My history with Yakuza Kiwami is a complicated one. What began as a sour first impression of the series ended up becoming an adventure that stays with me. I first tried exploring Kiryu’s story in November 2018 when it became one of the free PS Plus games that month next to Bulletstorm: Full Clip Edition, which is easily one of my favorite shooters of all time!
The Yakuza franchise is something I was already aware of but had no real understanding of what it actually was. I gathered that it was a fighting game of sorts and had a semi-open world element. Essentially I thought it was Japanese Grand Theft Auto. Which is far from what the series is, and the wrong expectation to have going in.
However, all I really cared about was Bulletstorm and said, “eh screw it, might as well get this too”, and didn’t give the game a second thought.
That was until I played it. I didn’t get it. At all. Isn’t this series supposed to be loved? Adored? Grand Theft Auto but Japanese?
My First Taste of Kiryu’s Journey
Kiwami’s story follows Kiryu Kazuma, a Yakuza Lieutenant who is sent to jail for ten years after taking the fall for the murder of high-ranking Yakuza Family Patriarch, Sohei Dojima. Ten years later after serving his sentence, Kiryu is dropped into the Yakuza world once more, far different from the one he knew, as we watch him uncover the mystery of the Tojo Clan’s stolen 10 Billion Yen.
Sounds like a pretty intense plot, right? Plenty of suspense and mystery to pull me in that’s for sure.
However, as I said I just didn’t get it. I found the character of Kiryu far too monotone and brooding, he seemed like a very static character and I didn’t enjoy it at all. The exposition was long and drawn out, cutscenes felt very weird and the cinematography was subpar. (I was not aware that Kiwami was a remake at the time). I felt like I always had to mash the same buttons to win fights and that there was just a complete lack of depth. (Though in all fairness that’s my fault for not reading the tutorials properly).
I got as far as the Shimano boss fight at Dojima’s funeral service before putting the game down. I didn’t understand the mechanics and kept getting beat. The game just wasn’t for me, I didn’t care about the story. My relationship with Yakuza Kiwami would go no further. That is what I decided there and then, and I never take back what is set in stone…
A Change of Heart
You know, the funny thing about time is that people can really change their perspectives of things in very little of it. Let’s jump to February 2020, I was in University. I was grinding, making video games, on the verge of dropping out. You know how it is. With COVID on the rise, I couldn’t really go anywhere or do anything. It was a bummer man, and somehow during that time, Yakuza reached out to me.
I was scrolling through YouTube one day (it’s a pretty cool video site you may have heard of it, maybe not I dunno) and found myself coming across Yakuza videos. Not ones related to the story or the combat, but videos about the karaoke? Huh?
Wait, what? Karaoke? Do Yakuza games have that? Anyway, out of complete curiosity, I clicked on a video from the game Yakuza 0, a prequel to Kiwami which features a Karaoke mini-game. Ohhh how exciting!
I’m not sure if it was the ridiculous outfits, catchy tune, or my prior knowledge of how serious Yakuza takes itself that pulled me in. Hell, it may have even been because of the rut I was in and something like this was exactly what I needed. The hero I needed but didn’t deserve.
Suffice to say this prompted me to look more into this title. Now, this isn’t a piece about Yakuza 0, but much of the content featured within Yakuza 0 would help me in realizing my love for Kiwami when I came around to playing it once more. Yakuza 0 will get its own focused piece at some point in the future, I can assure you. I have a lot to say about this game.
The Face of Kiwami
Yakuza 0 was purchased soon after and I went in with a different mindset, this is where it finally clicked. Yakuza isn’t supposed to be a Japanese Grand Theft Auto. It was never supposed to be a sole crime drama. It was supposed to be a reflection of the real world that is the Japanese nightlife. The game Yakuza 0, as well as the entire series, is about giving the player things to do on every street and alley, making them feel lived in. The story is just part of a bigger, more spectacular picture.
I played Kiwami once again after finishing the incredible Yakuza 0. This time was to be much different. I had an established love for characters like Kiryu Kazuma and Goro Majima, I understood their origin’s and where they stood in this criminal underworld. I understood the relationship far more between Kiryu and his best friend Nishikiyama who is our antagonist for this adventure.
The story of Kiwami is ultimately about accepting the past and moving forward. These are the primary elements that inhabit Yakuza Kiwami, but I wouldn’t call these the sole themes. To this day I still don’t find Kiwami’s story anything particularly groundbreaking. Much of the downtime is still disengaging, and some of the exposition can feel a little drawn out. I love the characters and world that they inhabit, but many sequences can almost feel like filler.
But behind all that filler, I can really appreciate the themes it is trying to showcase.
The Soul of Kiwami
Throughout Kiryu’s journey, he is aided alongside a young girl by the name of Haruka. She’s an orphan who is in search of her mother by blood. As such, Kiryu is forced into a parental role, something which he has never experienced before now. This is where my favorite theme of the game comes in. The theme of parenthood, because behind all the crime drama, mystery, and betrayals this game is Kiryu’s first introduction to being a parent.
Throughout Kiwami, we meet many characters that are bound by bonds. A young man who wants to prove his love to his girlfriend’s father. Orphans who seek out their own blood. Parents who just want to make things right, but don’t know how to.
We spend significant time watching the stories of these characters play out, Kiryu has a role in all of them and learns something new along the way. Through the experiences he has with these characters, I found myself understanding what he gains from it all.
These experiences aid Kiryu in understanding the complexity of becoming a parent. How it’s not a simple task to raise a child, it’s a real challenge, something that doesn’t have a straightforward way about it. You must love that child with everything you have, this is what Kiryu came to understand. Through these life lessons and the bond he gains with Haruka, he finds himself seeing her as a daughter. As someone dear who he wants to protect, even if it costs him his life.
The Past of Kiwami
As I already mentioned, Kiwami’s story isn’t anything particularly amazing. I appreciate the simplicity and believability of it compared to future titles such as Yakuza 4 and 5, but it’s still a story that isn’t great.
Kiwami’s story benefits from retrospect. As some of you may know, Kiwami is a full-fledged remake of the 2005 action title aptly named, Yakuza. (Ryo Ga Gotoku in Japan). Yakuza 0 served as a prequel to this game which was released in 2015. Many characters who played a role in the original game returned with a fresh coat of paint over their stories. One character from the original was Akira Nishikiyama, the man who killed Sohei Dojima. Kiryu’s best friend.
The Past of Kiwami – Nishikiyama’s Downfall
In the original game, Nishikiyama had very little development. We knew a few things such as that they grew up together in the same orphanage and that they were best friends, always spending time together at the Serena bar, owned by their longtime friend Reina. Not long after learning this, Nishikiyama guns down their family Patriarch Sohei Dojima, in an act of rage to protect Yumi, the woman he loves. Within a little time Kiryu arrives at the scene, he tells Nishikiyama to run away with Yumi and takes the gun in his hand. Framing himself for the murder to protect his friend. The brother he grew up with.
Then we skip time by ten years. Kiryu has served his sentence and is now a free man, but all of sudden he learns Nishikiyama has changed. He’s no longer the brother he once knew. Kiryu is deeply affected by this, everyone in the world of Yakuza Kiwami is affected by this. However, the player is not.
We don’t know who Nishikiyama really is. Sure we heard about him being a great guy but we never actually saw it.
That’s where Yakuza 0 comes in. It gave us those earlier years, I got the chance to meet the Nishikiyama that Kiryu seemed to love so much. Kiwami understands the connections made in Yakuza 0 immensely and builds upon it. Giving myself as a player, a greater understanding of why this change to Nishikiyama after all these years hits Kiryu so hard.
The Reality of Kiwami
I remember the first time I entered the Karaoke bar in Yakuza Kiwami. After paying the fee and entering my room, classics such as Baka Mitai appeared on the screen. Then I saw a song called Tonight. What was it? I’d never heard of it before, never seen it in my recommended videos on YouTube. Let’s try it.
I finished the song, placed down my controller and I cried. I just cried.
Just the constant imagery of the Nishikiyama I loved, laughed, and wept with during the immense adventure that was Yakuza 0 made it hard to contain my emotions, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of ecstatic beauty and nostalgia. Not only because of the imagery relating to the prior game but because it reminded me of life. It reminded me of my childhood, all the old friends I no longer talk to. It made me think of them, where are they now? Are they happy? What sort of people did they become?
It’s very rare video games make me ask these kinds of questions. Not because I’m cynical or void of emotion, but because to me, games are an escape. Tonight pulled me back into reality, something a game hasn’t done in a long time.
It also highlights the kind of man Kiryu is. Even though Nishikiyama has had his downfall, Kiryu still remembers the good times. His best friend Akira Nishikiyama who he grew up with, the man who sang Judgement with him, his favorite song. He remembers his brother in arms.
The Lives of Kiwami
One of the Yakuza series greatest strengths is the ability to create engaging side content again and again without fail. Kiwami is no exception. Whereas the main story for Yakuza Kiwami takes itself very seriously. The side missions, known in the game as substories have the freedom to be as wild and as wacky as they want. I remember one substory which featured an interviewer asking Kiryu a bunch of questions to find Kamurocho’s (the district Yakuza is primarily based in) most bad-ass DAD!
Kiryu learns from the interviewer the criteria to be considered a bad-ass DAD! and not long after two of Kiryu’s friends enter the fray and they all begin to have a competition to prove who is the most bad-ass DAD!
It’s a hilarious substory that highlights one of the very lovable features of Kiryu Kazuma. His gullible and almost child-like curiosity, but also someone wise in ways one would not expect.
Now in a game about betrayal, murder, and all things gritty you’d think this wouldn’t fit at all right? Well, somehow it just does! It’s hard to put my finger on what makes substories work as well as they do. Sure they’re not all home runs, but plenty of them offer an enjoyable experience, that expands our understanding of the way Kiryu thinks and feels. Even if it’s just by a little.
The Lives of Kiwami – The Messages
It’s also amazing how many substories often leave me with a message that I can really appreciate. Most substories often focus on the relationships between people, such as parent and child, lovers and friends. It almost places itself in reality with how in life, many things can go wrong purely because of misunderstanding. Many of the lessons that are taught in substories involve the parties at odds actually talking to one another. Understanding why one person feels a certain way and what they can do to fix it.
Substories don’t always make full-fledged villains out of people. Some are just people hard on times who need to be reminded that two wrongs don’t make a right. Often substories can go out their way to showcase human desire and desperation, giving the player an open window to reflect on themselves. This focus on the people who inhabit Kamurocho and their life stories is not necessary but is ultimately something I can really appreciate.
Remembering Yakuza Kiwami
Yakuza Kiwami may not have been Kiryu’s finest adventure, but it’s one that will forever stay with me. It’s also important to mention that although I didn’t talk much about the combat, it’s still a very important part of Kiwami and Yakuza games in general. It’s brutal stuff and if you really enjoy combat that feels fluid and fast, Kiwami and Yakuza 0 is the best place for it!
I did my best to keep light on the spoilers, after all. I’d love everyone to play Kiwami for themselves and formulate their own opinion. I think many of the themes and messages of Kiwami are very much up to the interpretation of the player. Yakuza Kiwami is currently available on PlayStation 4 as well as the Steam store. Yakuza Kiwami is also available on Xbox One via the Microsoft Store and Xbox Game Pass.
For those of you who want to try the Yakuza series but feel the list of games is too daunting. You should check out Yakuza: Like a Dragon which was released last December! It’s an amazing action-adventure JRPG featuring brand new characters and locations! Meaning it’s a great starting point for people who want to get into the series!
Anyway, what about those of you who have played Yakuza Kiwami before? Did you experience any of the feelings that I felt during my playthrough? Or did you have a completely different experience? Let me know down below!