Just like Monster Hunter, the Yakuza games are now hot property in the West. With the release of Yakuza 0, a new entry and prequel to the series proper, there has been a surge of interest in the existing entries in the franchise. And so the “Kiwami” series has been born, remastering games that first made their appearance on the PlayStation 2 and bringing them up to speed with all the modern graphical flourishes that you would expect of a modern release.
The narrative is central to the Yakuza experience, and for me it is the main reason that this franchise draws me in. In Kiwami 2 we have a pretty cliche set up that continues the story begun in (Kiwami). Kiryu, our buff yazkuza/ex yakuza (I’m never quite sure when he’s in and when he’s out) is trying to stop a war between two rival clans. Stopping this war though, seems to involve beating up an awfully large number of people angry at you in what some might say is a warlike fashion. It’s a bit silly and camp, but that’s what this series does best. If you’re not a fan of 15 minute long cutscenes and over-the-top dialogue, you’re probably best to move right along, but for me they were delightfully interesting. Although I never played the original Yakuza 2, there’s been some changes made to the story this time around, hinting at the fact that this is more than a simple remaster.
If you only started with the Yakuza series with the prequel Yakuza 0 then you should be up to speed with what’s happening, but if you’re coming to this game fresh then fortunately right at the beginning of the game there’s a place to see a recap of the story so far, though dozens of hours of plot summarised into 10 minutes can still be a little confusing.
The changes to the graphical stack of Kiwami 2 indicate that this is not simply an upscale and release type of remaster. The entire game has been remade in the Dragon Engine that powered Yakuza 6, utterly transforming the low-polygon original into highly complex 3D models. It even looks better than the recent Yakuza 0. Apart from a huge increase in resolution, there’s incredibly detailed character models for the main protagonists, all the modern graphical techniques, and remade textures throughout. Perhaps my favourite was the implementation of depth of field, which is significantly upgraded from the vaseline-like implementation in Yakuza 0. Text also now renders correctly at 4K without appearing blurry, a bugbear of mine from previous releases.
Amidst the new graphical flourishes sits a game that maintains the same core experience for which Yakuza games are renowned. At its heart, you are still going through the same cycle of eating, fighting, watching cutscenes, and engaging in hilarious side quests and activities. While the main story is engaging, my favourite parts by far are the side quests. Help a rookie dominatrix learn the ropes (so to speak), give a comedy duo management tips, be a photo model for a day – these are the ridiculous things that really fill out the world and make it inviting and lived in.
Also returning is a surprisingly fleshed out hostess club management sim, which personally I don’t find very interesting, but can be a quick way to earn some easy Yen.
One of the main pillars of any open world game is the combat, and Kiwami 2 has done a decent job at attempting to streamline and refine the series’ trademark melee violence. It has done away with Yakuza 0’s stance options – now there’s only one defined fighting style, but you have more control over what moves you unlock at what time. By eating food and beating up thugs, you gain EXP points to put into the combat skills that suit you best.
Despite this relative freedom, there is an increased emphasis on using weapons. Now, you can pick up and store weapons during a punch-up to use in later fights. I ended up storing most of the weapons I came across until I got into a boss fight, where I pulled them out for increased damage per hit, and to use their unique “heat” (i.e. special) moves/attacks. Speaking of heat moves, one of my favourite parts of combat was the special moves that included help from a stranger on the street – using their guitar for example to smash over an opponent’s head.
I found upgrading my skills and abilities was a bit complicated and not well presented. To my chagrin, it took me multiple hours to work out the menu system, which explained why combat felt a bit limited with only a couple of moves to use. Once unlocked however, there were a large range of moves and techniques at my disposal. You can pause in any fight too, if you need a refresher on what buttons do what at what time, something for which I was very grateful.
Kiwami 2 features other small quality of lives improvements like the ability to save anywhere now, not just at phone booths. These add up to a somewhat less frustrating experience than in previous entries. Compared to the original release, some quests from the PS2 haven’t made it into Kiwami 2, but on the flipside there’s a bunch of new content to make up for it. Not having played the original, I couldn’t really feel their loss, but did enjoy the additional bits of story and world-building put into this remake.
Best understood as a remake and reinterpretation of the original, Kiwami 2 is a solid entry into a franchise slowly finding its feet in the Western market. Still fantastically Japanese, it hasn’t lost what made these games interesting in the first place. Kiwami 2 only reinforces the fact that these are no mere Grand Theft Auto clones but in an entirely separate genre, one that has now made itself mainstream in the West, and one, if the quality of this release is kept up, I can only imagine getting bigger and better as the Kiwami remakes continue.
Released: July 2018
Platforms: PlayStation 4