Yakuza 0 released in the west in 2017 (in Japan in 2015) to widespread critical acclaim and noteriety, something that hadn’t graced the series in the west previously. This makes total sense; the game serves as an entry point to the series, since you don’t have to know any of the previous’s story. The game has a revamped combat system, a great localization, a release on the PS4, the most adopted console of it’s generation at the time. Everything was right for it’s success, and the game delivers with fun gameplay and an amazing story. Many players came out wanting to continue the story, but in the west the next entry is the first entry released 10 years prior on the PS2. Yakuza Kiwami (henceforth referred to as Kiwami) makes perfect sense as a game to make following the success of 0 (granted it was released before 0 was even released in the west, but I imagine the series also got a boon of popularity in Japan as well). Kiwami serves to retell the original’s tale with a more fleshed out story and updated gameplay and graphics. Everything should’ve been in Kiwami’s favor, so what went wrong? Yakuza 0 is considered by a lot to be the best entry in the series, and Kiwami generally ranks in the top half. Why couldn’t Kiwami, knowing the shortcomings of Yakuza 0 and the original, go onto surpass that.
Kiwami’s major fault is really simple to me; the game is just too difficult. Now a difficult game isn’t a bad thing, nor is it an issue that a game is more difficult than it’s predecessor. The main issue is this difficulty really makes the game feel like a slog to play. Now the game’s difficulty is a really interesting thing because the reason Kiwami is so difficult compared to Yakuza 0 actually stems from a lot of improvements it made on it. Yakuza 0 was probably a bit too easy for it’s own good. Most street fights could be beaten through button mashing with no strategy. The story fight segments and bosses serve to be more difficult, but I rarely died at all. Most of the time I did die, it was because I didn’t realize my health was low entering a battle, and dying respawns you at full health anyways. Kiwami set to make major gameplay improvements over Yakuza 0, but all of these slightly increased the difficulty which ends up stacking up.
Most of the gameplay improvements end up hurting Kiwami because the difficulty increase was not accounted for. For the basics, Kiwami’s enemies are just harder to beat. They attack you mid combo much more often and utilize weapons much earlier and more frequently. This is overall a positive change because fighting enemies that throw their fists up but not out isn’t really engaging.
Kiwami also revamped the Heat system. In Yakuza 0, you start the game with three heat bars that each have different effects. Heat attacks did major damage, being able to one hit knock out a lot of basic enemies, and you could throw one out at basically any time if you had a single bar. This system was confusing and made the game very easy; it was in need of a change. I like the idea of balancing the latent benefits of extra damage and speed from having heat bars filled with doing super powerful attacks, but this didn’t really play out in Yakuza 0. Honestly heat attacks were just cool, so my main goal was trying to see if I could set up new ones I haven’t seen yet. Kiwami revamps this entire system. You start off with a single heat bar that grows when you fill out the skill tree. You can’t do heat attacks without any set up anymore either, you have to either have a specific scenario arise, or you can force it by grabbing an opponent or an item. These changes are both good, but it makes the game much harder. You can’t store heat well beyond the one bar anymore, meaning if you get punished after finishing the combo, the drop in heat will likely remove the possibility to access an attack at all. A common strategy in 0 was to knock out a basic enemy using a combo or 2 and fill your three heat bars all the way up, and then use multiple heat attacks in a row on the remaining enemies. Now you’re lucky if you can even execute a full combo without getting punished, and even when you do avoid any hit, you only have your one bar, plus some additional segments. These are changes I do like; they make the game more interesting. It’s also worth noting that a majority of heat attacks are reused from Yakuza 0. This isn’t a problem, but I would’ve liked maybe one of the more common attacks to have been replaced with something new. It’s also very apparent if you play Yakuza 0 and Kiwami back to back. The problem is that they make the game harder, and then the enemy difficulty increase compounds with the heat bar changes.
Kiwami revamps the skill tree in a positive way, which also lead to the game’s difficulty increasing even further. Yakuza 0 has it’s skill tree spread out among it’s three styles. Kiwami changes this to spread three skill trees among heat actions, the three styles, and your stats. Kiwami also has a fourth tree for it’s fourth style, but that’s not important right now. This change is great because Yakuza 0’s system tended to either have you get minor buffs to every style or a lot of buffs to one. This left you with less interesting styles or less variety, not a great trade-off. The skill tree revamp also changed how you acquire skills. In Yakuza 0, you spent money you earned to buy skills from your tree. These skills were expensive, so it meant you ended up acquiring a large amount of funds through the game. Kiwami changes it to using an EXP system instead. This change leaves you with very low funds for a majority of the early game. Money was generally a non-issue in Yakuza 0 outside of the skill tree system, but Kiwami’s early game really has you strapped for cash. Besides it being a bit weird narratively that you go from being a billionaire in the 1988 to basically broke in 2005, it also just makes the early game harder. You can’t afford to buy a bunch of health drinks, which you’ll need more of because the game’s difficulty increase. You’ll also have trouble buying and repairing weapons and spending money on various side-quests, endeavors, and passtimes. They also changed it so the stores don’t sell the best health drinks anymore, meaning you’d have to waste time running to the one store that does sell them if you don’t want to waste so much inventory space. Overall, I again, think these changes are good. Separating cash and experience serves to make cash a more interesting resource. You can’t just buy a bunch of max heals whenever you want to anymore. It’s just makes the game much harder, and you really need health drinks a lot more in this game. I basically never went out of my way to buy them in Yakuza 0, the game gives you quiet a lot for free. In Kiwami, I’m constantly filling my entire inventory with any healing items I can get my hands on. One change I think would really have helped the game would’ve been auto healing after battles. I get it’d make eating at restaurants pointless, but they actually already went to have eating at restaurants give experience as well. I thought this feature would’ve been great in Yakuza 0, and it would help to alleviate the difficulty just a bit since I wouldn’t have to waste my precious healing items on healing for battles that I can’t get to a restaurant before facing.
The Majima Everywhere system further serves as a great feature that increases the difficulty and makes the game a slog. Majima makes a return as a reoccurring enemy in some of the best sidequest in all of Kiwami. His fights are fun and varied as he utilizes his three styles from Yakuza 0 against you, and occasionally he even pulls out a whole new style. Building up the Dragon of Dojima style through battling Majima is a great idea to, as it’s an interesting incentive and makes you constantly want to try out the new abilities you’ll get. There’s a huge problem with the Majima Everywhere system, and it’s that Majima is really everywhere. Sometimes you’ll fight Majima, then go to a place and have a Majima encounter, and then leave the place and immediately fight Majima. Majima increase his health and damage with every battle, so once he gets past two full bars of health it gets pretty hard to take him out. It requires a lot of resources to battle Majima, and the game asks you to battle him 50 times(!!!) just for one branch of rewards. I don’t even know how many battles it’d take to get to SSS rank with him that’s required for the longest branch. I love the sidequests and I much rather battle Majima than random enemies, but it’s just so many. If they cut the requirements in half, I think I would’ve love seeing Majima every time. The more unique encounters are always still a blast, but I feel like they’re a bit soured by how often the random ones occur. It’s also very apparent that Majima’s styles were meant to be battled with and not against, especially the slugger and breaker styles. Waiting for Majima to finish up his 3 different spin attacks in a row to finally get a chance to attack isn’t very engaging. This is exasperated if you fight him in an area with few or no items, as those are generally more effective against his harder styles. It’s also of note that Majima Everywhere seemingly replaces Mr. Shakedown from Yakuza 0. This is a smart change as the amount of cash you have is low and can’t be easily spent, and instead you have a fight that rewards you major EXP. Mr. Shakedown can be avoided, however, but Majima locks onto you and forces a fight. The only way to avoid majima is if other enemies spot you first, which can get very annoying if you’re intentionally trying to battle Majima. Majima Everywhere adding a constant repeating boss battle is a good idea, but it makes the game much harder and more repetitive.
The difficulty isn’t the sole reason Kiwami ends up not living up to Yakuza 0. In Yakuza 0, switching between Majima and Kiryu not only provided variety in scenery, story, and characters, but also gameplay. Kiryu gets an extra style giving you four different fighting types to utilize, but that’s still down from the six offered in Yakuza 0. The loss of the two most unique styles, slugger and breaker, isn’t helping either. Furthermore, Dragon of Dojima starts off completely useless, and it bares major similarities with brawler. Dragon of Dojima’s main draw is the variety of ways it interacts with weapons. This bears similarities to thug from Majima’s kit in Yakuza 0, but it works to worse effect here. The weapon play complimented an already useful style Majima had. Thug served as a good way to deal with singular threats and it was the only style Majima could grab in. Dragon of Dojima utilizing weapons further makes it feel useless, since the weapons override the style’s moves anyways. Switching to Dragon of Dojima to then pull out a weapon does add benefits, but I’m not really using the style when I do that. The only other notable thing the style offers is charged finishers, but that’s taken from Rush in Yakuza 0, and it more complimented Rush rather than defined it. I’m sure Dragon of Dojima gets better and more interesting, but it just too much grinding to get the style up to par.
The game also feels like it increased the encounter rate. In Yakuza 0, I’d encounter random enemies once or twice while traveling between points of interests. In Kiwami, it feels like once or twice per street. I can’t confirm this, so it might just be that longer battles make it feel like this is happening. Kiwami also added a run button which is supposed to make enemies notice you more, but even walking slowly I seem to get swarmed by enemies. This is a bad change if it exists and still a big problem if it just feels like it exists. There’s already an item you get pretty early on that increases encounter rates if you need more of them, and you can always bump into random people and hope they’ll attack you. The default encounter rate should be pretty low. It feels really weird that so many people just randomly want to beat Kiryu up. I end up trying to run away from most encounters and not doing the optional one because of this, when I did basically every optional fight in Yakuza 0. This added onto the Majima Everywhere system can end up just getting from place to place feel like a massive pain.
The side stories in Kiwami also pale in comparison to Yakuza 0. The variety of sidestories in Yakuza 0 were vast, ranging from silly endeavors like filming Michael Jackson’s Thriller video to more serious ones like helping a guy propose to his girlfriend. Pretty much every side story knocked it out of the park in Yakuza 0 with it’s comedy, storytelling, variety, and so on. Kiwami’s fair much less well. A majority of them are just Kiryu getting scammed, he beats up the scammer, and the scammer gives you money and promises to never do it again. This is repeated for the first ten or so side stories I found in a row. There are some stand out ones I’ve encounted: the matchbox girl story is really sweet, the lesbian cabaret girl’s storyline (despite it being minorly problematic with the unconfortable not-sex scene) has great characterization for both Rina and Kiryu, and the one where Kiryu jumps in thinking he’s protecting a girl leading to a series of misunderstandings is quiet funny. It also seems like the pocket car side story line would be great had I played pocket cars at all in Yakuza 0. I imagine most of the side quests are take from the original, which is why they’re probably not as engaging. The writing on them isn’t just not up to par, it isn’t there at all. A homeless man asks you for booze, you get him booze, side quest over. There’s really nothing to most of these. It’s sad to see the side stories go from a huge highlight to empty padding.
The story of Kiwami is also extremely similar to Yakuza 0. Both stories feature two main macguffins. One is something that’s worth an exorbitant amount of money, and the other is a helpless girl who’s in possession of said item without having originally understood it’s worth. The story follows our protagonist trying to protect the girls while all the yakuza hunt them down. Both games have Kiryu expelled from the Tojo clan at the start of the story due to a murder he didn’t commit. It might be unfair to call both Makimura Makoto and Haruka macguffins since they do develop into actual characters in the later sections of each game they’re featured in, but they both start off as one. This is obviously more a fault of Yakuza 0 than Kiwami, since Kiwami is a remake of a game that came first, but it hurts kiwami none the less. I wouldn’t tell anyone to play Kiwami before playing Yakuza 0, since there’s a large amount of references to Yakuza 0’s plot in Kiwami. This has the unfortunate effect of making Kiwami seem very samey when played directly after Yakuza 0, but worse. I wonder if there’s a more optimal playing order, so the similarities in the plots don’t stand out constantly, but you’re not spoiled on any major events that happen.
Overall Kiwami is a game I really think could have been superior to Yakuza 0, but ended up being a lot worse. They staff clearly understood a lot of the flaws of Yakuza 0 and how to address them, but they didn’t see the bigger picture. Kiwami clearly needed some additional system that both made the game easier and added more variety to the experience. The adherence to the original game’s mission and story beats definitely hurt the game overall as well.