A game for both brains and brawn

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Yakuza Kiwami
PlayStation 4

By Alexander O. Cuaycong and Anthony L. Cuaycong

EVEN FOR THOSE familiar with the Yakuza franchise, Yakuza Kiwami can come as a jolt to the senses. On paper, it’s a remake of the original release on the PlayStation 2 in 2005, but quite a few elements have been changed — and mostly for the better — so that it’s best treated as the latest title in the series, closer in tone to immediate past predecessor Yakuza 0. Never mind that the story line is largely the same. As before, it follows the exploits of Kazuma Kiryu, a Yakuza strongman of the Dojima family. And then things go awry, with Kiryu taking the fall for the murder of his boss. Ten years later, he is paroled for good behavior, and must a search for his missing fiancee while being hunted by people he once called his brothers.

This sets the stage for Yakuza Kiwami’s story sections, and it is told and acted with a healthy amount of believability in the source material. While at times the narrative does feel a bit disjointed, it manages to sell Kiryu’s story well as a whole, especially when combined with unique gameplay mechanics. Through a crafty in-game levelling system, experience points are gained as much by fighting as by eating and exploring — even talking to people on the streets.

This encourages the player to keep moving forward. While grinding is possible, far greater advances are made by accomplishing the story, made all the more interesting by the frequent appearances of Majima, Yakuza Kiwami’s comedic miniboss. There is an organic sense of progression when Kiryu starts to improve his fighting skills, dulled by a decade’s worth of imprisonment, by slowly getting back to his old routine.

To be sure, Yakuza Kiwami takes some getting used to; the combat in the game is a little hard to grasp at first. Largely playing like a spectacle fighter, it has Kiryu dodging, blocking, and weaving in battle, using weapons, and, more importantly, his fists, during fights. In particular, he can choose from among four stances, and each stance has its own benefits and weaknesses, giving players a choice on the type of playstyle they feel most comfortable with. One stance lets Kiryu weave and dodge like a boxer, landing multiple blows with superior speed and footwork. Another lets him fight like a heavyweight, absorbing blows left and right and then countering with heavy backhands. 

The variety in choice makes each fight play out differently, and switching between stances is not only easy, but also encouraged, as certain finishing moves can be done only in certain stances. These finishing moves range from faceplants to suplexes, and can go from brutal to ridiculous in no time flat.

This is probably Yakuza Kiwami’s greatest asset as a whole. The game knows perfectly well how to sell itself to players. It has moments of seriousness, only to go off the beaten path for a comedic quip and a ridiculously cheesy line. It feels like a mix between a drama and a B-grade action film, complete with tropes and little jokes to make the story flow. It takes its story — but never itself — seriously, so it’s never afraid to engage in self-deprecation; laughs at Kiryu’s expense abound. And while it can get grim, the overall visual effects, the gameplay design, and even the quests and how they’re structured are all a joy to experience.

True, Yakuza Kiwami isn’t perfect. User-interface issues sometimes pop up during combat and make it difficult to maneuver Kiryu around. Bosses can turn into a literal grind, and even regular enemies get to be a chore when they start wielding firearms and weapons. On the whole, though, it’s an extremely enjoyable title well worth its price. Polished, smooth and fun, it provides a nice blend of levity and gravity with good gameplay and interesting set pieces. It’s a superb release that compels players to use both brains and brawn. Highly recommended.

• A compelling story with a nice mix of drama and humor.

• Plenty of side missions and side activities.

• Enjoyable combat, with plenty of variety in style and weaponry.

• Hub area is somewhat limited and disappointing for gamers expecting a more open-world feel.

• Bosses get somewhat tedious without proper strategies and upgrades.

• Combat system takes getting used to, and some encounters can get frustrating.

RATING: 9/10