To say that I was assuming that Yakuza Kiwami was a Japanese, GTA-esque game would be a large understatement. I’m not quite sure what moved inside of me, but something about the preview video I saw gave me the impression that I was wrong and should give the game a try. The main protagonist, Kiryu, is a violent person and a Yakuza and you will be going around town to do some morally questionable things, but there’s something different going on here. The main character, in a sea of turds, has some actual moral fiber to him. In the beginning of the game he tells this Majima character that he’s going to do things his own way, aka not the usual Yakuza way, and gets chastised for it. He couldn’t have given a single care. It was fantastic and gave me hope that the gut feeling was correct.
You are Kazuma Kiryu and you’re basically on a one-way track up the ladder of the Yakuza. All the boys want to be you and all the ladies want to be with you. You are the man. You grow up together with Akira Nishikiyama (a friend close enough to be a brother) and Yumi Sawamura (the love interest). Nishikiyama does something rash and because he’s like a brother to you, you take the wrap for him and go to prison for ten years where you “get soft” or “lose all of your special moves in order to necessitate a skill tree and a reason to level up”. Pick whichever excuse you like, they both work. Nishikiyama spends the same amount of time being told that he should act more like you (minus the prison bit I guess) and that he can’t do anything right until something inside of him snaps. When you get out, you eventually get around to figuring all that has transpired and end up protecting Yumi’s sister’s daughter Haruka. The plot of Yakuza Kiwami is filled to the brim with friendship, betrayal, love, death, twists and turns, surprise bad guys and a lot of punching! It’s such a good ride.
Now, to counter what I just said, there is one super annoying thing about the game that persisted throughout after encountering it a few hours in. The basis for this annoyance centers on your skill trees. There are four of them and all of them… have their uses. For the most part the combo system wasn’t too complicated, but for some reason I had issues pulling certain moves you’d unlock via the different trees at times except for the simple ones. So I camped in the Body tree to make sure I hit harder and stayed alive longer (more health, stronger punches etc). The basic combos served me well enough. I did dabble in the first two trees, but I’ll get to them in a bit. The last tree dealt with the Dragon style of fighting. Remember Majima? While crazy, he… self identifies as your rival. He is basically the Guy Sensei to your Kakashi. It’s humorous in its insanity since it seems he’s a fry short of a happy meal at times. However, the narrative has you finding and fighting him and in fighting him it helps you remember your Dragon tree skills. It’s all well and good except that at one point a lackey of his tells you he’s laying in wait, probably in plain site to ambush you. I could never find him. 20+ hours of finishing the story, running around Kamurocho and I only saw him where the main story-line dictated. This means I couldn’t get another Dragon style moves. It supposed to be the ultimate style too. Screw Dragon style anyway…
In all of the fighting lies the rub though right? A lot of times Kiryu is only put into situations beyond his control and must act. All the same though, all the people he beats up get up off of the street and walk/limp away. Let’s not pretend that it’s all unicorns and rainbows. You are a very proficient and violent fighter. You’ll be smacking people around with signs or motorcycles (yes, literal motorcycles). You’ll be kicking people while they are down. (It’s easier that way anyway.) I’ve grabbed guys by the scruff and punched their faces into the ground or pummeled them into walls. How does my inner paladin deal with all of this wanton carnage? Well… quite well actually. All of the guys you meet up with that want a piece of you and are all criminal of parts of the no-goodnik spectrum. I do feel bad for the drunks that want to start a fight with me, but then I guess a good right-hook is a fast way to sober them up in the game. There are punks walking around the streets looking for fights or picking on people and those are your enemies. I can live with that and sleep at night.
The boss fights are about the worst part of the game. At first I figured it was a style difference and I just had to pick the right counter-style to the ones presented to me by my opponent. It didn’t always pan out. Unless there are only two styles to fight bosses in. In the street, I would predominately fight with the Brawler style. The combos were simple enough and worked well on most opponents. In the bosses specifically, it felt worthless.
This is where the other skill trees came in. Some of the bigger slower bosses seemed weak against the Burst style of quick punches and get out before they take half your life, but not always. Most other bosses were fought with Beast mode on. The more you connected your hits you would build heat and be able to pull off a move that did more damage. I used the first and second tree to make the heat meter better/longer (which is debatable) and to give my Beast mode more utility (which also didn’t pan out due my inability to pull off the moves despite the simplicity of some of the moves). The last boss had me downing drinks to get my health and heat back simply so that I could put damage on him and have it stick. It felt less tactical and brawl-like and more “punch-punch-drink-special-punch-punch-spe oop, never mind he hit me-health drink repeat”. There’s a counter system that seemed negated by bosses and blocking just meant they could wail on you and do less damage because they wouldn’t let up much. All boss battles eventually devolved into combos that couldn’t be broken by me and whose combos would all break mine. I needed to rely on the heat moves and that sucked. These fights were not as satisfying as the fights you would have on the streets and that was a huge disappointment.
One of the things that I thought was going to bother me was the crazy amount of terms and the political patriarchy system and how everyone related to one another. (Not in a familial way.) I was so confused in the beginning at who was actually in charge of the whole thing. I almost felt like I had to get out photos and string to put it all together visually for myself on a wall in my house. At the end of the game, I kind of had an idea of how many families there were and who was in charge of who, but it was still very confusing up until the last five hours of game play. Once you got to that understanding, I appreciated it more.
There were a ton of other things to do in town as well. To get health back you could eat at any number of restaurants around town. Some people needed rescuing from punks. Other people would have you running around getting certain items and having said item taken to others. There were a wind up car races which I was horrendously terrible at! There were so many places to gamble. I’m not sure how good that would be to get money from because that wasn’t much of a problem for me so I didn’t do it much. The one main time I gambled was when I was showing Haruka around town. Don’t judge me; that game made me do it and it turns out she was really good at guessing dice rolls. There was a lot in the “adult” circuit as well while all being PG-13-ish. There was also a one-eyed, ugly male dancer that tries to kill you, that scene just goes above and beyond awkward. I learned a lot about things that I had no clue about. I didn’t know what a “soapland” was or what a host club was either. There isn’t much about the soapland in Yakuza Kiwami, but the host clubs just seemed like regular clubs, but then some you could opt to talk to a girl and buy her good and drink (the more expensive the better) if only to make her like you and then really get nothing of value in the game. Maybe that was just part of the experience though of trying to make the town feel more complete and alive? Either way, there are plenty of things to side-track you.