Yakuza Kiwami 2's tangled plot is half the appeal

'She's not his daughter, really. But then, that guy's not his father either... '

The Yakuza series on the PS4 is, at its heart, a story of family. It explores this theme through the narrative lens of the protagonist Kiryu Kazuma and the Sisyphean task of protecting the people that constitute various iterations of his family -- often from one another. In Yakuza Kiwami 2 (a remake of the 2006 original), Kiryu is in for more of the same challenges but with even higher stakes.

Spoiler warning

This review will not contain spoilers for YK2 after the game's fourth chapter (you'll have to wait for the game to drop on August 28th for those). I will, however, be making plot references to the preceding reboots, Yakuza 0 and Yakuza Kiwami 1, so if you haven't played them yet, here's fair warning.

For those of you unfamiliar with the series, the Yakuza franchise follows the exploits of Kazuma as he first attempts to climb the power structure of Tokyo's Tojo Clan in the early 1980s. After being sentenced to a decade in prison for a murder committed by his best friend and sworn brother Akira Nishikiyama, Kazuma returns to Tokyo to restart his life. Unfortunately, as soon as he gets back into town, someone up and steals the Tojo Clan's 10-billion-yen cash stash, setting up a civil war within the clan as various factions vie to find the missing money first and use it as leverage to appoint the clan's next leader.

lt's during this mad scramble for fortune that Kazuma meets and befriends a young girl, Haruka, who turns out to be the daughter of Yumi Sawamura, Kazuma's childhood friend and love interest. After Yumi's death at the hands of Haruka's father, Jingu (and the person responsible for the money heist in the first place), Kazuma takes the girl under his wing. Throughout YK1, Kazuma also teams up with Tokyo police detective Makoto Date, the cop originally assigned to Kiryu's murder and who eventually becomes one of Kazuma's closest friends.

While all this is happening, Nishikiyama is losing his goddamn mind. In Y0, Nishi and Kazuma were two peas in a pod. They grew up together at the same orphanage, along with Yumi, and joined the Tojo clan together to follow in the footsteps of Shintaro Kazama, their adoptive father and Captain of the Dojima Family. Ten years later, as Kiryu rots in a cell, Nishikiyama's personal quest to rise in ranks of clan leadership and step out from his blood-brother's shadow for once have failed. He's proven himself an incompetent leader, bullied by his subordinates who insist on muscling in on other families' turf to raise money for an illegal heart transplant for Nishikiyama's sister.

When the transplant goes south, Nishikiyama attempts to commit seppuku but instead gets all stabby with his bullying subordinate, thereby completing his change into a villain bent on Kiryu Kazuma's destruction. However, by the end of YK1, Nishi comes to his senses and atones for his sins against Kiryu by blowing up the 10 billion yen -- along with himself and Jingu -- to keep the money out of the hands of the secret government agency that Haruka's father worked for.

Which brings us to YK2, set a year after the end of the 10-billion-yen heist. Kazuma has retired as the Fourth Chairman of the Tojo clan in favor of a quiet life raising Haruka. That plan comes to a crashing halt when an assassin's bullet threatens to engulf both Kamurocho's Tojo clan and Osaka's Omi Alliance in an East vs West bloodbath. At the behest of the Tojo clan, Kazuma comes out of retirement to deliver a peace accord to the Omi, along with the chairman's successor. Unfortunately, that plea for peace fails when a Korean mafia group kidnaps the chairman of the Omi Alliance as well as the Tojo's successor. The race to safely recover them and avert inter-clan war serves as the overarching quest of the game.

That's not to say it's the only thing you'll be doing during the game. As with the rest of the franchise, YK2 is packed with more than 70 substories and side jobs, countless mini-games -- including a return of the popular Hostess Club arc from Y0 (as well as fan-favorite Yuki, the irrepressibly plucky hostess-turned-club owner) -- and a nearly inexhaustible completion list. I've already put 50-plus hours into the game and still feel I've barely made a dent in the number of diversions to try. There's almost too much stuff to do, especially if you are trying to follow a plot as intricate as this one without keeping copious notes. Though, one handy new addition to YK2 is the Substory Finder tool, which automatically marks the locations of people to help on your map, so you don't spend your days running up to random NPCs and trying to talk to them.

If all those plot twists sound hard to keep track of, it's because they are. But that's also what makes the Yakuza series such a treat to play. The sheer scope of its storytelling -- from the major action arcs to the backstories of the girls working in the hostess club -- is incredibly detailed and nuanced. We watch over the course of the series the growth of Kazuma, not just as a yakuza lieutenant but as an individual. And the majority of that growth comes through his attempts to shield his family from harm. But Kazuma has many families, often with significant overlap and contradictory requirements between them.

For example, Nishikiyama and Yumi were two-thirds of Kazuma's earliest family at the orphanage but also exist as part of the closely-knit Serena Bar community, where Yumi worked with the bar's owner, Reina, and where Nishi and Kiryu were regulars. At the same time, Nishikiyama and Kazama make up the nexus of Kiryu's Tojima family. Then you've got Kiryu's loyalties to Yumi and her daughter Haruka as well. And that's not even getting into the multitude of secondary relationships whose consequences continually land in Kiryu's lap, such as Reina's unrequited love for Nishikiyama, which led her to betray the Tojo Clan and, ultimately, to her death. The result is a constant tug of war between these varying factions, just as the four Captains of the Tojo subsidiaries vied for power throughout Y0.

But the complexity of the plot also serves as a potent storytelling tool. Kiryu's rich and complex (and often contradictory) relationships with those around him provide a framework for his actions and character development. If not for all the people relying on Kiryu, there would be precious little impeding him from following in Majima Goro's psychotic footsteps and, rather than slowly evolve into a responsible and honorable person, he'd remain just as he was introduced in Y0: A cocksure thug who lets his fists do the talking.

It's this depth of storytelling that ultimately draws the player in. Sure, beating the crap out of thugs, shakedown artists, rival yakuza, delinquents and the nouveau riche (yup, they're back too) using a variety of weapons and 'heat' moves is both cathartic and an effective means of advancing the storyline, but you can get that sort of action from a lot of games. But you'll be hard-pressed to find another series with this much detail and character development. At the same point, Yakuza isn't a series to take itself too seriously. You won't find exorbitantly drawn-out drama like Game of Thrones; there's often a sense of wry humor (or at least irony) to the substory missions.

Perhaps the only downside of this style of storytelling is the massive rate of character turnover. Both Yakuza 0 and Kiwami had a number of characters vital to those storylines that don't even get a passing reference in YK2. At the same point, each new installment dumps more than a dozen new, key characters into the mix for you to interact and bond with. But, in a nihilistic kind of way, don't worry too much: At least half of them will be dead by the end of the final chapter.

Of course, that also acts as a detriment to the series. New players can't really just jump straight into YK2 without first having played the first two games of the series. It'd be like jumping into The Lord of the Rings at The Two Towers. Sure, it's possible to do so, but even with the prologue's 10-minute story recap, you're not going to get the full effect and will likely spend the first couple of levels just trying to get your head around the story and controls rather than enjoying the nightlife and action that Kamurocho has to offer.

That said, if you don't mind jumping into the deep end of the storyline and figuring it out as you go along, that can be fun, too. I mean, one of the primary reasons for the Kiwami reboots was to add clarifying context to the original versions' somewhat confusing and, at times, contradictory plot points. And, overall, I've found YK2's story far more polished, more coherent and just generally more entertaining than YK1. It's a shame that the next three re-releases (yup, there are a grand total of six Yakuza) will simply be remasters of the originals rather than receiving the Kiwami treatments, but at least there is no shortage of pulpy gangster operas anywhere in the near future.