Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is a game about legacy. Billed as a final adventure for the main hero that has carried the franchise for ten whole years. A game that could have easily been made for the fans. Giving shoutouts and fan service left and right.
Instead, it chooses to celebrate this somber finality with the same confidence that has been there since the beginning. Going at its own distinct pace and telling its story with new characters and giving the series’ protagonist some of the highest emotional stakes he’s had. It’s not going to take the world by storm, but at the same time it’s not trying to.
And on the whole, it makes a game about crime surprisingly zen.
Gang Wars and Missing Fathers
After being sent to jail for three years following the events of the last game, Kazuma Kiryu returns to normal society. But things have taken a dangerous turn in his absence. The district of Kamurocho is now home to a turf war between the Tojo Yakuza Clan and the Saio Triads. His surrogate daughter, Haruka, has wound up in a hospital completely comatose. Complicating things further is that there is an infant son bearing her family name. But as Kazuma digs into the mystery of the father of the child, taking him between Kamurocho and the small fishing village of Onomichi, his actions wind up putting him dead center in the gang war. Leading to uneasy alliances, double crosses, and a long-reaching conspiracy involving ruthless murderers, blackmail, and corrupt politicians.
You don’t need any knowledge of the past games to enjoy Yakuza 6. There are major recurring characters and factions, but the main conflict is self-contained. However, if you absolutely must know about all the series’ history, there are text summaries of the past five games in the start menu.
What will turn off most new players is the game’s deliberate slow start. When I started my first playthrough of the game, it took almost an entire hour for things to get started. This is due to the plot not just having to cover a lot of ground – the aftermath of the last game’s events, what happened during Kazuma’s three year absence, establishing characters and locations, etc. – but also how they are paced. Most cutscenes involve characters speaking to one another in tense or understated dialogue for long stretches at a time. There were instances where I set the controller down, made a sandwich and came back to the room, treating the extended scenes as short films.
This does raise the stigma of video game cutscenes being a crutch, but Yakuza 6 has fantastic cutscene discipline. The character models are highly detailed, and the motion capture performances are absolutely brimming with emotion and nuance. The vocal performances all fantastic across the board. The cinematography at work that go out of its way to give each scene weight and importance. And if action does start to happen, it’s only so it can give control back to you. Each cutscene maintains this cinematic quality and restraint, making the entire experience better for it.
A fact that is made all the more impressive when the entire underworld mystery itself is impeccably well-written. The first half being a slow set-up of intrigue and battle lines being drawn, the second half full of reveals and the conflict escalating to satisfying set pieces and pay offs. A chaotic chase through a skyscraper with a helicopter chase might be old hat for many video game action sequences, but Yakuza 6 understands the power of juxtaposition, making that helicopter chase mean something.
It’s almost as if the entire game was structured like a yakuza film directed by Japanese bad ass Takeshi Kitano; which is appropriate since Takeshi Kitano plays a major character.
Also, the brand new Dragon Engine is a sight to behold when in action. The Yakuza games have never exactly looked amazing or ran as smooth as they could have, but the new tech on display is fantastic. While texture quality can still be muddy and depth of field can still be laughable, there are no loading screens at all as you travel through the map. Transitioning seamlessly from a convenience store back out into the hustle and bustle of Tokyo blew my mind, and the visual wizardry continued to impress.
This meticulous pace helps complement the brutal and nasty combat. On the surface, it’s a simple button-mashing brawler with light attacks, heavy attacks and throws. There’s even a collection of super attacks you can pull off once a special attack bar fills up spiced up with satisfying Quick-Time Events.
But Yakuza 6’s great selling point is how you can use the environment around you for devastating attacks. The ability to pick up a street sign or a concrete block and use it as an improvised club. Grabbing a thug then slamming him into a table. Slamming some poor soul’s head into a microwave than turning it on. All of these examples and more are possible with just a few button presses, and they are unbelievably satisfying.
It’s a combat system that escalates well with whatever the game throws at you. Starting with claustrophobic brawls with a few thugs in a small room to prolonged punch-outs with challenging boss characters to absolutely anarchic large-scale open riots with dozens of armed opponents with swords, guns and explosives.
My only real complaint with the combat is that it feels greatly simplified from Yakuza Kiwami. There are no longer any special fighting styles, and fights don’t fully evolve past the basics. Keep mashing attack until the bar fills, grab someone then throttle them with a special attack. The boss battles help mix things up thanks to their unpredictable moves and chaotic combos, it’s more exception than the norm.
What makes Yakuza 6 a grand study in tonal focus is how it balances its gritty grounded crime thriller narrative and ludicrous combat with its side activities. Once the main story starts off proper, you are free to explore the world to your heart’s content. At first glance it may not seem that interesting by not offering the size or scale of freedom in other open-ended adventures like Grand Theft Auto. The Tokyo district of Kamurocho is roughly a few city blocks, you can’t steal vehicles, and combat is restricted to only criminals or thugs that give you trouble. But there is so much variety with everything else.
You can embarrass yourself at karaoke. There are several arcades with fully playable versions of Space Harrier, Puyo Puyo, and Virtua Fighter 5. You can hit the gym and bulk up. Multiple types of restaurants are around to intrigue your inner foodie. There’s even a completely separate dialogue and persuasion mini-game you can lose yourself in when visiting a hostess club.
Every time you win a fight, eat something, or complete an activity you are given points to spend. You can use these to improve Kiryu’s overall stats like giving him more health or attack power. There are also separate skills you can invest into like additional super attacks or even improve minor elements like your alcohol tolerance.
What may seem disappointing at first is that Yakuza 6 doesn’t have as many side activities as previous installments. Replacing them are some deliberately place side stories you can stumble into. They mostly amount to fetch quests or having to fight some punks, but the actual subject matter lend themselves to poignant social commentary.
One of these included a couple breaking up due to the guy spending obscene amounts of money on cute girls in chat rooms. The quest ending with him giving up on normal relationships and sticking to his online comforts. Thankfully, there’s a healthy mix of funny, weird, or flat out bizarre quests as well to keep you on your toes like rescuing cats for novelty cafe, getting roped into playing a mascot for children, or fighting a ghost.
The closest thing to a disappointment in all of this secondary content is the Clan Creator. A fair way into the game, you are given control of your own small gang. By speaking with them at meeting places you can coordinate large-scale battles against other gangs. There’s even a recruitment mechanic where you can find promising talent and then beat them down until they follow your orders. The problem I have with these big battles is that it is presented as a low rent RTS. The fight is shown from a birds-eye view and any strategy mostly amounts to knowing when in to throw in the disposable mooks and when to throw in your heavy hitters. There’s some simple joy to be taken with watching street fights break out with you as manager, but it just doesn’t compare to the bloody-knuckled beat downs present in the rest of the game.
Yakuza 6: The Song of Life has a formula that works and sticks to it. The main adventure can be completed in about twenty hours. Both Kamurocho and Onomichi pulls you in with such distinct and eye-catching content. And while the developers go right up to the line with it, how they treat Kazuma Kiryu’s departure from the series is treated with just enough ceremony and dignity to be an event for fans that stuck with him since the beginning.
If you can groove on a game that takes its time with cutscenes and characters, ignore some subpar visuals in some spots, and have a love for gangland crime thrillers mixed with high-octane martial arts madness, this is the game for you.