Kiwami, which is Japanese for “ultimate,” was the word added to the remake of the original “Yakuza” game that came out all the way back in 2005 for the PlayStation 2. Set in the fictional red-light district of Tokyo, Kamurocho, “Yakuza” puts players in the shoes of Kazuma Kiryu, a young yakuza climbing the ranks of the second largest yakuza faction in Japan, the Tojo Clan. Led in development by Toshihiro Nagoshi, this passion project of his was SEGA’s last hope to stay alive and relevant in the market after seeing a series of failures, losses, and layoffs. The tension was high, and the stakes were even higher for SEGA, with Nagoshi’s career and the company’s future on the line. On its release date, the game was a smashing success, breaking sales records and making a name for itself in Japan. Outside of Japan, however, the reception was unremarkable at best, despite the fact that SEGA knew they had something special in their hands and started investing in future titles to make the “Yakuza” brand bigger. 11 years later, in 2016, SEGA and Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio released a remake of the original game and called it “Yakuza Kiwami.” With exceptional localization support outside Japan and a plethora of new features and content added while retelling the original story. The game was loved by critics and fans alike, and thanks to the immaculate “Yakuza 0” that came before, alongside the localization, the game and the series as a whole gained a foothold in the West. Let’s take a deeper look into “Yakuza Kiwami” and see if it is indeed the ultimate Yakuza experience. This article will be mostly spoiler-free, with the exception of the opening act, which will be spoiled completely under the “Premise” section.
‘Yakuza Kiwami’ Characters
Before we jump into the premise of the game, I’d like to give the basic descriptions of some of the major characters you’ll be meeting across the first few chapters of this game. The characters are the bread and butter of the “Yakuza” series, alongside the stories. And while you’ll get to know each and every character thoroughly across the games, it’s best if I tell you about a few of them to make it easier for you to follow.
Kazuma Kiryu: He is the protagonist of this series. Orphaned at a young age, Kiryu is a stoic and righteous guy who joins the Yakuza to follow his adoptive father and become more like him. Kiryu doesn’t kill anyone and is very good at talking with his fists. Kiryu is tough and caring and packs a no-BS attitude. He is known across the Tojo Clan as “The Dragon of Dojima.”
Akira Nishikiyama (Nishiki): Sworn brother of Kiryu, Nishiki, and Kiryu grew up together at the Sunflower orphanage and always looked out for each other. Nishiki is a stylish, carefree, and chilled-out guy who becomes a Yakuza with Kiryu for pretty much the same reasons.
Makoto Date: A detective in Kiryus’s case who knows something is amiss and later becomes his greatest ally and closest friend.
Shintaro Kazama: Captain of the Dojima family and patriarch of the Kazama family, Shintaro Kazama is one of the most respected members of the Tojo Clan. Kazama-san is the adoptive father of Kiryu and Nishiki and used to be the deadliest assassin of the Tojo Clan. Despite his position, he remains calm and caring towards everyone and watches Kiryu’s and Nishiki’s back.
Osamu Kashiwagi: Captain of the Kazama family and right-hand man to Kazama-san, Osamu Kashiwagi follows in the footsteps of his patriarch and is a righteous and honorable Yakuza with a mysterious scar on his face.
Yumi Sawamura: Another orphan raised at Sunflower alongside Kiryu and Nishiki, Yumi is a kind and gentle soul and serves as Kiryu’s love interest.
Reina: The mama (owner/manager) of the Serena bar, Reina, is kind-hearted and sweet and seems to be in love with Nishiki.
Shinji Tanaka: A young Yakuza and Kiryu’s underling, Shinji looks up to and respects Kiryu a lot and has an itch for soaplands(brothels).
Futoshi Shimano: The patriarch of the Shimano family, Futoshi Shimano is a ruthless and hotheaded Yakuza who is as ugly on the inside as he is on the outside.
Sohei Dojima: Sohei Dojima is the patriarch of the Dojima Family.
Goro Majima: The patriarch of the Majima family, Majima serves as Kiryus Aniki (senior/big brother) and his frenemy. Majima is a bit unhinged and is known for his unpredictable nature. Known across the Tojo Clan as “The Mad Dog of Shimano,” despite his appearance and demeanor, Majima has a heart of gold and is the most fun character you’ll meet.
There are plenty more characters you’ll meet throughout your journey, but these are the ones you’ll encounter during the opening act in some capacity. Let’s move on to the premise.
‘Yakuza Kiwami’ Premise
The game begins in 1995 and plops you in the middle of a collection run being led by Shinji, with Kiryu joining him. Kiryu, at this point in his life, has made a name for himself among the Yakuza and is working as a lieutenant advisor for the Dojima Family on his way to becoming the patriarch of his own family. After the run, Kiryu collects the money and goes to Serena to spend some time with Nishiki, Yumi, and Reina to celebrate Yumi’s birthday. Before this, however, you meet Majima for the first time, who pokes you for being soft and challenges you to a fight, which Kiryu refuses despite Majima pushing all his buttons, and seeing this, Majima switches gears and cryptically mentions that he’ll be keeping an eye on Kiryu at all times. Back at Serena, not having brought Yumi a gift and getting mocked by Nishiki for it, Kiryu runs around town for a bit to buy her a gift and settles for a ring with her name engraved on it.
Once the celebrations are done, Kiryu leaves Serena and makes his way to the Kazama family office to deliver Kazama-san the money. After brief introductions with both Kazama-san and Kashiwagi-san, Kiryu learns that the boss, Sohei Dojima, grabbed Yumi by force, and Nishiki is following him. Kiryu, in a gust of anger, charges toward the Dojima family office despite Kazama-san telling him not to do so and walks in on a dead Dojima with Yumi lying in shock and tears and Nishiki holding the gun and terrified of what he’s done. Nishiki mentions in tears that he didn’t have a choice as Dojima was forcing himself on Yumi, and Kiryu quietly picks them both up, takes the gun off of Nishiki’s hands, and asks them to leave. A few moments later, cops walk in on Kiryu, holding a gun next to a dead body. Kiryu is sentenced to 10 years in prison and is expelled from the family for killing their patriarch. He learns that Yumi lost her memory because of trauma and has gone missing, and he serves his time after fending off an assassin sent to kill him in prison. Ten years later, in 2005, Kiryu is released from prison and returns to an unrecognizable and modern Kamurocho to find out what happened to Yumi and how things will go from there. This is where the game truly begins, and I won’t be saying anything more about the story.
‘Yakuza Kiwami’ Gameplay
Yakuza Kiwami is a third-person open-world beat ’em up with combat that’s easy to learn, exploration that is quite rewarding, and a story that plays and is directed like a high-budget movie. There are four combat styles to choose from brawler, rush, beast, and the Dragon of Dojima style, each of which can be upgraded via the skill tree to become more potent and comes packed with diverse movesets with different attack ranges and damage, giving each style some flair and identity and making them useful for different scenarios. You’ll use these styles to fight hordes of enemies across the story and punks you encounter on the street. There are even crazy boss battles, the bosses can heal their health midway through the fight, and the only way to stop them from doing so is to match their glow with the glow of your style and perform an ‘extreme heat move,’ which comes with a crazy animation. You can even pick and use weapons you find in the environment or buy some and store them in your inventory. The combat itself is satisfying and has some depth, but the main takeaway from the combat is something called heat moves. You have a meter below your health bar that fills up every time you land hits on your enemies. Once the meter is full and you have built up enough “heat,” you can execute a heat move that does tremendous damage and comes with a fun, unique, and brutal animations that never get old. Your heat moves can also be upgraded from the skill tree, giving your attacks more power and variety.
Speaking of the skill tree, all skills can be bought using skill points you acquire, with the exception of the Dragon of Dojima skills. Those can only be acquired by participating in the “Majima Everywhere” system. Well, if you ask, what is it? Remember how I mentioned that Majima said, in the beginning, he’d be keeping an eye on Kiryu 24*7? Yeah, he took that literally, and once Kiryu was released from prison, he challenged him to a fight to see if he could still keep up. After Kiryu loses that fight, Majima tells Kiryu to be on the lookout for him, as he’d keep fighting him to help him improve and regain his lost strength. That’s ‘Majima Everywhere,’ and good lord, he truly is everywhere! You could be walking down the streets, and he’ll ambush you; you could go to a bar to get some drinks, and he’ll be your server; you could go to play a game of darts, and he’ll show up there and challenge you; Majima is everywhere in this game. The reward for him constantly ruining your life is how you unlock your skills in the Dragon of Dojima Tree each time you beat him, and trust me, you need to unlock those skills as quickly as you can because that fighting style is extremely powerful.
Finally, you can take a break from all the action and roam around the city, taking part in the bajillion activities it presents to you with things like baseball, karaoke, mahjong, gambling, and so much more. Or you can visit one of its restaurants or bars and enjoy the local cuisine or grab a drink. The “Yakuza” games always focus on the virtual tourism side of things alongside their action-packed story by being as true and authentic to Japanese culture and brands as much as they can and truly are a love letter to Japan. These have been the basics of the gameplay for “Yakuza Kiwami,” with a little bit more sprinkled in here and there; that’s for you to discover.
I’ll keep this section brief as I have plans to write an article about the world of the Yakuza soon, but I’ll say this: Kamurocho feels like a real authentic place with so much love poured into it. People walking on the streets, their clothing, the signs, the stores, the activities—all of that makes you feel like you are walking the streets of Japan. The amount of stuff you can involve yourself with here is mind-boggling, with fully functional and elaborate minigames for things like poker, blackjack, karaoke, mahjong, baseball, Japanese gambling games like Koi-Koi, Oicho-Kabu, Cee-Lo, and so much more. The map of Kamurocho is rather small compared to other games, but it’s so dense and packed with so much stuff to do that by the end of the game, you’ll have each street, shop, and activity memorized like you’ve been living there for years.
The Technical Stuff
“Yakuza Kiwami” runs at 1440p, and a locked 60 fps on current-gen consoles, aka the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5, and while the graphics and art style are a tad dated, the game holds up very well both in terms of performance and graphics. The game also has a very well-done sound design and good lighting effects, with the fully animated cinematic cutscenes deserving special credit for how real and cool they look. The voice work is in Japanese with English subtitles, and my God, it is immaculate in every sense of the word. This game is the reason I started learning Japanese for myself, and that’s a testament to how good the voice acting here is. Overall, as a complete package, “Yakuza Kiwami” is pristine, with next to no spots or blemishes putting a damper on it, and everything from graphics to sound to performance just works and flows brilliantly.
I myself am fairly new to the series, thanks to Game Pass, and I have to admit that the “Yakuza” series is something truly special and well worth checking out. While it is THE defining game for SEGA and is surely rated and received well in Japan; it deserves more love outside Japan. It’s been getting that, don’t get me wrong, but this series deserves more—a lot more. Yakuza Kiwami is not the best game in the series, but for a series that doesn’t have a single bad game under its belt, it’s a really good starting point to jump into the story of Kazuma Kiryu and sink in countless hours checking out and mastering everything the game has to offer. I am working my way through “Yakuza 0,” which is chronologically the first game in the series but a prequel that came much later, and while that game truly is a banger and the perfect starting point, “Yakuza Kiwami” is well worth playing and seeing for yourself and is a strong recommendation from my end. There’s a lot more I’d like to say about the game, but I don’t like spoiling games, be they new or old, as a lot of them are experiences that should be experienced through your own eyes with no preconceived notions or knowledge of what’s to come. So, with that out of the way, I’d like to take my leave and say once more, go and play “Yakuza Kiwami.”