Let’s not waste anytime and get right into this. The short version is that Kiwami is the updated remake of the original Yakuza on PS2 with new cutscenes and functioning off Yakuza 0’s engine down to the gameplay, graphics, combat, sound effects, it’s basically just more Yakuza 0 only that the characters got new looks. Aside from some changes to how upgrading works, Yakuza Kiwami is more or less Yakuza 0.5 with the added Majima Everywhere system.
A couple years after the events of Yakuza 0, Kiryu’s life takes a turn for the worse again. While he enjoys the life of being a Lieutenant to the Dojima Family, now led by Kazama, Kiryu walks into the Dojima office to find Nishiki and Yumi bloodied and unconscious next to the dead body of Dojima Sohei. Kiryu takes the fall for his oath brother and serves 10 years of jail-time before returning to Kamurocho to find things wildly different and an encounter with a young girl being targeted by the rest of the Tojo Clan and beyond has him once again face to face with his own clan as another power struggle engulfs them all.
I think my previous talk was a mess so let’s try and structure this one a bit more traditionally.
Storywise, I went into Kiwami with interest primarily focused on Nishiki’s development. The game doesn’t even try to hide Kiryu and Nishiki’s heartrending final confrontation and it is compounded with major story beats being followed-up by a cutscene at the end of each chapter involving Nishiki’s descent into desperation and cruel determination to become acknowledged as the head of the Tojo Clan. The original PS2 Yakuza did not give Nishiki this benefit so all you had going for him as a character is someone Kiryu apparently knew and grew up with but hardly anything sets these two up as close friends so their confrontation isn’t all that dramatic aside from the dynamic being good on paper. With the added development in 0, especially that one cutscene around the middle of the game with Nishiki trying to give Kiryu a mercy kill, Nishiki’s development supremely adds to the character arc between the dynamic better than the first one. That’s more or less where the story has improved as far as I’ve seen and that’s kind of where my complaints about the story begins though. Nishiki isn’t all that involved and halfway in, you learn that the conspiracy involves Shimano and another guy named Jingu, a politician who is one pulling all the strings who becomes the main focal villain before Nishiki literally walks in on the aftermath of the mess and becomes the final boss. I think after playing three of these games, I see where Yakuza 0 fulfills me with worthwhile villains who are introduced at the very start compared to people who we have no ties to becoming major villains whose grudge against Kiryu aren’t as deep-seated. 2 does it better than 1 but not as good as 0. Perhaps it’s just the lack of dumb twists in 0 that makes it so satisfying as a story compared to the left-field twists in other games that make it significantly more cohesive.
Gameplay-wise, it plays exactly like 0 but with three elements that are respectively changed up and added. Kiwami functions off of the same upgrade wheel but instead of investing in yourself with money, you unlock skills with experience points that fill out with every action you do. More powerful abilities cost significantly more but it is not hard to gain EXP and it is incredibly likely you’ll be finishing the game with a good thousand points sitting there unable to be spent because you’ll already have all of them unlocked. The next changed up part is the addition of new “Kiwami” heat moves that are only accessible when an opponent enters this glowing healing state where they rapidly regenerate health and the only way to stop them is to use this particular heat move that will deal devastating damage. However, these moves HAVE to be unlocked and they’re not all that expensive but I’ve heard many complaints from other players not knowing about that and facing bosses and being unable to stop them heal. This is especially true for one feature that’s about to be addressed in the next paragraph. Gameplay in Yakuza games seem to start out rough as your basic abilities aren’t all that fun to play with until you gain a couple more useful tools like better dashes and the likes. Climax Heat also exists which more or less functions as a stronger damage multiplier.
The largest gameplay element added to Kiwami however is the Majima Everywhere system that no doubt stems from Majima’s popularity boost not only from the game’s prior but 0 as well. Story-wise, Majima tells Kiryu after he returns to Kamurocho that prison has softened him up too much and to make proper on the agreement they made about Majima wanting to fight Kiryu in earnest, Majima proposes that he will stalk Kiryu and force him to fight him as to strengthen Kiryu to his former strength so that they will finally have their bout. The direct gameplay elements related to this is that the Prologue of the game has all of Kiryu’s upgrades unlocked and at the beginning of the game proper has Kiryu without any of his unlockable abilities and health/heat upgrades. The Dragon of Dojima style’s upgrade nodes are only unlockable through fighting Majima and making Kiryu “remember” them while also learning new moves from Komaki which involves farming the coliseum for points. The contextual changes to these hilarious Majima encounters is that a lot of his threatening and unstable appearances is diminished in seriousness as he only appeared in the original Yakuza around 3 times. Majima however will be need to be fought at least 30+ times if one wishes to max out the Dragon of Dojima and this wouldn’t be so bad if the upgrades like the Speed upgrade wasn’t locked to the S rank of the system where you would have probably beaten Majima 20 times by that point and went through 5-6 rank ups to get there. Remember those Kiwami heat moves? Well the “red” Kiwami states for certain bosses can only be punished with the Kiwami Heat Move for the Dragon of Dojima style at around Rank SS so good luck, apparently not that many people went that far. Personally, I found the system tolerable and got it over with in two days exclusively farming Majima for upgrades but also general EXP farming so it made getting powerful definitely worth it, but it was without a doubt a bit tedious hoping for the right version of Majima to pop up around town to get the proper upgrade. Everyone’s Idol Goro was my nightmare since he just wouldn’t show up and it’s not like I cared about the particular upgrade for weapon heat moves, I just wanted it over with.
Given the benefit of hindsight, Kiwami features a ton of added moments referencing back to the events of 0, especially the part where Kiryu was a successful real estate businessman, devoted a bunch of time to being the champion of pocket-racer, danced every night, and other side-story continuities that brought a smile to my face. Pretty sure there’s a handful of call-forwards as well like how 0 had both protagonists run into Ryuji and Kiryu running into a young Shinji. Serious side-quests still exist like the one involving Dojima’s widowed wife, Yayoi but most of the quests are pretty simple in nature of everyone Kiryu meets trying to scam him. Mini-games are also mostly the same while Kiryu now gets the chance to mess around in cabaret clubs himself. The underground wrestling ring in 0 gets repurposed into this ridiculous arcade game that more or less plays the same. Pocket Circuit thankfully doesn’t have randomized drops. However, given that exact perk hindsight, Yakuza 0 not filling in enough of the gaps between its ending and 1 does leave some wanting questions. 0 was without a doubt a fantastic, self-contained story but it does little to really show how or why Kiryu is so strong, how Kiryu actually does good yakuza-work to get himself promoted to Lieutenant despite hardly ever being shown doing proper yakuza activities, or how Majima and Kiryu first met beyond the ending of 0 seeing how the Empty Lot and Makoto were so integral to their growth. There’s a lot that could have been explored with 0 and Kiwami and succeeding titles could have benefited from, or at least, establish groundwork. There’s something to consider how the story is presented in the original is a mostly serious story while Kiwami definitely has its overly comedic moments between story arcs. I’ve read about the series’ producer, Nagoshi, and his life that inspired him to make such a story and I definitely am glad that even withs its flaws that Yakuza was able to grow into a series.
At the end of the day, it’s not surprising that updated qualities of life changes and some extra additions cannot save the plot and execution of game made in 2005 that was clearly meant as a hail Mary one-off sort of thing. Akin to a B-movie that no one would expect to get a sequel that has a lot of implications that are open-ended but could act as a book-end. Clearly, not though, right? The game is fine, it’s just narratively weaker than 0 for obvious reasons but going forward, this appears to be the norm for having shaky development but incredibly good moments here and there that make it worthwhile. I will say that I would definitely play 1 again if the HD release of it came out in the West but apparently Sega doesn’t want to bother.