I don’t know when it happened precisely, but at some time in the last few years I became a huge fan of the Yakuza series. If I weren’t working as a games critic, it’s likely I never would have played them. And to not have played them would have been a tremendous shame. The Yakuza series has been producing some of the best stories of any narrative-based game I’ve ever played, and has been doing so since the PlayStation 2 era. Its crime stories are consistently riveting, its character work is masterful and the attention to detail in its recreation of urban Japanese life is both subtle and precise.
The story of Yakuza Kiwami 2 is broken into two distinct halves, one playing out in Kamurocho, a slight reworking of Kabukicho, the real life Shibuya red light district, and the other half moving to Osaka. The game begins some time in the early 1980’s. A Korean crime boss has been slain and Fuma Kazama, foster father of Yakuza series protagonist Kazuya Kiryu, is the killer. A detective who arrives on the scene after the attack stays with the dying crime boss, who indicates that his child is in danger. In a nearby building, the detective encounters a hysterical Korean woman with a baby. The woman’s first, horrific, instinct is to toss the child out the nearest window, before breaking down and handing the baby over the the detective. As with most of Yakuza‘s introductions, all of this will become vitally important later in the story.
From there, we arrive in 2006, a few months after the events of Yakuza Kiwami. The Omi crime family has moved into the Tojo clan’s area, withering their control over Kamurocho down to a thread. With a potential gang war looming, the Tojo clan go to Kiryu, their former leader, for assistance. Kiryu, having declined the clan’s offer to become their 4th Chairman at the conclusion of the previous game, is retired and living peacefully by the seaside with his young ward, Haruka Sawamura. Dragged back into the fray as a favour to an old friend, it once again falls to Kiryu to save the clan he worked so hard to escape.
Yakuza Kiwami 2 is the latest in SEGA’s bid to update and remaster the original Yakuza titles for the PlayStation 4. First released in Japan in 2006, Yakuza 2 is broadly considered one of the weaker entries in the series. You should not let this turn you off playing it. In fact, SEGA appears to have done everything they can to update the game to fit a more modern standard in hopes of smoothing out some of the original’s rougher edges. It runs on the Dragon engine used for Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, released earlier this year, and even includes a new story mode based around fan favourite character Goro Majima, continuing a number of unresolved plot threads from 2017’s Yakuza 0.
The transition to the new engine, along with the updated models and visuals, does wonders for the game. It gives everything the cinematic feel that makes these games as engrossing as they are. There are still a few janky bits — combat still feels like a button-mashy relic of the last decade and dialogue sequences that don’t play out in a cutscene can be a bit dry. These gripes are fairly minor when placed against the backdrop of the larger story however, and I was always willing to push through them because I had to know what happened next.
In terms of quality, if the Yakuza series can be viewed as a ladder, then Yakuza Kiwami 2 would represent the one loose rung toward the bottom. It may not be the best title the Yakuza series has ever produced, but it’s still a solid entry in a gripping, densely interwoven series, and important part of a much greater whole. I look forward to seeing Kiryu again in Yakuza Kiwami 3.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: Riveting writing; Superb character work; Gorgeous graphical update
Lowlights: Some mechanics starting to show their age
Developer: SEGA, Amusement Vision
Platforms: PlayStation 4
Review conducted on a PlayStation 4 Pro with a retail code provided by the publisher.