It might not make a huge amount of sense in relation to the story (or to Majima’s characterisation in the first game for that matter), but as a nod to long-time fans, this decidedly strange system highlights the Yakuza series at its most brilliantly bonkers. Whether he be dressed as a cop, hiding in a bin or, well, pole dancing at the local hostess bar, Majima can (and will) turn up at just about any point in your adventure to challenge you to a fight. Again, it doesn’t necessarily make sense, but then, the Yakuza series has always embraced the absurd, and honestly, if it means more Majima-based madness, then I’m all for it.

While this concession to fans of the series might not make much sense as far as the narrative of the first game goes, other changes have been implemented with a greater sense of subtlety. The battle system, which compared to subsequent sequels is a tad simplistic, has now combined the best elements of the original game (gaining exp for fights etc) with the more fluid 3-style structure of recent games. The ability to switch styles while having access to Kiryu’s ultimate “Dragon of Dojima” style from the beginning of the game makes for a more entertaining battle system, and while it does lead to some occasionally frustrating boss battles, is certainly a subtle concession to the series’ progression that even the hardcore are likely to understand.

As successful as many of the changes to the original experience are, what has been left over from the 2005 release subsequently stands out like something or a sore thumb. This is never more apparent than in the cut-scenes and the somewhat stilted animations that serve as a stark reminder that, while the core experience has largely stood the test of time, the technology that underpins it is still 12 years old. The new coat of paint that brings the game visually in line with the fantastic looking Yakuza 0 is much needed and largely much appreciated (you only need to go back to the Japan only HD rerelease of Yakuza 1 and 2 to know that a quick up-res doesn’t do much to hide the games’ age), but while everything looks great during the core gameplay, when Yakuza Kiwami falls back on cut-scenes or close up moments of dialog, the old fashioned animations and terrible lip synching really do look awful next to the highly detailed faces and impressive looking surroundings.

Despite remaining largely true to the original game, Yakuza Kiwami almost plays out like a ‘best of’ compilation via its subtle integration of many aspects found in subsequent sequels. It doesn’t all work (the mini games are surprisingly poor), but for the most part, this is a carefully crafted remaster that’s only major failing is its subsequent imbalance of new and old technologies. Saying that, as an enjoyable return to a more streamlined take on the Yakuza template and a fantastic retelling of what remains the best story in the series to date, Yakuza Kiwami, despite its occasional rough edges, proves an extremely enjoyable trip down memory lane and a fine example of a remaster done right.

REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 4 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to editor@bonusstage.co.uk.

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