QCF: Yakuza Kiwami

t’s been speculated that Grand Theft Auto III would have never gone in the direction that it did had it not been for Shenmue on the Dreamcast, and personally, I always found that contrast a bit misleading. Grand theft Auto attempted to give as much player freedom as they could, while Shenmue was aimed more at the player agency, albeit through the scope of a law-abiding protagonist who still had to adhere to things like a curfew.

Fast forward six years later, and we’re treated to a new game from SEGA titled Yakuza, an adventure that pays homage to both Shenmue and Grand Theft Auto through its unique RPG mechanics that offer a balanced blend of agency and freedom, and was successful enough to launch a new franchise for SEGA into the next decade.

A franchise that’s gone so strong that SEGA decided to release a remaster of the classic that started it all, Yakuza Kiwami for the PS4. To gauge the success of a remaster is to determine how well it can deliver the experience to both fans of the original, and new players who’re coming in fresh—Yakuza Kiwami nails both out of the park (or this case, batting cages), as the trip back to Kazama Kiryu’s misadventures in this epic crime-drama feels just as fresh as it did before.

Thanks largely to the engine that was introduced in the prequel released last year, Yakuza Kiwami incorporates a lot of the new updated conventions and visuals that work to rebuild into a version that’s barely recognizable from the original PlayStation 2 release. There a load of different refinements from 0 that make it over to Kiwami that improve everything from the structure of the “Sub-Story” side-quests, to various tweaks in the plot and story exposition that make it more congruent with the events of “0” and the overall story to the franchise. It certainly won’t have a big effect on those who’re coming into the franchise for the first time with Kiwami, but for those returning, the difference is like night and day.

Benefitting again from the new “0” engine, players are able to journey through the map of Yakuza Kiwami at a steady clip faster than they’ve ever have before without any concession to the larger-than-life aspect of the Open-World’s level design.

Nailing down good design with an Open-World is no easy task, and yet, the world of Kamurocho is a splendor to look at, while still being a breeze to travel through thanks to its subdued approach of the world layout. Normally the lack of a waypoint system in an expansive open-world adventure is irresponsible, but the direction in the remake’s adventure is immaculately balanced between its pacing, and sense of freedom in a way that makes navigating the seedy streets of Kiwami’s setting a satisfying journey each and every time you boot it up. Navigation truly gets more intuitive with each passing hour you spend brawling through Sega’s brilliant homage to Japan’s Kabukichō district all the more familiar, as certain locations will be as native to you as hometown landmark, only with a whole lot more spectacle to the sight-seeing.

The battling mechanics get a large new facelift too as not only will Kiryu have access to different fighting styles like he did in “0” but he’ll be able to able to grow them individually through distinctive skill trees that will grant the steadfast mobster completely different maneuvers and complexities that he’s never possessed before in the series. Gone are the unnecessarily elaborate and drawn-out input commands and the twitchy response rates that plagued infamously plagued the gameplay in prior installments, as Kiryu will now be able to use unique combination attacks that’re accessed only through one of the distinct fighting styles that you’ll have access to during combat.

The segmentation is brilliant in that it makes the mastery of Kiwami’s fighting system much more approachable without any compromise to the depth of the more intricate nuances within its dynamics. There will be moments where certain fighting styles are more advantageous than others, like the Beast style, for instance, is excellent for crowd control when you’re suddenly attacked by a large mob of gangsters, while rush is a great way to counter defensive foes who deploy a lot of evasions and blocking, and so on.

Even though the enemy encounter rate in the city was a bit more frequent than I would’ve personally liked, I never really got bored with all the constant brawling I fought through because the endeavor always felt gratifying in some aspect or another, and that’s all thanks to the cohesion of the game’s growth system.

Pummeling through the trash of the criminal underworld isn’t the only way you can advance Kiryu’s strength, as there are several side quests under the moniker of “Sub-Stories” that  will not only grant you loads of experience points, but can also lead you towards a rare piece of equipment, or even an item attached to a complete different Sub-Story objective. These sorts of missions are often derided for being too shallow of a distraction, typically offering you nothing more than empty calories to chew on in between all the meaty experiences that await you in the main quest, but Kiwami finds a way to give them a sense of impetus that’s just as captivating as the central story objectives themselves.

Much in the vein of the famous crime opera franchise from Rockstar, players will find themselves encountering new stories while engaging current ones, often revolving around Kiryu’s curiosity towards the situation, in spite of his personal cynicism about the ordeal and everyone involved, and this aspect adds a new layer of characterization that’s even more rewarding in its own right.

Fueled with incredible writing, and rich dialogue, each and every interaction you take on not only works to invest you within the seedy dealings of the criminal underworld, but just life for the normal denizens of Kamurocho in general, giving you a protagonist that has a lot more going on for him than being some gangster. I cannot stress enough how refreshing it is to play as this ex-convict who’s got the weight of the yakuza underworld on his shoulders, and yet can still manage to believably take some time away from that part of his life to play RC Cars with his childhood friends, causing some unexpected character development to happen.

Granted, the process isn’t as refined as it is in the GTA series as of the size Yakuza Kiwami’s open-world is no near as large, making it even easier to get overwhelmed with various tasks if you wonder a little too far off the beaten path, let alone the surprising abundance of Sub-Story encounters already on the beaten path. The flaws don’t stop there, as the user interface for the objectives list is inexcusably clunky to navigate, and the item management system is a flat-out chore with its limited space for inventory, and the regressive organization system to maintain it all.

In spite of those annoying short-comings, the experience here is one that shouldn’t be missed.

In a year where open-world games are dominating the charts, Yakuza Kiwami is still worth a look;

It’s a well-made sequel that continues the forward momentum that Yakuza 0 had brought to the franchise with a brilliantly polished update to the original that had started it all, making it the definitive version for both newcomers, and veterans alike.

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