Yakuza continues its good run with a fine - if a little lumpy - retread of a modern classic.
To talk about Yakuza Kiwami 2 is to look at the game through three lenses. For some, it's a remake of a game made in the mid-2000s. For others, it's a continuation of a tale they got hooked on thanks to the release of Yakuza 0. Perhaps most importantly, it's a game that has the uncanny ability to draw from both what came before it and after it.
And so the first thing you'll notice is that Kiwami 2 looks great. It utilises the Dragon engine and the difference to Yakuza 0 and Kiwami is staggering. It's in fact so big that Sega wanted to showcase this achievement by recasting a few characters with esteemed Japanese actors, among them Susumu Terajima, famously a part of Takeshi Kitano's troupe and a star of films such as Sonatine and Hana-bi. The returning cityscapes of Kamurocho and Sotenbori, meanwhile, bustle and glitter like never before.
If you've played any of the recent series entries this is an easy sell, as all the core mechanics remain intact. While you're out and about, you still get into regular brawls with guys who just don't seem to like your face. Kiwami 2 has done away with the three different fighting styles from Yakuza 0 and Kiwami and instead slimmed the system down to just light and heavy attacks, blocking and picking up various items in the environment to smash into your enemies. Additionally, you can now recruit allies who will help out in a fight near their stomping ground, partnering with Kiryu for special heat actions.
This time, though, there's a curious reliance on weapons. While you could always pick up the odd pistol or switch blade to give you an edge, Kiwami 2 now strongly encourages this, particularly in main story battles that have you take out a full building worth of goons. These passages feel a little easier than before - although difficulty spikes still come via various boss encounters.
The changes made in Kiwami 2 vary in significance depending on whether you remember what a different game it used to be. The cabaret club from Yakuza 0 makes a return. Yakuza has a long history with hostess content, much of it cut in the original western releases - now, the lengths Sega goes to build a small hostess club management sim into its games astound me every time. It's part of a whole host of mini-games, both old and new.
There are games at the arcade (Virtua Fighter 2 and Cyber Troopers Virtua-On the headline attractions), a small casino, mahjong, shogi, golf and a very questionable game that consists of taking sexy gravure photoshoots. The new Toylets minigame is SEGA's surprisingly tricky and fun take on what it would be like to control a game through peeing. Perhaps most surprising is the fact it's a port of a real-life game available in various Japanese toilets. Stranger than fiction indeed.
>[? Kiwami 2 uses Yakuza 6's version of the skill tree, which allows you to spend the different points you gained while fighting and eating food on several upgrades for your general stats, heat techniques and life management skills. That's right, learning how to boost your hostesses' EXP is a valuable life management skill, kids. The clan manager, also originally introduced in Yakuza 6, makes its way to Kiwami 2. This time, you don't show a bunch of trainee gang members the ropes, but instead help your old friend Goro Majima eliminate threats to his building construction company. Come on, you managed a real estate business in Yakuza 0, of course someone would have a construction firm next.
The story features what can by now be seen as some staple tropes of the series: Kiryu leaving the Tojo Clan for some reason before eventually re-joining it, everyone betraying everyone and a female character who can hold her own but also depends on Kiryu quite a bit. In Kiwami 2, that dubious honour goes to Kaoru Sayama, lead detective in the Organised Crime Division 4 of Osaka Prefectural Police. Originally, Yakuza 2 was the first game of the series to introduce Osaka as an additional location, as Kiryu travels there in order to stop an all-out war between yakuza clans in the east and west. Once in Osaka, he meets Ryuji Goda, a man who would very much like to use a war between yakuza to grab power for himself and become "the one true Dragon" (something not so subtly underlined by his name being made up of the kanji for "dragon" and "rule").
It's a good example of why, after the bombast of previous instalments, the plot of Kiwami 2 can feel like a bit of a let-down. You get an antagonist who for the most part wants nothing more than to throw a wrench into everyone's plans, because he can. It's quite a departure from the more nuanced beats of Yakuza 0 and the first Kiwami, which focused on Kiryu and his struggle to do right by his friends. "Stop a war" is a broad theme, especially when the status of said war is fuzzy for much of the running time. Kiwami 2 does return to the typical back-stabbing and last-minute revelations that make the series so complex and fascinating, but Kiryu is often sidelined to herding the various former and current members of his clan like a HR manager for organised crime.
Kiwami 2 does show what strides the series has made in terms of substories. To come in expecting the creativity and depth of Yakuza 0 sidequests across the board means to be disappointed quite frequently, especially in the early hours of the game. Some substories simply have you beat up a few people to gain an ally, and there is what seems to be a higher number of fetch quests and quests that only exist to force you play a mini-game, using the old scenarios ("my daughter wants this UFO catcher plush", "I need to win big at a game to erase my debt") . Given the breadth of quests available maybe it's churlish to complain, but in some cases it feels like quantity trumped quality.
All this new content has to come from somewhere, so purists may notice that once again original quests and parts of the game have been cut. Kiwami aims to partly remake Yakuza, not remaster it. I'm two ways about this. While some of it exists to aid understanding of the plot, a lot of the new content, especially the minigames, now seems to aim at how "whacky" Yakuza can be, sacrificing some of the more sober parts and thus much-needed balance. Yakuza is an overall great series, and in Kiwami 2 it most certainly remains that way, but true to almost any longstanding Japanese game franchise, it's started to cater to certain expectations.