No matter the medium or genre, remakes are always very tough to get right. Successful remakes have to do two things: 1) Provide an effective nostalgia bomb for the old fans and 2) provide a great experience for new audiences. Some remakes just play it safe by updating the visuals and calling it a day as in the case of Crash Bandicoot: N-Sane Trilogy. Sega, however, went much further when they decided to remake the first entry in the Yakuza franchise. The remake is called Yakuza Kiwami for a reason. The word “Kiwami” translates as “extreme”, and the word fits considering how much was added to this remake. As a long-time fan of the Yakuza franchise, I played through not only Kiwami but also my old copy of the PS2 original. Thus, I can give a thorough analysis of what was changed.
Yakuza Kiwami: PS4 [Reviewed], PS3
Publisher: Sega [NA, JP] Deep Silver [EU, AUS]
Release Date: 21 January 2016 [PS4/PS3 JP] 29 August 2017 [WW]
Price: £29.99 [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Developer/Publisher]
The first thing that old fans will notice is the expansions to the main plot. Focusing exclusively on Kazuma Kiryu, the original Yakuza had one of the strongest stories in the franchise, and that plot still works now. The head of the Dojima family is murdered, and Kazuma takes the fall to protect his old friend Nishiki and fiancee Yumi. After ten years in prison, Kiryu is released to find the landscape changed dramatically. Nishiki had become power-crazed, and 10 billion yen had been stolen. The secrets all hinge on a young girl named Haruka whom Kiryu vows to protect.
The plot is actually improved from the original version in two distinct ways. First, since Kiryu and Nishiki were tight partners in Yakuza 0, additional scenes were added reinforcing the partnership and hinting at some of Nishiki’s underlying jealousy as Kiryu gets closer to their mutual friend Yumi. These additions go far toward showing how Nishiki could have become so corrupted.
Second is the expanded role of the always crazy Goro Majima. Those who played through Yakuza 0 may be disappointed to learn that Majima is not playable this time, but his part is expanded from the original game. Here he’s a constant thorn in Kiryu’s side as he keeps popping up at random points to goad him into fights. His stated goal is to strengthen Kiryu backup after the ten years he spent in prison, and the gameplay fits that goal. Kiryu’s Dragon fighting style can only be built up through fighting Majima, unlike the other styles which just build up through experience points. It was a great way to bring more prominence to a popular character without it feeling too forced. Also, while he had to play it a little coy with how unhinged he was in the original and Yakuza 0, here he goes straight-up loony tunes, making encounters with him some of the game’s comedic high points.
The missions don’t stray far from the norm for the Yakuza franchise. Most of the main missions are transplanted directly from the original game; even many of the cinematics are just prettier copies of the originals. Those missions are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they’re much better connected to the story than the later games whose missions are a bit more random. On the other hand, the missions fall prey to the design tropes of 2005. Chapter 3 was easily the most annoying as it was a stealth section that was thrown in purely because just about every game was throwing in unnecessary stealth sections at the time. Those tropes had not aged well, and I was not thrilled to see them again. On the upside, the side stories in Kiwami are much better than in the original game. Even though they’re not as enjoyably silly as the ones in Yakuza 0, there is a greater variety than the limited side quests in the original game. The main missions added just for Kiwami are also well-done, adding additional layers to flesh out the characters that were missing in the original.
As Kiwami is a remake of the first Yakuza game, its mission-based structure is much tighter than the far-more-open Yakuza 0. There are fewer points where the leash is taken off, allowing Kiryu to explore and fool around. Players aren’t given free-reign until Chapter 4. Once given freedom, players will find that there’s much less to do in Kiwami than in Yakuza 0. There are some returning activities like the slot car races, casino, mahjong, and karaoke, but there are much fewer distractions than the last PS4 game. While that is disappointing when compared to Yakuza 0, it is much better than the original Yakuza which had far fewer diversions.
The biggest improvements over the original Yakuza are in terms of the camera, combat, and upgrade systems. The original Yakuza had a completely automatic camera; there was absolutely no manual camera control at all. Playing the original again for comparison, there were numerous times that I nearly missed critical items and got unfairly hit because I couldn’t see what I was doing. While the camera in Kiwami does tend to get stuck in tight places (the bars were particularly problematic), the manual camera did make it much easier to see what I needed to see. That improvement alone makes Kiwami much easier to get into than the original.
The combat is almost a complete carry-over from Yakuza 0, and that’s a VERY good thing. All four of Kiryu’s fighting styles are available right from the start, and there are plenty of moves available in each even before upgrading. The original game had only one fighting style which made fights become rote after a while. Even though button-mashing would be fine in most cases, the variety makes the constant battles much more energized. The Heat-based finishing moves are just as easy to use as in Yakuza 0, a vast improvement over the original which made the Heat moves so cumbersome to pull off that I practically ignored them.
The upgrade system is basically a mix of the simple experience-based style of the original and the Sphere-Grid-like set-up of Yakuza 0, and the combination works great for the most part. The only disappointing part is that, while the Dragon style has a grid all to itself for reasons I previously mentioned, the other three styles have their upgrades strewn haphazardly all over the Body, Soul, and Tech grids. It gets annoying when I find I have to use experience levels on the styles I don’t use often just to reach the upgrades I actually want. The system is fine, but it could’ve used some adjusting.
Even though Kiwami‘s a PS4 exclusive for most of the world, it was made for the PS3 as well in Japan. As such, like with Yakuza 0, it doesn’t feel much like a PS4 experience aside from the impressive main character models and a 60 frames-per-second framerate. It is still a fine-looking game, but we’ll have to wait for Yakuza 6 to see a true next-gen game in the series.
There are two questions that I can answer about Yakuza Kiwami. The first is, “Is it worth playing if I’m new to the franchise?” Absolutely! While I would encourage newcomers to play Yakuza 0 first, Kiwami is definitely worth playing. It has one of the strongest stories in the whole franchise, the gameplay is solid, there’s some great variety, and it’s being sold for a very reasonable $30. The second question is, “Is it worth playing if I still have a copy of the PS2 original lying around?” Definitely! The game is more than just an HD graphical update. The story was expanded to tie-in with the rest of the franchise better, and the combat and activities were greatly improved over the original. While it’s not perfect and some elements have not aged well, Yakuza Kiwami is a great reintroduction to Kazuma Kiryu’s story and can serve as the model for how remakes should be done.