I struggle a bit with how to review this. As I detailed in another article, this is my entry into the Yakuza series, for better or for worse. I have no memories of the original PlayStation 2 release of Yakuza back in 2005 to fall back on. As a review of the upgrades that Sega has added to this launch, I can list the changes, but I can't offer any view on how those changes have improved the original experience.
Yakuza Kiwami is a bit more than a remaster. Sega essentially took the framework the Yakuza team built for Yakuza 0 and applied the original game's content to it. That means new character models, a completely rebuilt version of Kamurocho, re-recorded voice work (Japanese-only this time), a remixed soundtrack, new side-content, and new cutscenes to fill out the story given the benefit of hindsight. Best of all, it runs at a smooth 60 fps in 1080p on PlayStation 4.
I originally skipped the Yakuza series because I assumed they were a Japanese take on Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto series. Instead, they're closer to an updated version of classic beat 'em ups like River City Ransom, with a fully realized area of Japan to wander around in. You always know where you need to go and usually when you get there, you'll have a brief cutscene and then you'll fight some dudes. Some fights are more memorable than others, but that's the general core of Yakuza. It sounds easier than it actually is: at default difficulty I found myself tested in the game a few times. Yakuza is no pushover.
Yakuza 0 added multiple combat styles to the formula for series lead Kazuma Kiryu – Brawler, Beast, and Rush – each allowing the player to adapt to the situation at hand. Rush is your high-speed, dodge-heavy style; Beast is all about strength and rushdown, Brawler is the jack-of-all-trades fighting style; and Dragon is Kiryu's signature fighting style, I assume pulled from the original game. You can flip between all four styles at the touch of the directional pad.
As you complete tasks in Yakuza Kiwami you'll level up and gain Experience Points that can be spent on new Techniques, improving your general stats, or offering new options for your Heat Gauge, which is needed for the crazier Yazuka attacks. While the three styles from Yakuza 0 upgrade through standard skill trees, Dragon style is a bit different.
Dragon's upgrade path is tied to probably the biggest addition in Yakuza Kiwami, the all-new Majima Everywhere mode. Majima feels like the Joker to Kiryu's Batman, a wild card with intense love for the hero, but seemingly on his own chaotic and destructive path. In Majima Everywhere, Majima will pop up at random across the entirety of Kamurocho. Maybe he's a police officer in this scene. Maybe he's coming from the sewers in that one. Perhaps he's a bartender. You never know.
No matter where Majima pops up, Kiryu is honor-bound to fight him. Win and you're gain new skills for the Dragon fighting style. Majima's appearances are hilarious and break up what's actually a rather a straightforward Japanese crime drama featuring a yakuza with a sense of honor and heart of gold. He's like palate cleanser of sheer madness.
Actually, the humor is one of the things Yakuza Kiwami does better than most games. It's a title that can switch between deadly serious, somewhat emotional, and completely cartoonish at the drop of a hat. You'll see deep discussions about Tojo clan (Kiryu's reigning crime family) politics, deal with the cost of the yakuza lifestyle on Kiryu's young charge, and even use your fists to help the weird folks around Kamurocho. You'll talk to journalists, cops, other yakuza, folks simply down on their luck, and even a goddamn clown. While you always know where you're going in Yakuza, the magic is that you never know what you're going to get when you get there. And all of it is delivered in the same earnest manner, whether it's Kiryu finding out that an acquaintance is dead or a middle-aged man challenging him to toy car races.
Surprisingly, though my original perception of the series was an an open-world game, the area that Yakuza Kiwami occupies is actually rather small. Kamurocho isn't all that big from end to end, especially in an era where games have sprawling maps that take 20-30 minutes to cross. Where Yakuza Kiwami one-ups many titles is in its density. This is a tighly-packed red light district, with a ton of nooks and crannies to explore. You'll turn down an alley or street only to find a new shop, sub-story, or other interesting character. Sega's Yakuza team has layered a ton of things to do within a relatively small space.
Within Kamurocho, you can shop at convenience stores, drink at bars, or take a load off as a restaurant. Perhaps you want to spend some time at the batting cages, play a crane game, try your hand at mahjongg, or take up some billiards. Maybe you'll spend time with your favorite lady at the hostess club, or sing your troubles away at the karaoke lounge. There's even a super odd insect lady card battle game in the local arcades; I have no idea who at Sega came up with this idea, but okay Yakuza, let's do this! This short description only scratches the surface with all the randomness available to you in Yakuza Kiwami. There's just so much to do, so much time to be wasted and most of it will put a smile on your face.
Honestly, that's how Yakuza Kiwami is from top to bottom. This is my first Yakuza game, but I found myself completely in love with everything the game had to offer. Perhaps if you're a Yakuza veteran, you'll feel limited with such a small area and only a single character to play, but for me Yakuza Kiwami was a wonderful entry into the franchise. It's a solid brawler, a fun Japanese crime story, and a great time-waster. Yakuza Kiwami is the kind of game where I'd load it up on my PlayStation 4 and just putz around for a bit. Maybe I'd complete more of the main plot, but more often than not, I'd just live in the world for awhile. Any game that can make you want to do that is winner.
And Yakuza Kiwami comes in at a budget price of $29.99. If you want to see what all the fuss is about this is the place to start. Yakuza 0 is technically the beginning of Kiryu's story, but it's a full priced release and Yakuza 6 won't be launching on PlayStation 4 until March of next year. This is the ground floor folks. Time to hop on the ride. For my money, I'm glad the soul is still strong in this one.
Sega remastered the original Yakuza in high style. Using an updated engine, the team behind the series added new character models, re-recorded voice acting, and an expanded city of Kamurocho, all in 1080p at 60 fps. Yakuza Kiwami bleeds love for the original game. If you haven't played any Yakuza, this is the release to get. If you have, this is a great remaster of a former cult-favorite. It's not as full-featured as current Yakuza releases, but it's still a great time.