The Virtual Life – How Yakuza 6 Makes Old New Again
Slight spoilers for Yakuza 6 ahead. Nothing major.
Yakuza is one of the most baffling, entrancing series around. Sticking closely to its roots since its release in 2005, the Japanese crime drama series has always been, on a function level, a semi-open-world brawler where you let your fists do the talking instead of your mouth or bullets. That in itself isn't new, with Yakuza finding itself in the company of brawlers like Streets of Rage, Double Dragon, God Hand and Guacamelee. However, over the years Yakuza has gained a large following not just because of its solid fighting mechanics and quirky sidequests, but because of the beating heart of the franchise, with a long, epic story that deftly handles themes of masculinity, fatherhood, and what it ultimately means to be a good person.
Yakuza's protagonist, Kiryu, might look like a (stylish) criminal, with his hard gaze and his ability to pummel thousands of Japan's hardest criminals into mush, but he's actually one of gaming's most soft-hearted men. Over the years he not only adopts his crush's daughter after she dies but also runs an orphanage and goes to jail multiple times for the sake of the people he loves. Yakuza 6 culminates with a fantastic finale dedicated to Kiryu's nobility, one that makes sure to reinforce the emotional tethers of its story outside of the series' trademark barrage of cutscenes.
I think what's most impressed me about Yakuza 6 is how it makes segments that would feel cliched or annoying on other games fresh and engaging, thanks to how the emotional beats contextualize each scenario. Take, for example, an early segment that finds Kiryu wandering around a small coastal town late at night with an infant in one hand, searching for powdered milk. All the stores are closed, so you're forced to search all over the town, talking with drifters and night owls, for the milk. Along the way you have to try and placate the child when he becomes fussy, rocking him back and forth or rubbing his belly in an amusing (and surprisingly challenging!) minigame.
This whole event might sound dreadful on paper, but the emotional urgency that arises makes every step of the journey feel compelling instead of frustrating or dull. As I rushed all over Hiroshima in this mundane, midnight journey, I felt my care for Kiryu's ward take root in earnest, with me actually able to see the kid as more than just another weird, loud problem I had to deal with.
Yakuza does this sort of alchemy a lot, turning quests that, by and large, should be boring into something interesting because the game goes to the trouble making the underlying nobility and emotional rewards explicit. In another RPG, you might get a quest to go save some kids from bandits keeping them hidden away in a dungeon. You do the thing, get some gold, have some kids thank you. It's just not that rewarding, right? You don't get to see those kids grow up and start a life of their own or anything. They're just NPCs you happened to rescue you because it was a way to kill time and maybe gain some money and experience points.
However, in Yakuza, you get something a little more fleshed out, like my favorite questline, which involves you befriending cats in order to fill a cat cafe, accomplishing the dual goal of making the cat cafe owner happy and giving stray cats a home. It's so overt and bordering on being overly sentimental but, like nearly all similar occasions, Yakuza gets away with it because all it ever does is be earnest. There isn't any cynicism to Kiryu's exploits (or Yakuza as a whole). He is, in many ways, both strengthened by and made hapless by his adherence to the forces of good.
In an industry filled with games about muddled morality, men trying to redeem their past, games about cracking open skulls for the sake of warfare, Yakuza stands apart because it is unabashedly a series about good people trying to do good things, putting others first before themselves. It's weird and strange that Yakuza is one of the few games that occupies that particular moral space, particularly when it comes to M-rated titles. Hopefully that's something that changes as the years go on, both with more Yakuza titles arriving and with Western game developers taking some cues from the adventures of Kiryu Kazma and his band of do-gooders.
For more on Yakuza 6, be sure to check out our review.