Yakuza Kiwami

Immediately after I finished Yakuza 0, I popped Yakuza Kiwami into my PS4. I had played the original Yakuza back in the day on my PS2, but other than the basics of the story and vague recollections of greatly enjoying it, I didn’t remember much. Going off those memories, Yakuza Kiwami is something of an ideal remake. It keeps the core of the experience intact while updating and fleshing it out and embellishing things.

The story of Yakuza benefits greatly from the context added both by the remake and by Yakuza 0. The story here is probably the simplest that the series has ever been, but it also felt a little lacking. Kiryu takes the blame after his sworn brother Nishiki kills their boss when he tried to rape Kiryu’s, and Nishiki’s, love interest Yumi. Kiryu is released from a ten year prison sentence, excommunicated from his Yakuza clan and finds out that Nishiki has risen far in the organization and become corrupt. So Kiryu tries to get re-acclimated to life outside of prison, he gets caught in plots and counterplots that threaten to tear the Tojo Clan apart. What didn’t really work before was the connection between Nishiki and Kiryu. The original told you how close Kiryu and Nishiki were, but it never really showed that. That problem is exacerbated by the game keeping Nishiki off the screen for almost the entire game. Yakuza Kiwami adds more the start (I think; I don’t remember the first few scenes) and interstitials scenes showing Nishiki’s development while Kiryu was away. Those, combined with the added context from Yakuza 0, work to make the connection between Nishiki and Kiryu believable. It makes more sense that Kiryu wants to reconnect with him despite all he sees and hears. It is still disappointing that two of the most important characters in the game, Nishiki and Yumi, get very little time on screen.

This game is clearly built on the same engine as Yakuza 0. It keeps the same array of fighting styles as that game, with Kiryu having three general fighting styles and one special one that is all but unusable until the end game. It all feels the same as the previous game, which is not a complaint. Both games are a lot of fun.

One of the biggest new change is the addition of the Majima everywhere system. Majima was a relatively small player in the first Yakuza, a memorable character, but not one that has a whole lot of plot significance. Since then, he’s evolved into one of the more loved characters in the series, up to his costarring role in Yakuza 0. To give him more to do here, Kiwami added Majima everywhere. With Majima everywhere, Majima takes it on himself to get Kiryu back into fighting shape after his prison stint by randomly fighting him all over town. With each encounter, or a set number of encounters, Kiryu traditional Dragon style is powered up. It is less annoying than it seems, at least initially. Majima uses all four of his fighting styles from Yakuza 0, so it isn’t the same fight over and over. He also trots out a series of costumes and hiding places to keep things interesting. And it works, at least until near the end of the game, when you’ve seen just about everything he has to offer and are trying to trigger specific encounters to finish upgrading the Dragon style. I don’t think the reward system for it was a good idea, since major parts of Majima Everywhere are locked behind story stuff, meaning Kiryu’s main style can’t effectively be used for most of the game.

Yakuza Kiwami is mostly just more of that Yakuza goodness. The game somehow manages the melodrama of the main plot with tons of inconsequential and downright goofy substories. Kiryu is a gangster with a remarkable aversion to actually do crimes, other than assault. Something new I noticed is how much this game draws from Battles Without Honor or Humanity, an excellent series of movies about the yakuza. The title is even referenced in a chapter title. The first movie starts with the forming of a yakuza clan in the aftermath of WWII as the rise and splinter and fall. A big part of that is one of the characters going to jail for a few years, only to get out and find all of his old friends either dead or changed. It takes up about a half hour in the movie, but it is essentially the same set up as Yakuza Kiwami.

Yakuza Kiwami is good. Newcomers to the series can start either here or with Yakuza 0 and miss nothing. I’ve recently beaten 0 and 1, and I’ve got Kiwami 2 and 6 on deck. I think I might take a trip through the whole series before finishing up with Kiryu’s grand farewell in Yakuza 6. Mostly because my Mario replay is wrapping up and I need a new project to fail to complete.

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Yakuza 0

After being one of the best video game series around for the last half decade or so, Yakuza finally got its big break with Yakuza 0, the first game to really explode in much deserved popularity. I have to assume this is mostly down to timing and platform, with Yakuza 0 being the first on the PS4 and access to it’s easy sharing functions, because while Yakuza 0 is a ton of fun ii primarily does the same things as the previous two games in the series. There is no great leap forward in presentation or play to explain this entry’s popularity. There is that it is a prequel, with the implied lack of series baggage. Knowing the series plot history has never been a true hurdle to playing this series; each game tends to knock down all of the dominoes it sets up leaving a clear playing field with the new status quo for the next one. But thinking you have 3 or 4 games worth of story to catch up on can definitely be a perceived hurdle.

The biggest change, gameplay wise, is going from having a handful of playable characters who each have different fighting styles to having just two playable characters who each have several fighting styles. In Yakuza 4 and 5, the game split the story up between 4 different characters who each fought in different ways. (Yakuza 5 also had playable Haruka, who didn’t fight except with dance.) Across the two games you had the familiar Kazuma Kiryu with his balanced style, the hulking Saejima who is slow but powerful, Akiyama with his quick kicks, Tanimura with his counter based style, and Shineda the former baseball player who incorporated his baseball skills into a fighting style. Those are condensed onto Yakuza 0’s two protagonists, Kiryu and new playable character and series mainstay Goro Majima. Kiryu has his own fighting style along with Brawler, a heavy style somewhat reminiscent of Saejima and Rush, a speedy style similar to Akiyama. Majima has his own unique style and a baseball influenced not unlike Shineda. It allows the game to simplify the story while not losing any complexity in the battle system.

The other change is the game’s time setting. Yakuza 0 is set during Japan’s 80’s bubble economy, so money plays a big part in this game. Money does everything. Gone are experience points from previous games, which have been replaced with money. The big sidequests for both Kiryu and Majima involve business ventures that make money hand over fist. You can also go disco dancing and have disco dance battles. For the most part the game retains everything that makes the series great, but it manages to fill in the edges with period detail to make the setting a big draw.

I am mixed on Yakuza 0’s plot. It is largely in line with the rest of the series, which means lots of fights and double crosses alongside long conversations about the nature of masculinity and honor. My problems come from the fact that young Kiryu doesn’t quite work and that the game focuses on him when this should be more fully Majima’s game. Majima, as he has frequently done as a bit player in the grand Yakuza tapestry, steals the show here. But he doesn’t get quite the opportunity he should have.

Kiryu is the stoic rock at the center of the series and this game, which usually works given the what goes on around him. Here, though, he comes off as slightly bland. Instead of being a quite badass, he comes off as something of a nothing. Part of the problem is that young Kiryu doesn’t work as well as the older version from the rest of the series. Even when we first meet him at the start Yakuza 1 Kiryu is a man entering his prime, ready to take full advantage of his abilities. Here he is young and green, his taciturn approach lacks the world weariness that is a huge part of his character in later games. It would have worked better, I think, to have him be a little more hot-blooded, a bit of trouble maker. Kiryu has never shied from using his fists to solve problems, this tale works better with him growing into the man he would become instead of just people realizing what a badass he is. What does work in Kiryu’s story is how it builds his relationship with Nishiki. That never quite worked in the original Yakuza, because the game didn’t really sell Nishiki as a friend before Kiryu went to jail. This game builds that relationship.

Kiryu’s story is kind of familiar; he is framed for murder and ends up expelled from the Dojima Family as he tries to figure out who framed him, eventually setting him against his former allies.

Majima is easily the more interesting character, and his arc could be more fully formed if he had the same story real estate as Kiryu had. At the start, Majima is disgraced, living out of Kamurocho and working running a cabaret club. He wants nothing more than return to his crew, but has no real avenue to do so. His story really gets going when he gets a way back with an order to commit a hit. Except the target turns out to be not what he expected and Majima ends up trying to protect a young blind girl from just about everybody.

The game kind of tracks Majima’s development into the Mad Dog Majima that we all know and love, but that throughline is kind of muddled. You can see the pieces that are supposed to be tied together to build that story, but they never really gel. I won’t lie about the relationship between Majima and Makoto really worked for me. Makoto, for much of the game, isn’t much of a character, but in the middle part of the game she really starts to be an actor in the goings on. The two of them have a kind of genuine romance like this series has never seen. So when it comes to the end [SPOILERS] and Kiryu is the one who is saving her while Majima is simply after revenge [/SPOILERS] it kind of hurts. Especially the last few scenes, where the two of them go their separate ways. The problem is that Majima’s threads seem to get a little short shrift when compared to Kiryu’s comparatively less engaging plotline.

Yakuza 0 is a very good game. It certainly deserves its success. I don’t know that I would put it above any of the PS3 games (I acknowledge Yakuza 3’s shortcomings while really liking its story), but there isn’t a lot of difference in quality between them. I am pumped to get the the other 3 Yakuza games I have on the PS4.

Now Playing in Feb 2017

Beaten

Super Mario Land 2 – read about it here.

Super Mario Bros 2 – read about it here.

Fire Emblem Heroes – Nintendo’s latest mobile game is the game that I was afraid they’d make since they announced they were doing mobile games. For the most part their FTP games have been fairly consumer friendly, from Mario Run’s pay once for the whole game policy to Pokémon Picross’s hard cap of $30 it will take from the player. Fire Emblem Heroes looks like a FTP game targeting big spending whales. That doesn’t really affect me, since I am not going to spend any money on this game. Still, with no money spent, I have managed to clear all but the last couple of stages on the hardest difficulty. It is Fire Emblem light, with a mix of your favorite characters from across the series. While there is considerable depth in the game’s skill system, the maps and battles are so simplified that it hardly matters. It isn’t a true Fire Emblem experience, but it is fun enough to pull out for 10 minutes during my lunch break. Still, while I might check in occasionally as new content drops, I am pretty will done with it at this point.

Ongoing

Terra Battle – After fiddling around with Fire Emblem Heroes for a week or two, I redownloaded this FTP game that I had some fun with last year. There is a lot to like in this game, with its appealing mix of puzzle and rpg gameplay and a very deep lore and effective world building. However, like most FTP gatcha games, the monetization elements really get in the way of actually enjoying in the gameplay. I mean, there is a fun game in here, but it is hard to find it through a lot of junk. I think I’m done with these free phone games for a while again, at least until Nintendo adds plenty of more content to Fire Emblem.

Hyrule Warriors –

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The combination of opportunity and hype for Breath of the Wild got me to spend some time with Hyrule Warriors. It is a Musuo game, sometimes those hit the spot but I have yet to play one that ends up being more than a middling experience. I only cleared the first four or five maps, but this is a lot of fun. There is a wide variety of playable characters and the game appears to be just full of Zelda fan service. I won’t be finishing this game anytime soon, since I am dumping it for Breath of the Wild as soon as I can, but I will come back to it.

Yakuza 0 –

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This seems to be the first Yakuza game that is becoming a hit here in the states and I am glad if this series is getting its long deserved recognition. I only played the first two chapters and this is more of what I absolutely loved about Yakuza 4 and 5. It has some minor improvements, but the games were already really good. I haven’t got far enough to really get into the game, but I expect I will love it when I finally do.

Dragon Quest VIII – I didn’t put as much time into this as I had hoped to. I just didn’t spend a lot of time with my 3DS and I let my brother take the cart for a week or two. I loved this game when I first played it more than a decade ago (? … !!!!!) and through the first half dozen or so hours it holds up. The loss of graphical fidelity hurts some. Dragon Quest VII isn’t the most complex game; a lot of its appeal is in its verisimilitude. It removes the abstractions of scale that many games have with their world map. DQ8 is mostly to scale. They kept that scale here, but the illusion doesn’t work as well when the game doesn’t look as good. Still, it is a solid game.

Super Mario Bros 3 – I started this and cleared the first couple of worlds. I should be done with it before too much longer; it is not a long game. Though the All-Stars version adds a save feature, the game was not designed with that in mind. I really haven’t changed my mind much about the game; it is absolutely one of the best games ever made.

Super Mario 64 – I skipped ahead a few games in my Mario series replay because as excellent as nearly all Mario games are, I needed a change of pace. Mario 64 is that change of pace. It has been a long time since I played it, long enough that many parts of the game don’t come completely natural to me like they do with Mario 3 or Mario World. Still, a lot of this game is purely iconic. I should be done with it not long after I finish Mario 3 and should have a post ready to go not much later.

Robotrek – I am progressing slowly, but I am still working on it. I will get this game beaten sooner rather than later.

Upcoming

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – I couldn’t be more pumped for this. I’m getting it for WiiU, where it will make a fine farewell to a tragically overlooked console and likely be worth quite a bit of money down the road. This is likely to knock everything else on this list around, because I will be playing Zelda forever.

Super Mario World – I am skipping around just a bit to play Super Mario 64, but I will get to this sooner rather than later.

Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island – After World, I will move on to this. Playing the GBA version on Virtual Console, as that is the only one available to me.

Lufia 2 & Terranigma – I will get to these last few SNES games, but they are on the back burner a little bit. I mean, Breath of the Wild.

Yakuza 5

I don’t think I’ve written about my love for the Yakuza series much. And I do love it, though it is unlike other games I tend to enjoy or write about here. I have been a fan of the series ever since I picked up the original game way back in 2008 or so. I was initially put off, having read bad reviews, likely from that rag Game Informer, but as the second game was nearing release, I picked up the first game used and has a blast with it. It felt like the distant descendant of River City Ransom, with an RPG’s attention paid to the story. While I wasn’t able to find a copy of the sequel, I did nab Yakuza 3 & 4 when I got a PS3. I only finished the fourth game a little more than a year ago, just before Yakuza 5 finally hit. I purchased and downloaded it right away, but put off playing it for a while since I had just spent so much time with Yakuza 4. I’m glad I did, because Yakuza 5 is probably the best game in the series and it deserves to be played fresh.

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Like its predecessor, Yakuza 5 splits the game into chapters, each with a different protagonist. Each of these chapters could be their own game, though those games would be a little short. It starts with Kazuma Kiryu, the series longtime protagonist, while Shun Akiyama and Taiga Saejima make return appearances. While there is no sign of Tanimura, Yakuza 4’s fourth protagonist, he is replaced by Tatsuo Shinada. Also, for the first time in the series Kazuma’s adopted niece/daughter/ward Haruka Sawamura is playable. Each of these chapters has its own setting, storyline, and tone. Yes, they eventually connect, but they also stand on their own right up until their conclusions. Kiryu’s chapter is a very much a traditional Yakuza game, with a city to explore and lots of thugs to fight. Saejima’s chapter features another prison break for him, as well as an extended stay in the mountains. The third chapter is a curve ball, starring Haruka as she gets her start as a pop star. All of the fighting is replaced with dance battles and rhythm game musical numbers. At least, they are until the president of her talent agency turns up dead and in debt to genial lender Akiyama. From there the two split the chapter as they try to win a singing competition and get to the bottom of a murder mystery. The last chapter is back to Yakuza business as usual, but this time with a character completely unfamiliar with the criminal underworld. While their stories are separate, they all lead to the same place, with one mastermind behind the whole thing.

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The most amazing thing about Yakuza 5 is how varied the gameplay is and how satisfying everything it. I have long criticized a lot of open world games, like GTA, for offering the player thousands of things to do, except none of them are fun. While not everything available to player to do in Yakuza 5 is fun or remotely worth doing, the bulk of the central modes are enjoyable. Kiryu starts the game with a job as a taxi driver, and his racing and driving missions are surprisingly fun. That same goes for Haruka’s rhythm games and Shinada’s adventures in the batting cages. The standout is the hunting minigame with Saejima. There you take to the snowy mountains with just a gun and a small pack to hunt bears, as well as host of other woodland creatures. All of these things are different from the main brawling gameplay, but all of them are also worthwhile in their own right. The pool minigame isn’t half bad either, nor is the golf, though you can safely avoid the slot machines.

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The Yakuza series doesn’t seem like the sort of thing I would like. It is a very violent game. Overtly, obscenely, unnecessarily violent. But that violence tends to stop short of killing. This is not a murder simulator. The dudes you pummel in the streets might not realistically survive the beatings they get put through, but the game dutifully shows them alive, if aching, after every fight. That goes a long way for me. Even though this is a game about criminals, taking a life is not something even they take lightly. It is a game that strikes a tone similar to Metal Gear Solid. That series can ponder the nature of loyalty while at the same time have Snake track down hidden cartoon monkeys in the forest. This is a game where the protagonists can get caught up in all sorts of silliness, like a man getting into multiple fist fights with a bear, but still features long cutscenes where the characters ruminate on what it means to be a man and how to go about keeping their manly honor.

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The tragedy of the Yakuza series is that Kiryu will always be the star, even though it would likely be better for him if he weren’t. By the third game in the series he has retired to Okinawa to run an orphanage, but in each game since he gets drawn back into the action. In the last game worthy successors were created in Saejima and Akiyama, but fans would revolt if Kiryu weren’t in it. Even in the game world he is such a legend that he is deliberately pulled into the action so a character can prove themselves by beating him (they can’t). The trio of non-Kiryu fighters in this game would be more than enough for the game on their own. Akiyama is a personal favorite of mine, with his lackadaisical approach to life, but his deathly serious take on his job. Shinada’s story is the most disconnected from the rest of the game, but it is also the most satisfying. He is a former professional baseball player who was framed for cheating and banned from the sport. More than a decade later he is prompted to investigate the conspiracy that got him banned for life. He is joined by the apparently unscrupulous loan shark Takasugi. While the normally carefree Shinada is forced to confront some darkness he had ignored, Takasugi proves to me much more soft-hearted than he initially appeared. It is an altogether satisfying little story. However enjoyable the other stories may be, the heart of the game is the relationship between Kiryu and Haruka. He gives everything up to let her live her dream, but by the end she realizes that her dream, which began as a way to provide for her surrogate family, will prevent her from being with them.

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Yakuza 5 is a jambalaya of a video game. Everything is thrown into the pot and the flavors meld perfectly. The tone ranges from silly to somber, from awesome to heartbreaking. I have enjoyed each and every game I’ve played in this series, but I don’t think any of them are quite as good as Yakuza 5 is. It is too bad I’ll never get to play the Japan only spin off, but at least we can look forward to Yakuza 0, Yakuza 6 and Yakuza Kiwami over the next year or so. That is almost enough to finally get me to spring for a PS4.