Yakuza Kiwami 2 Review

I remember when Sega localized Yakuza 3 and the uproar that followed. The series found a devoted fan base here outside of Japan and while happy to get a localized version of the latest title, fans were outraged over the content the publisher cut from the game. To explain themselves, Sega noted that certain diversions, like shogi, mahjong, hostess clubs, and a trivia game, were taken out because of time constraints and to make it more accessible to Western audiences, otherwise the game wouldn’t have been released. That was eight years ago. 2018 has seen not one but two Yakuza releases with their content and authenticity largely intact. Yakuza Kiwami 2 is a “built from the ground up” remake of the original Yakuza 2 released on the PlayStation 2. It continues the crime-ridden adventures of Kiryu Kazuma, the Dragon of Dojima, as he investigates an assassination of the Tojo’s Fifth Chairman at the hands of their Osaka rivals.

Beginning after the events of Yakuza Kiwami, Kiryu and a young Haruka find themselves at the graves of three major characters from the last game. Through a series of intricate and detailed flashbacks, Yakuza Kiwami 2 offers an extensive summary of what occurred in the previous game and how Haruka came into Kiryu’s charge, a relationship that would carry through all six games in the series. After the newest Tojo Clan chairman is assassinated, Kiryu takes it upon himself to visit Sotenbori, the home turf of their rivals, the Omi Alliance, in a bid to broker peace and prevent an all-out war. Unfortunately, Kiryu’s meddling does little to stem the tide after a confrontation with Ryuji Goda, the scheming son of the Omi’s chairman. Not only does Goda have certain aspirations for his crime family, he has a strong desire to best Kiryu in combat. After all, there can only be one dragon.

Keen observers will immediately recognize that Yakuza Kiwami 2 shares the same form and function as Yakuza 6: The Song of Life. That’s because the game was rebuilt using the new Dragon Engine, giving it all the flash, flair, and distinct gameplay mechanics seen in the most recent game. As Kiryu, you’ll wander the neon-soaked and restaurant-lined streets of Kamurocho and Sotenbori, a fictionalized city in Osaka that previously served as Majima’s stomping grounds in Yakuza 0. An open world environment, players are free to indulge in the delights both cities have to offer and help certain folks down on their luck along the way. Whether you’re helping people or getting confronted by local toughs, many of the encounters Kiryu finds himself in usually result in someone getting punched in the face.

Combat is Yakuza’s bread and butter. Reminiscent of classic “one versus many” brawler games, you’ll be put up against different groups of provocateurs, be they simple thugs and delinquents to actual yakuza goons. These men delight in throwing their weight around, especially with innocent people, yet always seem surprised when they get their asses kicked by the Dragon of Dojima. Defeating enemies is as easy as stringing together punches and kicks to knock down their health bars while random objects, such as street signs, bicycles, pots, safety cones, and a collection of standard melee weapons, can be used to add a little flair to the fight. Each successful hit a Heat meter that adds fun and dynamic combat options. Instead of kicking someone in the face with Kiryu’s nice shoes, pick up a safety cone and bash it against their face! Weapons and everyday objects can trigger special animations when the Heat gauge is active. Not only do these special actions look fun and silly, they deplete a significant amount of health, making them useful when dealing with boss characters. For most grunts, however, a single Heat attack is more than enough to knock someone out in a one hit and easily thin the herd.

The inclusion of context-sensitive combat options is a great way to keep the game’s frequent fights fresh and engaging. The icing on the cake is the Dragon Engine’s ability to create a more cinematic feel to every battle. When the last person standing suffers a fatal blow, the camera pulls close to their face as they swing around from the impact of the attack and flew ten to fifteen feet away and land in a crumpled heap. Once the battle is over, experience points are awarded across different character traits to be spent on developing Kiryu’s combat abilities, stats, more Heat options, and passive character boons, like better alcohol tolerance, social skills, and hunger management. Again, if this all sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve done the same thing before already in Yakuza 6.

The only thing I don’t like about combat is how it treats weapons. Should you relieve a weapon from an enemy’s hands, you keep it for the duration of the fight. You can also hang onto it for later, however, the process is a bit odd. To save a weapon for a later fight, you have to unequip it from your hands before dealing a final blow to the last enemy standing. If you don’t, the item is lost. Granted, you can easily play through the game without the ancillary melee weapons but I feel the method for saving them feels more finicky than it needs to be. It puts a lot of unnecessary attention on weapon-based consumables that really doesn’t need to be there.

Even with its strong emphasis on combat, there’s more to Yakuza Kiwami 2 than kicking dudes in the gut. Kamurocho and Sotenbori are littered with different things to do to fill the time. There are restaurants as far as the eye can see where Kiryu can indulge himself (and fill up his hunger meter) with a bevy of Japanese-style meals. Smaller markets, convenience stores, and vending machines sell food and drinks for the yakuza on the go, to be used as consumables to refill your health and Heat meters for the game’s lengthy, story-driven encounters. Some vending machine drinks provide temporary boosts to the amount of experience received and money earned along with timed enhancements to attack power and defense. Non-food based entertainment can also be found anywhere, as the in-game worlds are bustling with fun things to do like golf, darts, karaoke, batting cages, visiting DVD parlors, mahjong, and arcades stocked with claw games and fully emulated versions of Virtua Fighter 2 and Virtua-On (which absolutely tugged at my nostalgic strings). The great thing about all these activities is you’re never prevented from doing them. Unless the story explicitly calls for you to move on to the next objective (and Kiryu will let you know), you’re allowed to do whatever you want whenever you want.

Further distractions can be found through non-essential substories. The main story in the Yakuza games is often overly dramatic, allowing the substories to cut the tension with silly misadventures involving quirky folks. The substories in Yakuza Kiwami 2 serve two functions: a chance for the game to let its hair down and earn new contextual Heat actions. Aiding people turns them into allies for Kiryu to call upon during battle, providing that they are nearby. A street musician, a sushi chef, a dominatrix, and other colorful individuals lend their assistance in issuing beatdowns to thugs and punks. Once you’ve purchased their Heat ability, it’s all a matter of luring enemies to where your new friends hang out. Substories are always a joy and offer up some really great and memorable moments in the game and I love that there’s a gameplay incentive for seeking them out.

Additional exclusive content has been added to this new version. Kiryu gets to step into Majima’s shoes to manage a host club engaged in a Hostess Grand Prix, a contest of sorts to determine which club will be the most popular in the country. A simplified management sim, you’ll scout girls and approach potential sponsors to help build a positive reputation so that more people come to visit and throw their money around. You’ll have control over a collection of women with different stats and personalities that service different tastes in companionship men are looking for. There’s nothing lurid here nor are you prostituting women out for any sexual activity. As a manager, you’ll need to keep a watchful eye so that your employees are kept safe from harassment, be it from a touchy client or someone trying to scout your women away to another club.

For you aspiring shutterbugs, there’s a minigame where you take photos of gravure models that uses full motion video of real women as they fish for compliments, which you respond to by composing sentences together with the face buttons. Do well enough and you’ll unlock new costumes for these women to wear while they flirt and preen. Fan favorite Goro Majima gets his own playable campaign, revealing what he’s been up to in the time between Yakuza 0 and Yakuza 2. I have a friend who loves the Majima and a portion of the game dedicated to the character is more than enough to justify the purchase for him. Speaking of Majima, the Clan Creator from Yakuza 6, a tower defense-style street fight between your crew and other gangs, returns with new villains sporting the likenesses of popular, real-world Japanese wrestlers. Only instead of cleaning up the streets, Majima tasks you with being the foreman for his construction company, directing his employees to do battle against a rival business vying for his contracts. Majima's fans will want to try this at least once so that they may enjoy the great victory sequence.

As someone who never played the Yakuza 2 before, I came into Kiwami 2 without anything to compare it with. To get a proper comparison, I went online and found some playthroughs on YouTube that showed me how faithful Kiwami 2 is to the source material, making it a shot for shot remake of the original game, only with a better localized script. Thanks to twelve years of innovative video game technology, the game benefits from new, more realistic-looking character models, dynamic environments (I love tossing a goon through a plate glass window), and seamless transitions during encounters and activities. The game’s script has also been re-recorded, proving that the studio wasn’t interested in slapping on a new coat of paint and calling it a day.  

Yakuza Kiwami 2 is sure to be essential playing for anyone who has followed this franchise at any length. I feel like some stalwarts might be wary of how similar the experience is to Yakuza 6 in its mechanics and structure but it’s hard to deny how much it benefits from the slick Dragon Engine. I adore the level of detail put into the game world and appreciated it even more through the liberal use of the first person camera option. Doing so brought back my own memories of visiting Osaka in 2007 and recognizing familiar food-related landmarks. My experience with the Yakuza series has been a bit erratic - I’m basically doing the Sunset Boulevard playthrough because I’ve yet to play them in the proper sequence. I started with (and didn’t finish) Yakuza 3 and then 4, made it halfway through Yakuza 0, played Yakuza 6 to completion, bought Yakuza Kiwami and haven’t played it yet, and now got my hands on Yakuza Kiwami 2. Despite all this, I still love the franchise because of its storytelling style (so overwrought but so good) and the creativity of the game’s diversions (the new peeing minigame is my most favorite thing ever). Like so many games before it, Yakuza Kiwami 2 does a great job of bringing players up to speed with previous events, which makes stepping into this pleasantly dense universe easy and comfortable.

Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.