Now THIS is a sequel. Again, the strangeness of playing the Yakuza
games in their in-universe chronological order as opposed to their real world chronological order must be acknowledged - Yakuza 6: The Song of Life [龍が如く6 命の詩。]
came out between the two Kiwami
instalments, and I have to assume that a bunch of the great leaps forward seen here were originally made there - but I can only speak to my experience of playing them in story order, and so much about this feels like a major lurch into the future, almost to the extent that it feels like jumping up a console generation. (And then promptly dropping back down another three generations for Yakuza 3 [龍が如く3]
, but that's another story....) The combat feels more fluid, more dramatic, and more comedic thanks to some generous use of ragdoll physics; a friend used the word 'crunchy' to describe it, and that sums up the visceral immediacy of some of the heat actions in particular pretty nicely. The open world now feels genuinely open, despite the main map being no bigger; it sounds idiotically simple, but the moment when you realise you can walk in the front door of a shop and then walk straight out of the back door without any cuts or loading screens feels weirdly revelatory compared to its predecessors. And generally the word feels fuller and more alive, with more detail stuffed into the streets of Kamurocho right from the opening cutscene (which sets the tone for the cutscenes themselves to feel crisper and smoother to boot). The game is smart enough to know what it shouldn't change, too - the cabaret club minigame reappears completely untouched from Yakuza 0 [龍が如く0 誓いの場所]
(though sadly there's no Pocket Circuit this time). And the story! Ryuji Goda, a callback to a blatant bit of foreshadowing in Yakuza 0
that I obviously didn't understand at the time, is a fabulous antagonist, wedding a truly villainous aura and stature with just enough complexity to make him compelling beyond that - and yet he's not even the finest addition to the Yakuza universe here. Kaoru Sayama is as central to the game as Kiryu is in her own way, and her journey from minor antagonist to partner to love interest for Kiryu, as well as the way her relationships with Ryuji and Haruka end up developing and unfolding, lends rich elements to the plot that didn't exist in the previous games. It is her presence that both ties the plot together as it starts to feel just a little too
ambitious in the latter stages, and draws to the surface that giddy sense that the Yakuza franchise could do anything if it threw itself at it hard enough. After all, if it can do comedy and political intrigue and drama so well (and it should go without saying that there is plenty of all those things here), why not romance? Why not create a world that can have room for both Sayama and the connoisseur's comedic foil Goro Majima, who now runs a construction firm because why the hell wouldn't he be running a construction firm?
All the best things about Yakuza, enhanced with some key tweaks and fine additions; this is going to take some topping as my favourite game in the franchise. And yet my experience with it has been so good so far that I still have a sneaky gut feeling that one of the later instalments will manage it....