The right kind of stupid
Yakuza Kiwami understands what makes games work. There's too much in it that would fall on its face if it didn't.
The narration is byzantine. At the start of the game you go from a cold open in media res, with your character towering over a dead body while holding the murder weapon, to a flashback, to another flashback some years prior, to yet another flashback of all those involved as kids, to a fast-forward through the narrative stack.
The characters oscillate between grim, murderous determination and childish glee. Their entire world is a single neighborhood, a bipolar microcosm of violence and absurdity. It's populated with a mixture of blood feuds and game arcades, dangerous conmen and earnest ingenues, hired would-be murderers and collectible cards, smart children and not-too-sharp hostesses, drug-addicted homelessness and barkeeps fawning over whiskey types, social corrosion and toy car racing, young women threatened by thugs while ignored by everyone around them and white-knighting judo champions. There's even a giggling psychopath who idolizes and helps you yet tries to murder you over and over to prove a point.
As a movie, it would be incoherent. As a TV series, you'd have expected the writer's room to be a coked-up cartload of chimpanzees creating cut-ups of crime cinema and cartoons. As a game, with you in the driver's seat, it's fun and silly and unexpected and engaging and sometimes surprising.
You play Kiryu Kazuma, the dreaded Dragon of Dojima. He's a respected lieutenant in a yakuza family who, on the eve of getting his own branch of the family, decides to take the fall for a murder. Leaving prison after spending 10 years in jail, he comes straight back to his old territory of Kamurocho (a not-even disguised Kabukicho) to look for an old friend who disappeared.
Kamurocho is a dangerous town, full of small streets and back alleys, where – this being a brawling game – everyone wants to fight you. Some people want to rob you. Some people want revenge. Some think you're still a yakuza, some that you're an easy mark. Some are trying to con you and unhappy you see through their transparent ploys. Some get angry that you're asking questions, digging around in areas which don't concern you. Some just want to try themselves against the former Dragon of Dojima.
Former being the key word. Even if you start the game being a one-man thug-wrecking crew, the time in prison softened Kiryu. You'll need to regain the skills that you had in your prime, or you'll never survive the tsunami of henchmen and mooks the story will throw your way.
Or stories. There's the main plot, about what happened in the decade you were away and where your friends are, and then there's the myriad of small side stories, some connected to you and your friends and some just fleshing out the fauna of Kamurocho. You could try and just go for the main plot, raging ahead like the bull Kiryu can resemble, but the wise path would be taking the side streets.
First, the side quests help you gain enough experience to get your skills back, which will be fundamental with the tough battles you'll have to deal with. This doesn't just mean experience points – different enemies have their own combat styles and, just when you're getting too comfortable, the game throws a different combination of thugs at you and forces you to reconsider your approach. Practice is fundamental for surviving Kamurocho.
But second, Yakuza isn't just about the main plot. It's about the rollercoaster of small stories you find on every corner. Silly situations and contrived circumstances like the wannabe-yakuza who sticks to Kiryu to “help” and only gets in trouble, or the group of thugs who keep trying to run the same “accident reparations” scam on you, or a fetch quest involving toilet paper for a man in need. Stories where you help a girl sell the matches her family makes on their small atelier, or find a replacement for an aging kid's game host so he can move on, or rush around Kamurocho trying to find a doctor for a child who might be dying.
It's also about figuring out where the chips are going to fall. Some of these quests look like you can help a person in need and devolve into a scam, some look like obvious cons yet end up either being about honest people in dire straits or straight-up restoring your faith in humanity. Some are just funny.
Not that the writing is wearing any sort of high hat. If this was D&D, the writer's alignment would be Lawful Absurd. It's honest and earnest, sticks to its guns, but even when it's playing it serious it goes over the top.
Why have a simple small-potatoes murder when you could have a far-reaching conspiracy?
Why have a side quest where you need to recover an item when you could start a chain of swaps and retrievals which spans the whole of Kamurocho?
Why just fight a boss when you can also fight his henchmen, some of whom are shooting at you, with mooks who stream from the second story carrying blades, in a Chinese restaurant, while you're using the furniture as improvised weapons?
Why just train to regain your skills when you could be hounded in random alleys by Majima, a deranged yakuza who alternates between nemesis and savior, and who may try to attack you from behind a corner, or coming out of a manhole, or charging with an entire gang wielding baseball bats, or interrupting a completely different fight?
Yes, there are fetch quests, but they help you learn the lay of the land. Yes, some of this can get repetitive, but it's so entertaining that when I got suckered into a minigame where you spend time chatting up a club hostess, I found myself wondering “why am I doing this? I could be fighting Majima on the street”.
And yes, you know how the story is going to play out the moment some elements pop up. But that doesn't matter. Kamurocho is a big amusement park, filled with fights and collectible games and deadly frenemies and toy car races and murder. The main plot, with all the dopey insanity it brings, is just the vehicle carrying you through its attractions.