One of the things about writing about games for a living is that you sometimes have to step outside of your comfort zone - with games piling up that need to be reviewed, you often find yourself trying out something that you never would have bought otherwise. One such game was Yakuza: Kiwami, a remake of the Playstation 2 original that kicked off the Japanese gangster adventure series, remastered, remade and re-tweaked for the Playstation 4 with a whole slew of improvements. Never having been especially enamoured with GTA and the like, we weren't sure the bloody, brutal tale of Japan's criminal underground would really be for us - but, as it turns out, we're glad we gave this one a try.
Once an up and coming figure in Japan's underground crime syndicate, Kazuma Kiryu, the Yakuza series' primary protagonist, finds himself taking the fall for the murder of one of his higher ups. After a ten year stint in prison, he's back on the streets and trying to clear up the strange goings on that have started while he was incarcerated - namely the mysterious disappearance of his childhood friend and potential love interest, Yumi. To make matters worse, ten billion yen of Yakuza funds have also gone walkabout, and his once-brother in arms Nishikiyama seems to have changed for the worse while he's been away. Technically ex-Yakuza now, Kiryu finds himself coming up against his ex-colleagues at every turn, with murders, kidnappings and other unsavoury things cropping up throughout the story, along with an unusual alliance with a rather important 9-year old girl.
However, for those who've never played a Yakuza game before, or who have little knowledge of the real-life organisation as a whole, the initial few hours of Yakuza: Kiwami can be a bit heavy going. The story is a sea of patriarchs, families, clans and lieutenants, and adding in the obligatory murders, assassinations and political arguments, you can soon feel a little at sea. If you stick with it, though, you'll soon figure out who's who and what's important soon enough, and once the story gets going it quickly morphs into a solid, gritty crime drama, with plenty of twists, turns and intrigue along the way - and in our case, plenty of time to hit up the karaoke bars and crane machines of the mean streets of Kamurocho, Tokyo, in the game's many, many minigames.
If you've ever played Dreamcast classic Shenmue, then you'll likely find Yakuza a kind of similar game, in as much as it's a story-driven adventure set in a vibrant city with dozens of things to do. When you're not trying to uncover the mystery of your missing friend, you can kick back with a few rounds of poker, stop for a snack at the local sushi or burger joint or try out something a touch more titillating at a 'bikini bar'. Or perhaps prowl around town looking for citizens in distress, hunt for dropped locker keys to earn freebie items, or even head off to bowl a few frames at the local bowling alley - the choice is yours. Yakuza manages to blend a rather adult world of hard-boiled criminals with the light and silly, and it's a juxtaposition that works surprisingly well - one minute you'll be punching some thugs' lights out and the next you'll be happily clapping along to some catchy Europop in a karaoke bar, without a care in the world.
Combat is a big part of Yakuza: Kiwami, but after Kiryu's decade in prison he's 'gone soft'. Hardly the fighting force to be reckoned with he once was, it's up to you to help Kiryu learn how to fight again, relearning all his past skills as you play. Not too far removed from your average Street Fighter-esque beat 'em up, Kiryu's street-side fisticuffs are fairly fast-paced, button-mashy affairs, comprised of various punches, kicks and throws - and as a nice touch, you can pick up any traffic cones, shop signs or bar stools you find nearby to beat people over the head with too, should you be so inclined. Never one to be outdone, Kiryu has not one, not two but four different attack styles you can switch between on the d-pad mid-combat, letting you tailor your onslaught to your opponents. 'Brawler' is a fairly standard attack style that's an equal mix of offensive and defensive skills, whilst 'Rush' weighs more towards speedy hits and quick evasions, and 'Beast' sits at the other end of the scale, focussed on raw destructive strength at the expense of speed. His final one, 'Dragon', mixes the previous three into Kiryu's own trademark attack style, his own ultimate martial art - although ten years doing porridge have left him somewhat lacking in skills in the Dragon department; skills which you'll gradually get back with the help of a rather unusual character.
Yakuza veterans will likely already be familiar with the oddball Goro Majima, a somewhat camp Yakuza guy who seems to have a bit of an unhealthy obsession with our Kiryu. As a favour to you, he takes it upon himself to help you get back into shape - by jumping on you and demanding to battle, any where, any time and any how. Only by mercilessly beating him repeatedly can you unlock new moves and attacks for your ultimate Dragon of Dojima fighting style, gradually turning you into the battle-hardened fighting machine you were before you got thrown in the clink. As befits his quirky personality, and in order to keep you on your toes, Majima starts to devise new ways to surprise you and lure you into a battle, whether it's dressing up as a cop and frisking you for weapons, or simply lying in wait in a rubbish bin, ready to leap out at you and demand a brawl.
Should you ever find you could do with a break in your serious Yakuza business, Kamurocho has plenty to offer the bored buff guy with yen burning a hole in his pocket - outside of the rhythm action karaoke mini-games, brief bowling stints and crane machine collect-a-thons we've already mentioned, Yakuza: Kiwami has two major mini-games to keep you occupied. The first, 'Pocket Circuit', is a Scalextric-style slot car racing game, where you need to pimp your little plastic car with various upgrades and parts to take on different tracks - for example, switching out your slim profile tyres for chunkier ones to stop you flying off a jump, or plumping for a better motor with more power to take on a lengthier track. Surprisingly addictive, and hilariously over the top when your car flies off the track by mistake, it's a nice little antidote to the more serious gangsta life.
The second mini-game is a little more wtf- Battle Bug Beauties: MesuKing is a trading card-based fighting game popular with the in-game kiddies (apparently), where scantily-clad females dressed as various insects duke it out in a variant of rock, paper, scissors. Pick your fighter - perhaps the boobalicious Japanese Rhino Beetle, the kind of cutesy Paper Wasp or the bikini-clad Kuwana's Ladybug, equip three attack cards, one each for rock, paper and scissors, and you're read to go. When it comes to battling, all you have to do is try and pick the opposite card to them so you can land your attack - so picking scissors to their paper, or rock to their scissors - until you can reduce their health to zero and win. There's a fair few cards to collect too, which you'll find dropped around town, sold at certain stores or earned from beating other characters at MesuKing, so your stable of characters and moves is always evolving.
Back with the main story, working your way up to fighting fit again does take a lot of work - each new move (with the exception of your Dragon abilities) requires you to spend a number of experience points in order to unlock it, and there are a lot of moves on offer. Fortunately, pretty much everything you can possibly do in the world of Yakuza counts towards your experience, whether it be brawling in the street, winning a Pocket Circuit race or settling down to a tasty beef bowl at the local restaurant - so no matter how you choose to spend your time, it all counts. In fact, as an extra incentive to explore the city and try out everything Yakuza has to offer, the 'Completion List' tracks everything you've done, ticking off various milestones as you go - whether it's getting a score of over 900 on a karaoke track, eating everything on a particular eatery's menu or defeating a number of enemies with your Brawler attacks, there's always something to be working towards. And, as a bonus, you earn points for every objective you complete, which can be exchanged at some depressive-looking clown's street-corner store for various perks and unique items. There's also almost 80 'Sub Stories' to find and complete; bonus side quests that see you doing everything from acting as a cabaret club bouncer, to scoring some sake for a homeless drunk, or chasing down a miscreant who ran out on his cheque at a restaurant - giving you even more stuff to do outside of the main story.
Needless to say, we were pleasantly surprised by Yakuza: Kiwami, especially as, as our first foray into the Yakuza series, we weren't really sure what to expect. While the initial few hours of story passed as a confusing blur of names, faces and positions, once it settled into its groove, it turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable adventure that blended serious crime drama story segments with light-hearted karaoke, scantily-clad 'bug' battles and customisable toy car races - and one with a great sense of humour too.