Back in 2012, 6 months after I picked up my PlayStation 3, I was searching for games to play on it. I wanted more Japanese games, and one I was curious about was Yakuza 3. When the opportunity presented itself, I grabbed it and dived right in. Ever since, the Yakuza series has been one of my favorites for its compelling characters and stories. Of course, up until recently, I had never played the first two games in the series, as they were stuck on the old PlayStation 2, and I wasn’t in the habit of tracking down old games that weren’t easily found at GameStop. So I played Yakuza 3, and then Yakuza 4, Yakuza: Dead Souls, and when Yakuza 5 finally landed in the US years later, I downloaded it on day one and binged it. Then it was just a wait for Yakuza 0, Kiwami, and Yakuza 6. Oddly enough while I bought Yakuza 0 and Kiwami when they first came out, I didn’t actually get around to playing them until this past spring, two months before Yakuza 6 was set to drop. Yakuza 0 is now of my favorite games in the series.
Yakuza 6, on the other hand, remains half-finished. It came out at a bad time, with God of War dropping shortly after it, and it’s hard for me to get back to a game once I’ve stopped playing it. And yet, I wasn’t in a rush to finish it for multiple reasons. The biggest reason, of course, was that I didn’t want Kiryu’s story to end. He defines the Yakuza series, and without him, it’s hard for me to be optimistic about the forthcoming Shin Yakuza starring the series new protagonist, Ichiban Kasuga. Finishing Yakuza 6 would bring his story to a close and it hurts to think about. So playing Yakuza Kiwami 2 was easy, because I knew that there were still three more games after it that didn’t end his story and I could just keep going through them.
The second reason I can’t bring myself to go back to Yakuza 6 is because while playing it I realized that the story just felt... off. It was different compared to past games in some way. Maybe it was because it felt relaxing in some ways, or because it seemed to lack a lot of the drama that previous installments had. Not that it didn’t have any drama, after all the main conceit of the story is that Kiryu is trying to find Haruto’s, Haruka’s son’s, father. There’s an emotional attachment to Kiryu and Haruka that immediately attaches you to Haruto if you’ve played the previous games, and that carries the story. And yet overall, it just didn’t feel right even if in some ways it was a fitting way to end the saga. But here Yakuza Kiwami 2 is, reminding me of exactly what was missing from Yakuza 6. There’s so much heart, so much complexity, it’s so full of energy and atmosphere.
There’s just so much story interwoven into Yakuza 2. The inevitable war between east and west, the return of the Korean Mafia, and pasts shrouded in mystery. So many characters come together in this installment and all of them have ties to one another in some way. And of course, at the heart of the game, is the relationship between Kiryu, ex-chairman of the Tojo Clan, and Kaoru Sayama, an Osaka police officer. I already knew how it ends thanks to Yakuza 3, but SEGA certainly spoiled the conceit of it with one of their trailers for Yakuza Kiwami 2, so if anyone who played the game was actually surprised, I applaud you for apparently avoiding the marketing. And yet, perhaps that’s why I was so much more capable of emotionally investing in them, not just because of how superb the presentation of the story is in this remake, but also because I knew how it ultimately ends, and because I know Kiryu’s future lot in life.
Let’s just cut to the chase here: Yakuza Kiwami 2 shows these two fall in love, and unlike Kiryu’s previous love, this one ends on a far happier note. Both Kaoru and Kiryu survive and the expectation is that they’ll stay together and raise Haruka. But if you’ve played any of the sequels to Yakuza 2, you know that that isn’t the case. At the beginning of Yakuza 3, Kaoru decides to leave Japan and go to the United States for training and she’ll be gone for at least a few years, but eventually she’ll return to Japan, and to Kiryu. Keep in mind that Yakuza 2 takes place in 2006, Yakuza 3 spans from 2007 to 2009, Yakuza 4 in 2010, Yakuza 5 in 2012, and Yakuza 6 in 2016. Kaoru seemingly never returns from the United States, or does and just never gets in contact with Kiryu, the story never touches on her again after Yakuza 3, and after Yakuza 6 it likely never will. And while it’s definitely a shame that Kiryu more or less never gets a true happy ending, it does underscore the tragedy of his life’s story, especially now with Kiwami 2 which emphasizes just how much these two characters meant to each other. Neither of them died, but Kiryu waited a decade for her and she never returned to him, and now everyone thinks he’s dead so even if she does return, it still won’t happen. He did have another love interest in Yakuza 5, but it’s easy to see that after Kaoru, letting others into his life is off the table.
This is the sort of narrative and character development that’s easier to pull off in a series that runs for more than two or three installments and spans a long period of time. If you count Yakuza 0, Kiryu Kazuma’s tale spans 28 years of his life, and it’s a life filled with dreams, determination, struggle, and ultimately tragedy and suffering. Yakuza Kiwami 2 manages to emphasize a lot of the Yakuza series best traits, traits shared only by, in my opinion, Yakuza 0 and Yakuza 5.
And now for anyone that hasn’t played Yakuza 3, you’ll be in for a bit of whiplash when the PS4 remaster comes around. Why? Because you’re gonna go from this:
Yakuza 3 may be one of my personal favorites, despite it not being among the best of the series, but I’m not afraid to call out just how badly it has aged, both graphically and from a gameplay standpoint. Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio has elected NOT to give Yakuza 3, easily the worst looking of the PS3 bunch, the Kiwami treatment like quite a few fans expected. Instead it’s getting a very standard remastering with a screen resolution bump to 1080p and a jump from 30 to 60 frames per second, nothing more. The same goes for Yakuza 4 and Yakuza 5 which are also being remastered for PS4.