Coming off the back of the fantastic Yakuza 0 – which launched earlier in the year – Yakuza: Kiwami feels too much like a quick and dirty story expansion. Being the massive Yakuza fanboys that we are, that realisation has a definite sting to it, but we find it a difficult observation to deny. Kiwami still offers up hours of good, face-breaking fun, but it doesn't come close to reaching the heights of the series' best entries.
That's partly down to the fact that Kiwami is a full remake of the very first Yakuza game, which released all the way back in 2005. The original's PlayStation 2 roots really show through at times, and whether it's in the storytelling, the gameplay, or the design, you'll come across some very rough edges during this latest trip to the red light district of Kamurocho.
Clearly developed on a lower budget or with a smaller team – or both – Kiwami is the baseline Yakuza experience and little more. Once again hopping into the shoes of property protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, you'll run around the same old streets, beat up the same old thugs, and partake in the same old side activities. Kiwami offers up no surprises if you're already familiar with the series.
Those who remember playing through the PS2 version obviously won't be expecting any surprises anyway, but extra cutscenes and dialogue have been introduced to make for a more coherent narrative. That said, there are still some glaring plot holes dotted throughout the story, and generally speaking, the pacing, character development, and overall tone just don't live up to the standard that we're now used to when it comes to the Yakuza franchise. Don't get us wrong, this is still a story that's above and beyond what most video games have to offer, but again, those last-last-gen origins show through on a regular basis.
The amount of tedious story mission filler is a prime example of this. Yakuza titles rarely open with blistering pace, but Kiwami's first couple of hours are so unbelievably boring and disjointed that we could barely comprehend what we were playing. One of the earliest gameplay sections sees Kaz march up and down the same two streets of Kamurocho in search of an item that was stolen from him. There's no action, there's no voiced dialogue, and the game's happy to set you on a wild goose chase that seems to drag on forever. It's shockingly archaic design, and even more shocking is that these kinds of filler missions pop up regularly throughout the release.
If anything, Kiwami has hammered home the fact that the series as a whole is in dire need of a revamp. Yakuza 0 felt overly familiar to begin with, but it had its superb storytelling to fall back on – something that this game lacks. As such, we're left with a title that feels old and tired, even if it is still capable of putting a smile on your face with wacky side-stories or making you feel like the embodiment of brutality with its bone-crunching combat.
Speaking of which, Kiwami borrows directly from 0 when it comes to the action. It takes Kaz's three main fighting styles – brawler, rush, and beast – and has you unlock the same moves and abilities all over again via reworked skill trees. Now, we get that you can't have a maxed-out Kiryu blasting through the entire game, but if you've played 0 to completion, then the process of rebuilding Kaz's greatness is going to seem like a chore.
His legendary dragon style is also available here, but the path to fully unlocking its potential is even more of a slog than it was in the last release. As you run around Kamurocho, you'll come into frequent contact with Goro Majima – the one-eyed lunatic who was a second playable character in 0. Obsessed with our hero, Majima makes it his mission to help restore the protagonist's martial prowess by challenging him to street brawls. It's a fun idea that adds a bit of spice to general traversal and exploration, even if fights against Majima do start to get a bit repetitive later on.
The problem is that you'll have to kick Majima to bits more times than you can count in order to fully awaken the dragon style. Not only that, but you'll also have to take him on at range of minigames and complete a couple of separate side activities that takes a long, long time to properly master. Completionsists will no doubt chew through all of that stuff, but even then, you won't be able to maximise the dragon style's potential until right near the end of the game, which makes you question what the point is to begin with.
Yakuza Kiwami finds itself in a strange position. A remake that's technically a sequel to a much better game in Yakuza 0, it struggles to offer anything besides another engaging crime-drama storyline. Best described as a kind of expansion, Kiwami really shows its age in terms of narrative structure and gameplay design, but it's still worth playing through if you just can't get enough of Kaz. It goes without saying, however, that series newcomers are much better off starting with the far superior Yakuza 0.