Yakuza 6: The Song of Life provides the newest look into the ridiculous adventures of retired yakuza Kazuma Kiryu and his ragtag band of associates. Even now, over a decade after the release of the first Yakuza game, there still isn’t anything else quite like Sega’s fictionalised take on Japan’s criminal underworld. The series is often hailed as a spiritual successor to Shenmue, and sometimes draws comparisons with Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto franchise. Though there are similarities to both, it would be a discredit to the depth and eccentricity of the Yakuza franchise to consider it beholden to anything that came before it.
Across six main-series games (plus a prequel and two remakes), Yakuza follows the increasingly turbulent life of Kazuma Kiryu. In the earlier games, Kiryu was a member of Japan’s ever-expanding and powerful Tojo Clan, a yakuza crime syndicate. Inter-clan conflicts usually pit him against scheming foes aiming to overthrow the Tojo. By the end of each story, you would think that Kiryu had finally succeeded in quelling the chaos. As the credits roll and he looks back on each game’s events with contemplative relief, it certainly feels like the worst is behind him. Unfortunately for Kiryu, there’ll be problems in his future for as long as there are Yakuza games.
This remains true in Yakuza 6: The Song of Life (curiously the only entry in the series so far to have a subtitle). After serving a three-year prison sentence following the events of Yakuza 5, Kiryu returns to his orphanage to find Haruka, his adopted daughter in all but name, long gone with no explanation. If you’re unfamiliar with the events of previous games or simply need a bit of a memory jog, don’t worry – Yakuza 6 does a great job detailing the major plot points of the arc through a set of text-based summaries.
Whereas previous games wasted little time thrusting you into the middle of one yakuza-related conflict or another, Yakuza 6 is a little more delicate. The first few hours are spent tracing the missing Haruka and attempting to learn the truth behind her disappearance. It’s only as Kiryu draws closer to the truth that the dark clouds of conflict begin to settle over Kamurocho.
In many ways, this game significantly overhauls certain staples of the series. Unlike the most recent two entries in the Yakuza franchise, which featured four and five playable characters respectively, Yakuza 6 returns the focus solely to the exploits of Kiryu, thrusting him back into a starring role in this latest conflict. Each organisation and their key players, and even the thriving populace of Kamurocho, reacts differently to the renowned Dragon of Dojima than they would towards, say, Shun Akiyama or Taega Saejima in previous instalments. A legend has returned, and not everyone is happy to see him.
The story, though mostly consistent in its pacing, can meander a little. As you alternate between Kamurocho and Onomichi, the game’s secondary location, it can sometimes feel like you’re jumping back and forth between two separate narratives. Later on, these distant locations tie together nicely, but in the early stages it can be jarring when you’re forced to leave one for the other. That aside, the story remains enduringly faithful to the tone of its predecessors. This is a series where men rip off their shirts at the slightest hint of their honour being questioned. As a scuffle begins, blows landing with audible smacks, your enemies’ name and rank appear on-screen with a flourish before the fight begins in earnest. These duels, juxtaposed with the emotional discussions of ideals that often accompany them, serve as Yakuza 6’s boss fights and most challenging confrontations.
Gameplay, too, feels different. Combat is generally tougher. It was easy enough in previous games to button-mash your way through most confrontations. Now, enemies hit harder and fight smarter, and it feels like playing as Kiryu requires some real nuance. High-end equipment and even the better healing items are harder to come by, lending an element of caution to the chaos. It was a surprising change at first, but quickly forced me to think more carefully about my approach to combat.
Whereas previous Yakuza games had a standard level-up system based on experience points, Kiryu now has five separate stats that reflect different abilities and techniques. Whether through combat, completing missions or eating meals – yes, even your food levels you up – points earned can be used to bolster your stats, unlock new fighting moves or even increase the rate at which you acquire experience. By the end of the game, you’ll have powered-up Kiryu just as you would in any other game, but the path there feels more involved.
All of this takes place in the stunning locale of Kamurocho, a fictionalised version of Japan’s Kabukicho. Whilst the streets of the district have always been full of sights to see, people to meet and, of course, enemies to beat up, never before has a Yakuza title looked as beautiful as this. By today’s gaming standards, Kamurocho might seem cramped and small, but it contains a breadth of content that feels never-ending. From fending off local thugs to beating the high scores at karaoke, there’s always a great deal to do outside of the main story missions.
Exploring the world of Yakuza 6 is also much less frustrating than in previous titles. As much as I love a good brawl, being constantly accosted by enemies whilst travelling between missions hindered the pace. Aside from a few visual cues, these impending confrontations weren’t always apparent. Now, all hostiles are clearly marked with overhead indicators. Fleeing from or avoiding them altogether is easier than it’s ever been; this new approach is a refreshing change of pace.
Like its predecessors, Yakuza 6 doesn’t skimp on minigames and side missions. Many of the series mainstays return, including the aforementioned karaoke, mahjong (which I’m awful at) and darts. The main draw, however, is the new Kiryu Clan feature. Unlocked a few hours into the story, it puts Kiryu in charge of a small clan of his own and growing its ranks, with the end goal of overthrowing a notorious rival gang. It’s both a fun way to spend some time and earn a lot of money. Kiryu himself only participates when enemy bosses refuse to surrender. The bulk of the minigame is a top-down test of your strategic thinking; you have to choose from a variety of unit classes, from heavies to grenadiers, to best break through the waiting enemy formation.
The true test of the appeal of side content is, I think, how likely it is to pull you away from the main storyline. As engrossing as the exploits of Kiryu and his compatriots are, Yakuza 6’s minigames and sub-story missions are compelling in their own way. Hit the gym, become a local mascot or help suffering citizens using the new Troublr app – it’s never dull. Although Kamurocho is worlds apart from how it used to be just a few games ago, its beating heart remains largely unchanged. Step away from the story for just a moment and you’ll be in danger of not going back for hours.
In my many, many hours with Yakuza 6, I failed to find a single issue worth drawing significant attention to. At a push, my most substantial complaint is that the icon for the X button, indicative of skippable text, flickers on and off with each spoken sentence in a conversation. Aside from this being a slight nuisance, it also gets in the way of my prolific screenshot habit. Though it can break the immersion a little, it doesn’t even come close to spoiling the raw emotion behind every exchange. Credit must be given to the voice actors for their exceptional delivery of a very intricate script.
Just when the Yakuza series might have begun to show its age a little, Sega manages to reinvigorate what was already a unique and compelling franchise. Although I was sad to see the multi-character approach go, this return to the solitary adventures of Kazuma Kiryu is compelling. Sega have crafted an experience that rarely falters, whether in regards to its story, its characters or its gameplay. This isn’t just a brilliant Yakuza game. Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is a superb game in its own right, and may very well be an early contender for the best of 2018.
- Excellent graphics; the world and characters are beautiful
- Combat is complex and nuanced
- Emotional, compelling story
- Realistic, well-delivered voice acting
- Lots of minigames and side missions
- Summaries detailing the events of past games allow newcomers to understand the story
- New experience system is fun and versatile
- Two distinct locations provide much-needed variety
- Kiryu Clan minigame is absurdly fun
- Local belligerents are now clearly marked, making it easier to choose your battles
- Story can sometimes feel unfocused
- Button prompts during cutscenes are distracting