After insistence from friends and the internet at large, I picked up Yakuza Kiwami. Many people were singing the game’s praises and insisted I’d enjoy it, so I grabbed a copy of the game and journeyed to Kamurocho, the fictional city in which the Yakuza series is set.
Right away, I was hooked.
It’s clear that the team at Sega has put a lot of love into this quirky, absurd brawler, where ripping your shirt off and beating people up with trash cans or bicycles is preferable to talking out your problems. But as I played through the first few chapters, I ended up stonewalled at the game’s first real boss for a bit. That’s when I realized the one thing I disliked about Kiwami, though it’s a trope that a lot of other games are guilty of to one degree or another.
Throughout the first chapter, that doubles as the game’s tutorial, you’re taught several of the core mechanics that Kiwami has you use to keep the city’s thugs in check. Like most tutorials, it’s tough to fail here. Kiryu, the protagonist of the Yakuza series, is both in fights and in the game’s lore, an absolute beast, and pretty much no one can stand up to him. But, through the power of plot, the Dragon of Dojima gets sent to jail for ten years and comes out with little of his astonishing fighting prowess displayed moments ago. They took a badass, tossed him in timeout, and let him wither away, leaving you to rebuild his talents and powers through the game’s in-depth experience system. But a lot of the things you’re supposed to be doing to make fights easier have to be bought, and if you bypassed those accidentally for another health upgrade (like I did), things are gonna be rough. That made me realize: I rarely enjoy when games show you everything that’s possible, then take all your toys away from you.
It’s one of the two ways a game can present you the tutorial: either give you everything and teach up front (and preserve immersion later on), or spoon feed you chunks of mechanics here and there (at the risk of these discussions chopping into the story). I understand why Kiwami does it, but it didn’t make for a smooth transition, especially when I was missing some of the tools I needed to succeed. Sega wasn’t wrong to teach us the mechanics this way; there are times that it works and others where it doesn’t. As you’ll see, it’s all about presentation.
When It Works: The False Protagonist
We don’t need to look any further than Konami’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night to find somewhere where this actually shines. The game starts off with the final level of another game in the series, Rondo of Blood. You fight Dracula as Richter Belmont, that game’s protagonist, with everything he’d have at his disposal. This serves double duty, giving you a cool moment of story and letting you get accustomed to a lot of the controls as you fight Dracula. At the end of it all, you’re given some more story before you find out that you’re not going to be playing the rest of the game as Richter at all, but rather as Alucard. It works because we didn’t bring Richter out of retirement with him forgetting his moves. Alucard is a different character, and has to go through his own trials and tribulations to pick up similar skills. Another game where this goes off without a hitch is Lufia, where you start the game off as the protagonist’s ancestor and his partners, sealing away a great evil that (shocker) doesn’t stay that way.
When It Doesn’t: Brought Down to Normal
Another erstwhile badass, Assassin’s Creed protagonist Altaïr Ibn-LaʼAhad, gets a treatment similar to our boy Kiryu. After a mission goes sideways, master assassin Altaïr’s execution is staged and he’s forced to start from the bottom of the order, working his way back through the ranks, re-learning tricks and tools of the trade. This is shaky because you don’t just forget something that’s been drilled into you. Despite being a class A jerk, Altaïr’s supposed to be a master assassin. Even if they take all his throwing knives and fancy swords away, he can get more elsewhere. In a mundane setting, you can’t just deprive someone of their skills. Even with Kiryu’s ten years in prison, he’d still have some of those fighting skills everyone’s always complimenting him on. Even more than that, mechanically it’s obnoxious to know how you should parry or dodge, but the game hasn’t bothered to give you (or forced you to buy) that ability yet.
When It Works: The Sequel
Here’s the exception to pretty much any rule I can present: I never whined when I powered on my Super Nintendo to play Super Metroid or Mega Man X2. It would defeat the purpose of all the exploring in Super Metroid if you started off with the Morph Ball or missiles. When I booted up Destiny 2 and found that the entire armory my Guardian had collected was lost to me, I just shrugged and got back on the loot grind. The chase was on, and I was ready. There’s an inherent logic to the sequel that pretty much any gamer accepts. New game, new start.
When It Doesn’t: Artificial Difficulty Spike
Games don’t always take all your badass abilities away from you at the beginning. Sometimes, they’d do it to you in the middle, or even worse, toward the end. I recently played through Xenoblade Chronicles 2; in it, there’s a dungeon where everyone except one member of the party has their legs cut out from under them in combat, unable to use an element of the system the game has taken the time to have you rely on. There’s a setting specific reason, but at the end of the day, it feels like the developer’s smacking your hand for trying to use the tools that they gave you in the first place. The fights there never really felt much more difficult than anywhere else, they were just slower and more grind-heavy since a lot of the team’s offensive power had been taken away. I can appreciate trickier AI or resistance to some tricks players might pick up, but this just comes off as a bit lazy.
At the end of the day, I’ve still enjoyed Yakuza Kiwami and many of the other games I’ve mentioned here. Does powering down the protagonist inherently make it a bad game? Not at all, in fact I’d insist that for some games, it’s almost necessary. If you don’t take your character down a notch now and then, you run into the danger of hitting a power ceiling like Dragonball Z or God of War; once you’ve cleaned up gods, titans and intergalactic warlords, who’s really left to challenge you? But the way you go about it that makes it succeed or fail for me. If Kiwami had utilized a false protagonist to teach the game’s mechanics or left us a few of the essential moves it teaches in the first chapter, the transition could have gone much smoother.
What’s another game that powers down its main character? More importantly, why does or doesn’t it work for you?