During the last few months I have been playing a raft of PS4 exclusives that are remasters or remakes of deservedly beloved Playstation I.P. I recently reviewed Wipeout Omega Collection which was brilliant fun, I replayed The Last of Us: Remastered …for the 4th time. Now I have had the pleasure of diving into a remake of Yakuza 1, which was a Playstation 2 classic that I never actually got to play back in 2006.
Titled Yakuza ‘Kiwami’, it is a full remake of the original PS2 title, with new character models, environments, gameplay and Japanese voice over. For those new to the Yakuza series, think of a love child from a JRPG and a compact Grand Theft Auto. There is still the depth of character and plenty of side activities to do, but it doesn’t feature a large open world or vehicles.
It is set in Kamurocho, a fictional district within Tokyo, telling a story of the series long-term protagonist, Kazuma Kiryu. He’s a gravelly voiced, well respected sub boss and heavy hitter for the Yakuza. In Kiwami, Kazuma takes the rap for a murder to protect a friend and after 10yrs in jail he is released to find the Yakuza in turmoil.
The story is the absolute standout in Yakuza Kiwami. Even though there is no English voice over, I kept coming back for more. Now, I’m no fan of subtitles and I cringed at the thought of reading my way through a modern game, but credit where credit is due, I just wanted to learn more about the epic crime drama on offer.
It has to be accepted that some characters are extreme Japanese caricatures of gangsters, and to a western audience will seem a bit jarring, especially if you come in cold and haven’t played a few JRPGs over the years. The voice work is all Japanese and even though I didn’t understand a word of it, there is depth to its delivery and gives each scene a grounding to relate to.
The game itself has three major parts: combat, navigating the city and side activities. Unfortunately, all have an elements have a slight clunk or jank, that in 2017 has to be acknowledged and frankly looked past if you want to see the soft gooey centre of awesome. Side activities can vary from just buying food, singing karaoke or frantic mini games. Unsurprisingly all are very Japanese centric, I personally found them to be a bit too wacky to invest time in.
Navigating the city is all done on foot and Kuzuma feels very ‘floaty’. There is none of the modern character interactions with the environment, that games nowadays feature. When colliding with a car or invisible wall, Kuzuma will just keep running with no change of animation, like he is sprinting on ice. The city looks like a bustling, neon district full of Japanese signs and noise. But because there is no English voice work , NPCs fire out speech bubbles onto the screen filled with the inconsequential street chatter. In a fully voiced game, the chatter adds to the immersion but speech bubbles fail to add anything to the experience.
The combat has had an upgrade from its original release, with multiple combat styles and upgrade trees being added to give more depth and player choice on how to deal with brawls. Fights can be set pieces during story events or can just occur on the street when running to the next story marker or side quest. Once locked into combat arena, it becomes a traditional punch, kick combo game- with a ‘Heat’ meter to fill which unlocks finishers. The fighting mechanics are very approachable and simple fun to use, but once again, by modern standards it feels a bit imprecise or floaty.
For a game that handles a pretty gritty and realistic story so deftly, there is still some silliness to be found. A character called Majima often appears from nowhere in crazy costumes to challenge Kuzuma to a brawl. He will pop up at random times, usually when you least expect it, or want it. This seemed so weird to me, so I in fact googled him. Turns out he is a character that has featured in almost every Yakuza game ever made and his primary obsession….. is to be the one who kills Kuzuma. Really goofy, but really dark all at once.
To undertake a one hundred percent remake of a 10+ year old game is admirable, as many gamers these days would never have touched the original Yakuza. But I couldn’t help but wonder why the developers didn’t do some fine tuning while they were at it. The opening 2 hours is a grind, with a long, dull, fetch quest for a ring and then an out and out bad stealth sequence.
All of which has little to no effect on the story and could have been replaced with a cut scene. That would have allowed gamers to dig straight into the main story arc of the game and enjoy it from the get go. That said though, I have no affinity to the original, as I never played it and perhaps what I suggest would in fact have been heresy to Yakuza fans.
Yakuza Kiwami is great, it really is. For me, it wears too much of its PS2 ancestry on its sleeve and may turn off many modern gamers in the west, which I think would be a shame. The story and characters are brilliant and the combat, imprecise as it is, is still fun. What I would suggest, is come into Kiwami with an open mind and push through those first 2 hours to find the real game, and more importantly get into the story proper.
If you have played Yakuza games in the past you will know exactly what’s on offer. This game was made for you, its a true love letter to fans of the series.