Look. I get it. You’ve never played a Yakuza game.
The Yakuza games have always had a small but dedicated following here in the states. Originating on the PS2 over a decade ago, the series has spanned 7 mainline entries, three console generations, and numerous spin-offs. Despite having been around for so long, Yakuza hadn’t really found its footing in the western world until last year’s release of Yakuza 0 on the PlayStation 4. Coming out at a relatively slow time of year and being a prequel to all of the other games, fans were quick to get word out about the perfect jumping on point for their beloved series, and the game blew up. It didn’t do huge western AAA numbers, but it cemented Yakuza as one of gaming’s greatest, and new fans were hungry for more. Now Yakuza is starting to get the recognition and appreciation it deserves, and SEGA plans to bring remasters of every mainline entry to the PS4. Yakuza Kiwami is the remake of the first game in the series, and luckily for you, it’s free with PlayStation Plus this month.
Now you have no excuse.
I know it’s a busy time of year. A lot of you are still working your way through Red Dead Redemption 2 or Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Maybe some of you are enjoying some Hitman 2 or Spyro. But let me tell you why Yakuza Kiwami is still worth your time a year and a half after its initial release.
You can hit people with bicycles.
Yakuza is a lot more than that, but yes, you can beat up mean looking henchmen with bicycles. Not just bicycles, but pretty much anything. Traffic cones, swords, giant signs, fish, you name it. Yakuza’s combat is relatively simple – there’s a light and heavy attack, a block, and a dodge, standard brawler fare – but these items, along with heat actions, spice things up. Now you’re probably wondering “what is a heat action?”. A heat action is a devastating context sensitive move that uses a bar of “heat” which your character builds up as they battle. Unleashing a heat action rewards you with an incredibly satisfying animation depending on what weapon you’re holding or where you are in relation to certain objects, like ledges or microwaves. These moves are really powerful and always fun, and some of them get really creative, especially later in the series.
Alongside weapons and heat actions are four fighting styles that can be changed at any time during a battle. Brawler style is balanced. It’s somewhat slow but the moves pack a significant punch, and you can pick up items in the environment to use as weapons, like the aforementioned bicycles. Rush style is much faster, focused on quick dodges and sidesteps, preventing you from picking anything up but allowing you to nimbly avoid attacks and retaliate with rapid counters. Beast style is the slowest of the bunch, but hits the hardest, automatically using anything in your general vicinity as a weapon, covering the widest ranges possible while taking reduced damage at the cost of mobility. The fourth style is where things get a little interesting. Dragon style is built up over the course of the game, starting with few moves and a lack of viability but slowly becoming the most powerful style in the game. So how do you upgrade and improve Dragon style? The Majima Everywhere system.
See that guy? That’s Majima. And he’s everywhere. Goro Majima is a series mainstay and fan favorite due to his very colorful personality. Majima wants nothing more than to fight protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, and he will go to extreme lengths to do so. As Kiryu roams the streets of Kamurocho, he can run into Goro Majima at any time. Sometimes he’ll be hiding, sometimes he’ll show up in side activities, sometimes he’ll just be walking down the street. Whatever he may be up to, if Majima sees Kiryu, he won’t back down without a fight. Defeating Majima unlocks new abilities for the Dragon style, making what would just be a fun diversion a worthwhile investment.
Majima Everywhere is just one of the side activities in Yakuza Kiwami. Yakuza games are chock full of interesting and diverse side content. They all feature compelling stories, fun gameplay, and tangible rewards that affect your game. For example, Yakuza 0 has a bowling minigame. If you bowl well, one of the employees will reveal to you that she has a bowling form fetish and really enjoys watching skilled bowlers. She asks you to return frequently, and if you do so, you win a chicken (appropriately named Nugget) that can then be used as a manager for one of your properties in the game’s overarching real estate minigame. Each of the game’s substories are as wacky as they are endearing, and you’ll find yourself wanting to do nearly every single one you come across.
That is, unless, you get gripped by the main storyline, which can happen very easily. Sometimes the plots of these games are so captivating you’ll be sprinting through the sights and sounds of Kamurocho, ignoring substories and shops just to see the next story beat. The Yakuza games have phenomenal stories and some of the best Japanese voice acting I’ve ever heard. The performances are consistently stellar no matter which entry you choose, and the writing is filled to the brim with twists and turns that’ll keep you hooked for hours on end.
The boss battles are phenomenal too. You know how in action movies when people take off their shirts before they fight, things are about to get real? Every boss fight in Yakuza is that times ten. Lots of shirts get torn off in Yakuza. Not just shirts, but entire suit tops, jacket and all, in one fell swoop, and yes, everyone has tattoos all over their backs. Boss battles even have their own unique QTEs and heat actions that create these cool little cinematic setpieces mid-fight. All of this is set to the most banging soundtrack with guitars blaring over a sweet bassline. They even bust out the pianos for the more dramatic encounters. There’s a boss fight early in Yakuza 0 where someone is speeding towards Kiryu on a motorcycle with a lead pipe, and Kiryu stances up. That’s how insane these fights are. Sometimes you fight the same person repeatedly over the course of a game and the music changes and evolves each time. Every fight is a treat and the bosses are all memorable, partly due to the smart writing but mostly due to how cool the setups and showdowns are.
Yakuza games are also basically virtual tourism. Their representation of Japan is pretty much one to one. From hostess clubs to Don Quijote stores, exploring the worlds of Yakuza 0-6 is as close as you can get to Tokyo, Osaka, or Hiroshima without actually going there. The attention to detail in these games is absurd, and the localization holds nothing back, resulting in a truly authentic Japanese experience. People hand you pocket tissues when you walk down the street. You can go to SEGA arcades and play Outrun. These games do an incredible job of transporting you to another place and immersing you in another culture, and very few games achieve this to the degree Yakuza does.
The games are all, for the most part, set in the same fictional district of Tokyo called Kamurocho. The world is small, but dense, and you start to learn where certain businesses are and what is on each street. Setting each game in the same area might sound like it’d be a bad idea, but because each game is set in the same district of Tokyo and they’re set over a span of almost 30 years (1988-2016), Kamurocho evolves and changes from game to game. You’ll walk down familiar streets and find new stores there, you’ll see that a lot of the businesses from Yakuza 0’s 1988 Kamurocho aren’t there in Yakuza Kiwami’s 2005 Kamurocho, and that both of these differ greatly from the modern day Kamurocho in Yakuza 6. These changes make Yakuza’s world feel more real than it already does, which helps, because Yakuza games are just as much about the ever-changing climate of Japanese culture as they’re about the politics and rivalries of Japanese gangs.
Essentially, Yakuza games are gripping crime dramas with wacky substories and minigames and flashy combat. It sounds like these would clash with each other tonally, but Yakuza balances comedy and drama in a way few other games do. The games never take themselves too seriously while also being incredibly grounded at the same time. The result is a wholly unique experience you can’t get anywhere else, and with the first game being free right now, you have no excuse not to give it a try. It’s only free for two more days, so if you haven’t grabbed it by now for some reason, be sure to get on that.
And once you finish it, play Yakuza 0. And then Kiwami 2. And then 3 will be out next year. And then 4. You get the idea.
Will you be giving Yakuza Kiwami a try? Are you already a Yakuza fan? How about that Dragon Engine? Be sure to let us know your thoughts down below, and keep it here at Circle Square Games for everything Yakuza.
When he's not playing video games, Diego's talking about video games, and he does both a lot.