I remember when certain people and even developers were shouting from the rooftops that the Japanese games industry was at death’s door. Well, 2017 is the year those people get to sulk back into the shadows, disappearing into the hedge like that Homer Simpson .gif, because the Japanese games industry is on fire right now. Two Yakuza games, an incredible JRPG with Persona 5 (spoilers!), Nintendo continuing to hit home runs and surprise sequel NieR showing that Platinum are still one of the best developers around. To quote Giant Bomb’s Vinny Caravella, “it’s never been a better time to play video games”.

One of the latest to arrive from Japan is Yakuza Kiwami. A remake of the PS2 original, it utilises the Yakuza 0 engine to bring the game into the modern era. Hot on the heels of 0 — which was once considered such a niche title that petitions had to be made for it to be localised in this country in the first place – we’re now on the cusp of having four games released in the series over 2017/18 (if the rumours of Kiwami 2 next year are true). What a time to be a fan of the series.

For those unaware of its origin as a PS2 remake, players might be taken aback to learn that you go from having two protagonists with two different places to explore in Yakuza 0, to Kiwami having just Kiryu in his town of Kamurocho. From a content perspective it seems like a step back, but while it may appear that way, I felt overall that the game told a more contained and personal story, especially following the bombastic events of the prequel game.

In fact, as I’ve had time to ponder my thoughts, I’d say Kiwami was the superior game. A large part of 0 was spent building the relationship between Kiryu and his orphanage brother, Nishiki; Kiwami, instead, deals with the breaking of it. Crazy stuff happens at the start of the game that sets the two brothers on differing paths – and one is riddled with betrayal, smashed faces and murder. But in the meantime, let’s play some pocket racing!

And that’s the joy of the series; there’s so much side content that you can be distracted for hours before you return to the main game. There’s the aforementioned pocket racing (AKA Scalextric for us British folk); some weird rock paper scissors game with half naked ladies dressed as bugs; a coliseum fighting arena; and your classic bowling, darts and pool games. It’s amazing if you compare Yakuza to something like Assassin’s Creed. This game has more gameplay mechanics than that series, but I’d say probably less than half the development team. It’s an astonishing accomplishment. And not one mechanic could be considered bad or half baked.

One of the most advertised new features in Kiwama would be the ‘Majima Everywhere’ system. The fan-favourite secondary protagonist from Yakuza 0, Goro Majima, may not be playable this time, but that doesn’t stop him from making his presence felt when you least expect it. Majima wants to keep your skills fresh, so he’ll ambush you all over Kamurocho, either by just running up to you on the streets or hiding in some sort of cunning disguise. And then it’s fight time as you attempt to beat him, in turn raising your Majima Everywhere rank. It’s a great new thing, though a little at odds with the main story line; Majima showing up during the main plot and not even mentioning the fact you’ve been fighting all over town is out of place. However, this can can be overlooked because it’s just such good fun, spurred on by the impressive fighting system.

It’s definitely a graphical upgrade!

Combat is great, though it can get frustrating at times if you’re surrounding by knife wielding enemies. But once you get to grips with the intricacies of the system and unlock some new moves, you’ll be flowing between your multiple styles and smashing everyone’s head in with trash cans and bicycles. Having all the fight styles unlocked from the start – only particular moves will need to be re-earned – is great for those coming straight from Yakuza 0, but it does make me wonder how overwhelmed someone would be coming into this game fresh.

But then why would you? I not just recommend, but put my foot firmly down when I say you cannot and SHOULD NOT play this before Yakuza 0. The story and even gameplay would be seriously hampered by it, as this feels not just like a sequel but a “Part 2”.

While I have little recollection of the original PS2 Yakuza, going back and looking at YouTube videos emphasise just how much time and effort has gone into this remake. It’s an astonishing feat and one that will stand alongside some of the best games of the year.

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