The Yakuza series has something of a reputation for being stuffed to the brim with activities and distractions. As it turns out, this reputation is well earned as Yakuza Kiwami 2 has got more going on than a plate-spinning man at a plate-spinning convention trying to spin as many plates as possible to impress a fellow plate-spinner. Torturous similes aside, Yakuza Kiwami 2 is the sort of game that can absorb you so deeply that it becomes your second job, and it can at times be hard to tell if that’s a good thing or not.
For those not in the know, the Yakuza series is a bunch of games developed and published by Sega about the titular crime organization in Japan. The game series is a cult classic and is also so steeped in Japanese culture that it’s every weeaboo’s wet dream. Back in 2016, Sega started the process of re-releasing the older PS2 games on the PS4 with the aptly named ‘Kiwami’ versions.
Much like the original version, and let’s face it, all of the main games in the series, Yakuza Kiwami 2 follows the story of Kazuma Kiryu, a person who is more shirt collar than he is man. Kazuma is an important figure in the Tojo clan, a big mover in the world of the Yakuza. After the events of the first Yakuza game, he has attempted to retire and look after his adopted family, but needless to say, the world doesn’t let that happen, and he is soon pulled right back into the life of gang warfare and getting into fistfights every 2 minutes.
Yakuza Kiwami 2 is a beat-em-up game with a heavy focus on melee combat. Firearms and other projectiles do factor into things, but much like in real life Japan, you don’t really see them all that much. During most of the combat, you rely on swift combos, kicks, punches and a whole heaping helping of throws. You can also pick up weapons ranging from swords and knives to literally almost anything that you can pick up on the streets.
The combat in Yakuza Kiwami 2 is a little rough if you’ve only played the more recent games in the series. It’s not that it is in any way bad, it’s just that over the years things have become smoother, and it takes some getting used to. When you start out, your dodge range is pretty shoddy, and your timing as well as your direction has to be spot-on. Unless you stock up on health items before stepping into the first few chapters’ main fights, you might end up having a bad time.
Speaking of the first few chapters, they do suffer from another problem that the series is somewhat known for. Like a lot of Japanese-made story-driven games, the first half is heavily front-loaded with exposition and cutscenes. If you boot it up expecting to immediately dive into some bone-breaking action, you’re going to be in for a nasty bit of shock. The opening hours are especially tedious if you’ve little to no experience or connection with the characters since most of the cutscenes are dealing with events that we’re supposed to already know about. Fortunately. the game does come with some explanations of what happened in Yakuza Kiwami 1…in the form of a cutscene. Personally, I’d say just be done with it and go read the Wiki before starting.
All the narrative fluff and heavy exposition aside, the story isn’t exactly bad. If you’re into Japanese drama at all, then a lot of the story beats will be familiar to you, and the insight into the structure and workings of the Yakuza, fictionalised or not, is pretty damn interesting. The side stories and random encounters you come across also add a nice bit of spice. While the main plot revolves around the super serious coup of a rival Yakuza group, the side stuff can be about almost anything from a photoshoot with porn stars to a muscle-bound photographer wearing nothing but a speedo. The chance in theming can be a little breakneck at times, but it is nice to have some contrast.
Obviously, a Yakuza game would be nothing without the mucking about on offer, and Yakuza Kiwami 2 is no exception. You can spend your time playing a variety of mini-games from arcades to bar darts, Mahjong to underground casinos and even batting cages. Most of these side pursuits are done for their own benefit, or at least for 100% completion, but you do get some benefits. Most forms of gambling can be quite lucrative if you’re any good at the games on offer, but honestly, there are much quicker ways to earn money. One of the main ‘side-hustles’, if you will, is the running of a hostess club. You can make a ton of money if you get deeply involved in it, but it basically amounts to a strange casual game where you assign the right girl to the right customers and usually end up scoring big.
The faffing about is all well and good, but it mainly just serves as a distraction from the main buffet of fist-fighty drama. It’s all fun and games, and honestly, you might actually find yourself sinking far too much time into it (DAMN YOU, MAHJONG!), but it’s not really what you’re there for, and it mostly doesn’t provide any gameplay benefits. There are some other side activities that are much more worthy of your time. Things like the locker key hunt which gives you free items is a wise choice, but you can also gain experience points by eating as many different types of food as possible in the game’s various restaurants.
Talking of experience, Yakuza Kiwami 2 features an interesting levelling system. It differs from the ‘medal’ system used in games like Yakuza 4, in which you receive medals for each level up and can spend them on abilities or upgrades. Here you receive several different types of experience points, each colour-coded, and they’re used in different combinations to pay for different types of upgrades. The system works pretty dang well, usually rewarding you with a small amount of each colour for every fight you do, then relying on you to try the different food, drink and side stories to gain the experience that you need for the upgrade you’re planning on getting. This means that you can adjust your stats according to your strengths and weaknesses. For instance, if you’re crap at dodging but alright at pulling off combos, then you can buff your defence, health and block stats/abilities and just tank as much damage as possible.
Yakuza Kiwami 2 has had quite a substantial step up in graphical power since its PS2 iteration, although that’s not much of a surprise. The original game was released in 2006, and all of the characters looked like they had been made out of crape paper and jam, but now they actually look something like real human beings. The graphics are quite similar to those of the PS3 Yakuza games and only a step behind the recent Yakuza 6: The Song of Life on the PS4. Some of the animations have something of a ‘puppetry’ feeling to them, but to a certain degree, this feels more like a style that the game was going for rather than some sort of lack of talent from the animators.
In the end, Yakuza Kiwami 2 is a classic example of why the series is as popular as it is. Filled to bursting with side activities, intermittently funny and intense in equal measure, and a deeply involved drama about one of Japan’s most interesting aspects. Of course, there are problems here or there, like stiff combat and front-loaded exposition, to name a few, but these are slight hiccups at worst, and there is so much good here to enjoy that you probably won’t notice them. Just try to play Yakuza Kiwami 1 first.
Release Date: 7th December 2017 (Japan), 28th August 2018 (Worldwide)