Sometimes, remakes just work.

Joking spoiler alert, Yakuza Kiwami is absolutely one of those cases. A remake of the original Yakuza game from 2005, it brings in all sorts of modern touches to bring the game up to speed. Crisp HD graphics, redone voicework, refined gameplay to the standards of the modern games, Kiwami sits as, and I'm gonna tell you this now, the best way to get into the series.

But okay, let's step back. Because I haven't told you anything about the Yakuza series, about Kiwami in particular, or why you should care. So the series is known for open-world gameplay, running around, punching up thugs and gangsters, and living that honorable-criminal sort of life. It's a bit well-worn ground, but the Yakuza series works it with a specificity and care that makes it something special.

You play as one Kazuma Kiryu, an ass-kicker amongst ass-kickers. You know the type. Runs on a strict code of honor, believes in the idea of being a respectable sort of criminal. He's also truly a force to be reckoned with, a ferocious fistfighter who earned a nickname off his raw ability to wreck things, the Dragon of the Dojima.

That back half brings us to the other side of the equation. The Dojima Family being one of the many, call them subsidiary branches, of one of the major yakuza clans in the area. One of several, notably, to say nothing of the rivalries within a given clan as a whole. The politics, and politcal games, are thick and potent amongst the cast, is what I'm saying here.

But I'm getting ahead of myself and lost in the details. Let's talk the actual game, and our actual hero, Kazuma Kiryu himself. Kiryu is, if I may be so bold, the model yakuza man. Too-nice suit hiding too-tough muscles and a back covered in ink. But honorable, dependable, with folks he can rely on and who rely on him. There's a diginity to him, even as he punches people's teeth in through the mean streets of Japan's criminal underbelly, circa 2005.

Now, of course that setting was rather more contemporary back in the initial release, but even as a bit of a period piece these days, it still has a truthful ring to it. And perhaps more importantly, the distance isn't so much that it feels like another world. There weren't any iPhones twelve years ago, but everyone still had their flip phones and candybar specials. Japan's dense city streets were no less packed than they would be today, and with all the prices being in yen, I can't even say if that roadside shop's price for a beef bowl and a beer is outdatedly cheap.

What I can say is that beef bowl looks goddamned delicious and I want one.


Being set in the depths of Japan's urban jungle also makes Yakuza Kiwamia bit different than a lot of other open-world games. Instead of having tons of big expansive space to explore with cars and such, the game crams huge amounts of sidestories, shops, minigames and more into a small enough space that you can run from one end to the other in two or three minutes. Which is good, because your feet are one of the only ways you have to get around when you're just out hitting the streets.

It also means you're just about always ready for one of the game's central appeals, the combat. All it takes is for some lowlifes to challenge Kiryu, and the game shifts from open roaming to making your surroundings a combat arena. The city streets suddenly come to life with crowds watching the fight (and forming an impromptu ring around so you can't just run off) and any little object becomes a valuable weapon. A caution sign? A flowerpot? Some poor sap's bike? Whatever you can pick up, you can crack over a man's skull.

But even with just your bare hands, the combat can sing. Kiryu has four styles at his disposal, mapped to the dpad, and each one gives you a different set of tools for different purposes. Brawler's nice and balanced; Rush trades grapples and heavy damage away for raw speed and maneuverability; and Beast is so crazy powerful that Kiryu earns the name, complete with the ability to snatch up objects automatically as part of his combo.

Yet isn't that only 3? Yes indeed. Because the 4th is Kiryu's personal style, Dragon style. The other styles, you can build up by spending XP
to learn new techniques. But you can only build up Dragon style through active work with in-game events and sidestories, as Kiryu integrates different concepts and tricks into his very own violence stew. It starts off incredibly basic, but the more time you put into growing it, the more that Dragon style can become one of the most potent tools in your arsenal.

And I keep saying sidestories, because there are so, damn, many in the game. I don't have an actual formal count, but Kiryu's journey takes him through the lives of all kinds of people, many of whom learn why you don't wrong a man who fights so brutally, no matter how strong his code of honor. And all of that is without even touching on the more minor side-activities and collectables. You can go to the SEGA arcade and play some clawgames for toys, you can go drinking in hostess clubs, there's even an entire RC car racing league that you can go compete in.

The game is dense, is what I'm getting at here. There is content around damn near every corner.

It's also a bit of an extra special release for those of us in the West. Because the first game, aside from being a bit hard to find and play, is also the only one in the series to come out here dubbed. Say what you will about dubs, and they honestly pulled some really good cast, but it stands out starkly if one wanted to get into the series from the start. So this new release brings it all in line with the rest of the franchise, to say nothing of how well they've done on the remaking process itself. It's even part of a glorious return to form in believing in the franchise's ability here, as it's a fully fledged retail disc title, none of this download-only-in-the-West stuff.

Now, of course, I'd be lying if I said there weren't issues. Not massive, glaring issues, but, issues. Things like how the frontloads its combat tutorials briefly and densely, to the point that central mechanics might slip past you simply because you're so busy trying to keep the rest of them in your head as you come to grips with the game.

That's not even touching how the game actually tries to teach you a few mechanics that you then have to go and unlock when you're out of the tutorials, causing you to go from confused about mechanics to confused about why things aren't working the way they should.

And naturally, as a tightly plotted open-world game, we have that issue where it's hard as hell to pull away from the plot for a few minutes to go do the fun side stuff, without looking like a complete madman who ignores a crisis to go play with RC cars for half a day.

But perhaps the biggest issue for me is, ironically enough, caused by how good this game is on its own. Because between this, and the prequel Yakuza 0 that released earlier this year in the West, you have this excellent top-notch exploration of the earlier parts of Kiryu's life.

...Then as soon as you want to see where things go from there, you have to go track down a PS2 and a CRT television for the sequel. Even Yakuza 3, which contained a handy "the story up to now" rundown of the first two games and thus could get you past that, is only on the PS3. A system you probably put into deep storage by now. So if you decide to just go for the next game in the series to come out...You're looking at Yakuza 6 in early 2018. Which means you're skipping four games of dense plot, politics, and sheer time passing.

So...It's kind of a weird position to be in, frankly. Because Yakuza Kiwami is a damn good game. It's worth your time. But by being a singular really good remake of the first entry in a decade-long game series, it puts the potential fan, particularly in the West where various HD remasters never came out, in an awkward position. To go try and track down some pretty old games (or watch Let's Plays thereof) just to be ready for the future, or to find yourself missing this huge chunk of everything when the next actually new game in the series comes out.

Of course, those are all problems for future you, and that bum's a jerk. Present-you, though, now they're a smart cookie. And so you'll know that the present problem, right now, is the question of whether or not to buy thisgame, not something coming out next year that doesn't even have promotional material going yet in the West.

And the answer, just looking at this as a singular title, without that whole question of diving deep into the franchise?

Yes, yes, go buy it! Go buy it, eat a rice ball, down some sake, and then go punch a guy wearing sunglasses indoors and a too-flashy suit!


In the game.

Don't do that in real life.