It’s really hard to separate the Yakuza series from my personal history with videogames. What began with a curious look at a weird Japanese game a college friend of mine brought to campus one day eventually spanned over a decade of playing its numerous sequels and prequel, and now it’s come so far as having me replay some of the early games in that series in the form of remakes. Yakuza Kiwami 2 is the latest of these, and by all accounts, it’s an excellent way to play Yakuza 2, whether or not you have any experience with the original version that was released back in 2008 for the PlayStation 2.
Kiwami 2 picks up a year after the events of the first game, with Kazuma Kiryu taking a leave of absence from the Tojo clan following all the ruckus he caused fighting his former friend turned family boss and enemy, Nishikiyama. The current chairman of the clan calls for a meeting with , but eventually gets murdered before much can be discussed with Kiryu, other than handing him a letter that begs for the clan to make peace with the big conglomerate of the East, Omi Alliance. This leads Kiryu to look for a suitable replacement for the fallen boss in the form of Daigo Dojima, son of the former head honcho who Kiryu was framed for murdering in the original game, and a trip down to Osaka in order to meet with the rival group’s leaders.
Things obviously turn sour, otherwise this wouldn’t be a mafia game, and Kiryu sees himself once again in the proverbial “I tried to get away, but they keep dragging me back in” scenario and having to walk the grey line of living as a gangster among civilians, one of the things that this franchise does so damn well. Kazuma is an excellent protagonist, and albeit looking like a tough guy who would rather take your lunch money, he would also punch other bullies off at the same time. He’s a likeable dude, and frankly so is the rest of the cast, which gets even more expanded in this game, all with dramatical and at the same time corny freeze frame, black and white name introductions as they initially appear. And while Kiwami 2 still takes its story as seriously as previous entries in the series, it’s got that incredible charm and its share of ridiculous moments, same as it’s always been for Yakuza.
The fictional area of Kamurocho, modeled after real life Tokyo’s Shinjuku’s red light district Kabukicho makes a comeback and looks great, thanks to the Yakuza 6 engine, which Kiwami 2 is the first of the remakes to use of. Along with Kamurocho, we get the series’ first appearance of Sotenbori, Osaka’s own reimagined bustling area of Dotenbori that eventually appeared in Yakuza 0 and the excellent Yakuza 5 as well. The series has always been fantastic in regards to portraying the urban sprawl of Japan, and Yakuza Kiwami 2 is no exception. And even though they’re much smaller in comparison to other more open world games, the maps in Yakuza are so detailed and full of life that it’s hard to fault Sega for not putting the entirety of Tokyo or Osaka in for the sake of completion. What we get is dense enough to get lost in at first, but also small and easy to get familiar with and recognize in the long run, especially in repeated visits through the sequels as is Kamurocho’s case, a slice of Tokyo that subtly changes from game to game.
As for what’s changed in regards to the original version of Yakuza 2, outside of the visuals, the gameplay has also seen a number of improvements. The first and by far the best is the complete removal of save points. Like Yakuza 6, you can save the game at almost any point through the pause screen, as opposed to having to run to a phone booth every time. Along with that, the combat has also seen a radical shift to the way things worked in that game as well, allowing for a lot more chaotic brawls thanks to the new physics engine that absolutely trashes any setting you might fight yourself fighting in, destroying tables, plants, or anything else that’s not bolted onto the ground, and funnily enough, even some of those get their share of love during some scuffles. For as repetitive as the fighting can get at points due to the sheer number of encounters you’ll have throughout the game, be in for story purposes or simply running from point A to B in town and getting bugged by thugs on the way, the absolute hilarity of the over the top violence that takes place during these somewhat makes up for that. Still, if you’re not into punching your way through trouble, there’s no shame in turning down the difficulty and button mashing through these encounters, the main drawn is and will always be the story.
And boy, does Yakuza Kiwami 2 deliver it on that regard. As with previous Yakuza games — actually, sequels, if you want to get technical — Kiryu’s journey in 2 is an absolute blast to follow, full of surreal situations that are incredibly entertaining to follow, as well as some top notch crime and character drama. That’s made even better thanks to the reworked character models, fantastic voice acting, and some great scene direction that help convey the game an action movie feel you will be hard pressed to find anywhere else. Even back on the PlayStation 2, Yakuza 2 was already an impressive spectacle, and now thanks to the number of presentational upgrades, it’s a blast to play through, even more so reminiscing all the craziness that I played through ten years ago.
Calling back on those memories is made even more enjoyable thanks to some gameplay inclusions that have become a staple to the series ever since the PlayStation 3 era, including a hostess management sim that’s pretty much the same as the one in Yakuza 0, as well as a gang war mode in which you help Goro Majima defend his construction business from enemy corporations. The latter takes place in an isometric view, and mostly works like a simplified real-time strategy game, putting him and his workers on a board in order to fight off enemies who want to trash their equipment. Both of these are fun distractions that work well in conjunction with the story, and along with the other more traditional games like the fully functional arcade recreation of Virtua Fighter 2, UFO catchers and of course, a Yakuza game wouldn’t be a Yakuza without bowling, golf, and baseball.
An unexpected hit in previous releases of Yakuza was certainly the gain in popularity for series’ bad boy Majima, and for as much as he’s been portrayed and available for play in Yakuza 0 and as a recurring boss character in the first Kiwami, Sega has once again played up his part for the sake of the fans, and he’s now even more a part of Yakuza 2 than he was originally. Aside from the aforementioned minigame, Majima also gets his own playable portion in Kiwami 2, and as you progress through the main story with Kiryu, more chapters become available to play in the Majima Saga, as his separate game mode is called. Majima Saga takes place a little bit before the events of the main game, showing what happened in between Kiwamis, and how he eventually ended up where you find him during the story. Having to unlock each chapter works well in delivering his side story bit by bit, and their length don’t really get in the way of progressing through the primary story. And unlike Kazuma, Majima comes in fully powered up, without the need to upgrade any of his core stats, something that you gradually do for Kiryu has you complete side quests and kick ass around town, slowly gaining more moves and such, much like previous games.
The core experience in Yakuza Kiwami 2 is what you’d expect if you’ve spent any time playing any of the previous releases. The mission structure is sound enough to be played on its own if you want to just mainline the story, but the side content is fun and rewarding to partake in too, so if you’re a completionist, you’ll find a lot to do in the world, as it’s always been for every game in the franchise up to this point. If you’ve played and fully explored a lot of what the series has offered in the past, you know there’s a huge laundry list ahead of you in order to get every single trophy in this game.
For a Yakuza fan from the very beginning like myself, it’s a joy to see the sheer popularity that the franchise has garnered over the last few releases. Surely, it’s seen some dire moments for sure, as was the case for Yakuza 5 not getting a physical release in the West, but it seems like those times are past. Yakuza is here to stay, with remasters already announced for all three PlayStation 3 mainline entries, which I’m very curious to see how they turn out, considering all those games already looked pretty darn good in HD originally. Sadly, there’s still no word on them localizing any of the side games like Ishin! and Kenzan!, or even the PSP Shinsho spin off series, but there’s always hope that Sega might come around for some of those if there’s demand. And if there’s one thing that’s a sure thing for both fictional and real life, is that if something sells, there’s going to be more of it. And in Yakuza’s case, the more we get, the better.