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Updating the Dragon, with varying success.

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    Yakuza Kiwami

    Rating: 3.5 – Good

    Updating the Dragon, with varying success.

    Yakuza Kiwami was an opportunity for the Ryu Ga Gotoku studio to revisit the game that started it all and morph it to their current vision of the series. As with most remakes, developers walk a fine line trying to stay faithful to the original work while updating elements they find dated or introduce more features without them feeling alien. This fine line is also there when I try to critique this work, an effort to judge it by its own merits while also not being blind to what faults a game "being true to its origins" cannot justify. In this case, the studio managed to keep a decent balance with a couple of sizeable misses.

    Being an almost shot-for-shot recreation, the game starts with Kiryu, our main character, and Shinji, a fellow yakuza, on a usual yakuza job to introduce us to the general setting. Then, it throws a taste of Majima, a familiar crazy "opponent", and transitions to Reina’s Serena bar where we find Nishikiyama, Kiryu’s oath brother, and Yumi who is a close friend of both Kiryu and Nishiki. After it has established the relationships that tie these characters together, the narrative is quick to throw us to the event that sets the story in motion. A couple of scenes later, a Yakuza patriarch is killed by Nishiki to protect Yumi and Kiryu steps in to take the blame, thinking that he is shielding his loved ones this way. That nets him 10 years in prison and his return to society marks the beginning of our journey to find our inner dragon once more (as Majima likes to remind us) but things aren’t quite as Kiryu left them.

    A freebie that Kiwami seizes in its narrative is the fact that it can build upon the excellent origin story of 0, an advantage the original didn’t have. Characters have emotional baggage. If you have experienced Yakuza 0, you know why Serena is a hangout. You can see the cracks in Majima’s crazy mask, knowing what made him create this persona. And most of all, there is emotional impact in Nishiki’s descent to a ruthless crime boss employing questionable methods to get what he wants. Which is quite a change for the Nishiki you ate, drank and fought alongside, half naked.

    Not all of this is because of the lore Yakuza 0 added. The most welcome addition of Kiwami, story-wise, is the introduction of new Nishiki-focused cutscenes detailing the events that made him as he is when Kiryu gets out of prison. This along with the events of 0 make Nishiki’s arc much more hard hitting this time around. Majima benefits less from the way Kiwami deals with his story appearances since the new Majima Everywhere system, which is a great addition to the game in most regards, has you fighting him several times outside of the main events. This has the unfortunate side-effect of cheapening the impact of the story clashes with him. Other important figure arcs like Date and the Florist are more or less left untouched from the original where they did a decent job characterising them and Haruka, the little girl that is somehow in the middle of all the chaos, is given enough screen time, a good delivery and some side activities to at least make me care about her in the end.

    One thing that is understandably unusual is the pacing. This being a recreation of the dev’s first attempt at crafting a yakuza story, the pacing is a bit off. The bright side is, some fetch sequences aside, it never slows down to a crawl. What it does lack is a good sense of judging when some sequences should be longer, giving us a chance to digest the impact of the events taking place and to indulge in the details that make the Yakuza world so interesting. And there is room for it. The Nishikiyama flashback sequences help space out the plot better, giving the pacing more of the necessary slow tempo moments before the guns blazing action. Lastly, without getting too much into spoilers, the game mismanages its climax somewhat by shining the spotlight more upon a character that does not have the capacity to throw an emotional punch as much as others. The games have gotten progressively better at this whole "pacing and structure" thing and what you’ll get here is an honest first attempt that occasionally misses the mark.

    Just as with every Yakuza game, on the other side of the dramatic crime-focused narrative is the signature over-the-top combat, quirky substories and side activities.

    The combat system is more or less a modification of what 0 offered for Kiryu. You got your 4 styles: Brawler, the dirty street fighter style which works well all around, Rusher, the dodge happy fast-hitting style, Beast, the slow-moving style that specialises in grabs/hitting people with heavy objects/hitting hard in general and Kiryu’s signature style, Dragon of Dojima. You can level up the first three by spending EXP points you earn by battling and other activities. The latter however starts out really weak, to signify the rust accumulated in 10 years of being behind bars, and is upgraded by dealing with Majima around town or training with Komaki. It is a good way to tie in Majima’s narrative role of testing Kiryu with its reflection on your strength in combat but the balancing makes it so that it jumps from completely inferior to other styles to borderline overpowered.

    Moving on, Kiwami spices up the formula with 2 major additions.The first one is quick style changing which is probably my favourite thing in this game. It allows you to instantly change style after finishing blows, quicksteps, throws and other moves and opens up several opportunities in combat. No more clumsy rolls to grab a dude from behind while in Beast style. Circle around with Rusher, change to Beast and grab for that heat move. Yakuza 0 gave us a taste of this with the quick-change clothes but that felt more like an afterthought and I didn’t work as well as I’d want. The second addition is Kiwami heat moves and that one is questionably implemented. In short, bosses and boss-like enemies tire and stop on the spot to regain health. Assuming you have the heat, you can trigger an extreme heat move to beat them out of that state. Sounds like a minor thing but it is quite lazily handled. First of all, the animations, while cool, are the same as heat moves used on stunned enemies (with a Kiwami stamp at the end) and since bosses will go to that state a couple of times during a fight, it does get old. It messes with the pacing of battles and it feels less of a reward and more like a chore.

    Even with my dislike towards Kiwami moves, the core combat feels like an improvement. However, examining the other aspects of a fight, Kiwami produces middling results. Personally, I enjoyed the more aggressive nature of the trash mob fights. It forces you to take advantage of every tool at your disposal, be it environmental interactables you can use as weapons or situation specific heat moves. The fight sequences that the main story puts you through are also up to par, them getting too crowded with enemies being the thing that people are likely to dislike. But what seems like a glaring flaw and an unwelcome remnant of the original is boss design. 3-4 bosses aside, boss fights commit several sins. From showing no response to your barrage of punches (sometimes even when hitting from the back) to being a jump-happy gunfest of a fight, boss fights tend to be one-dimensional and straight up boring at times. If the scenarios weren’t as good as they tend to be in Yakuza, some of the bosses would be throwaway fodder. This came as a surprise when juxtaposed with the fact that the uninteractive hunk of meat that is Mr.Shakedown was swapped with the much better Majima Everywhere system.

    Basically, Majima is everywhere. He may roam the map trying to find you, jump at you from above, pretend to be a store clerk or butt in to challenge you to a minigame fight. The game gets really inventive with the ways it shoves Majima on screen and Kamurocho feels more alive because of it. There’s a lot of good dialogue and exposition before and after the major fights and you can spend a significant amount of times exploring the different ways the Mad Dog can surprise you. Even better, he fights in the 4 styles he developed in 0 (and in several stupidly charming costumes), providing some of the better combat encounters in Kiwami. I won’t spoil the more out there stuff but I found myself chuckling quite a bit. In that bundle of goodness exist some blemishes though. The Majima encounter rate for example is abnormally high and he gives EXP like candy, breaking the progression without going out of your way to grind it. Overall, Majima Everywhere is a net positive and a big source of my enjoyment with Kiwami.

    As for the usual side-content that accompanies Yakuza titles, it’s about what you’d expect. Substories are not as inventive as those of the past, they are getting their material from the first game after all, but some of them have a very somber tone, something that Yakuza 0 substories kind of forgot. The more major ones received extra care, too. There’s little in the way of new minigames, a rock-paper-scissors card game with additional effects a la cat fights being the standout. That said, if you’re one to tackle the completion list, I bring good news. Cheat items for minigames are back (but you’ll still want to erase Mahjong from existence). Kamurocho is lively as usual, now as a 2005 version of 0’s Kamurocho. It’s pretty much the place you know and love. The soundtrack on the other hand experiments a lot. It takes familiar tunes to completely new places, usually ditching the instruments used in the original and at times, doesn’t concern itself with staying true to its origins, with varying results.

    To sum up, Kiwami doesn’t completely nail the remake formula despite its narrative and scenes being faithful to the original. It updates several features well but manages to introduce some new flaws along with the ones understandably present in the original. However, with the narrative direction now aware of the excellent background provided by the prequel, a villain in Nishikiyama that is much better realised this time around, the most fluid combat mechanics to date and the guidance of the original, it serves as a good alternative for anyone that doesn’t feel like going back to the PS2 to experience the game that started it all and the people who want to relive it in a modern wrapping

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