The Yakuza series is one I have only become familiar with – and a fan of – through reviewing its recent releases. At its face value, it is a series that does not draw my interest: take on the role of a Japanese criminal and do… criminal things! And fighting! But take a moment to look deeper, and it’s so much more.
For one thing, it’s a Japanese title. Despite any serious overarching narrative, it is stuffed to the gills with ridiculous side quests and goofy character. Secondly, it’s not nearly as much of a criminal simulator (or crim-sim, if you will) as you might think. Kiryu Kazuma, the series’ primary protagonist to date, has the face of a killer but the heart of a sweet old dad. While he’s not above breaking the law he always strives to do what he thinks is right, and this duality is what the Yakuza games have focused on. Finally, Kiryu’s time in the protagonist spotlight is coming to a conclusion in Yakuza 6: The Song of Life.
Kicking off immediately after the events of Yakuza 5, Kiryu’s adopted daughter Haruka has just admitted – on live television, on the stage of her pop idol concert, obviously – that her guardian is a former yakuza and that she’s quitting showbiz to go spend time with him. Simultaneously, Kiryu is bleeding out in the street after a climactic crime fight. After being found and brought to medical help by Haruka, Kiryu is soon jailed to serve five years for his previous crimes – not the first time this has happened in the series, as players of the original Yakuza or its Yakuza Kiwami remake can attest.
On leaving the prison to return to the orphanage he oversees, Kiryu is surprised to find that Haruka had left years prior, and had not been heard from for months. Retracnig her steps, he soon learns of her dire situation and is left the caretaker of Haruto, Haruka’s infant son. From there, Kiryu sets out to find answers – the identity of the man who left Haruka in a coma, her whereabouts during his time served, and the identity of her child’s father.
From here, much is the same gameplay-wise as previous titles. You’ll wander around modestly-scaled city maps, unlocking and completing side missions (now tracked in an app on Kiryu’s smartphone, concerningly named “Troublr”) and fighting random thugs, at which point Kiryu will hand off baby Haruto to a conveniently passing NPC in order to beat the tar out of whoever has interrupted his baby-stroll. The story is told through a mixture of in-engine scenes and pre-rendered movies, but thankfully forgoes the awkward ‘visual novel’ static scenes that were still employed in Yakuza 0.
The biggest change to the game is its shift to the Dragon Engine, Sega’s newly-constructed, current-gen series engine. The shift in character model depth is noticeable; while Kiryu is still typically stone-faced, subtle emotions are able to play out on his face, as well as the far more dynamic and fluid acting of the characters around him. The in-combat effects and camera work really make what could be a relatively basic combat cycle into something that feels dynamic and empowering every time you get to button-mash to truly kick the stuffing out of a goon’s face.
Layered on top of the standard combat is Yakuza 6’s new mode, the Clan Creator. Relatively early in the story, this new mechanic is introduced which sees Kiryu acting as less of a brawler and more of a general – directing thugs from an overhead view in something that’s a mix between a real-time-strategy and a mobile timer-clicker. Controlling the Kiryu Clan, you’ll find yourself watching the game’s deployment meter to spam out gang members on a small-scale map, eliminating enemy units through sheer numbers or special unit abilities. The specialty units can be recruited in the greater game to join your growing team, as a way to thread this add-on back into the main narrative. It’s a fun distraction, but doesn’t truly add a great deal to the main game narrative in my experience.
All in all, this is a Yakuza game – and while that may seem like a trueism, it holds up. The combat is fun and impactful, with Kiryu’s triangle-button finishers being as hardcore as ever. The side content is irredeemably goofy, in the best possible way. Some side activities are awkward, but for the most part if you don’t care for them you’ll barely have to touch them in the main story. Cutscenes are still a marathon rather than a sprint, but if you’ve made it to Yakuza 6 you either enjoy that or have just learned to tolerate it. As a first step into a new engine, the game is both a fitting sendoff for Kiryu as protagonist, and a good sign of what’s to come when Kazuga Ichiban takes the reigns for the series’ seventh main instalment.
Yakuza 6 was reviewed using a promotional code on PS4, as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.