Yakuza 6: The Song of Life
The Yakuza series is stronger than ever, with the recent wave of PlayStation 4 remasters and a new prequel game bringing Kazuma Kiryu to appreciative new audiences. Just as those fledgling fans are figuring out what loyal Yakuza players have known for more than a decade, Yakuza 6 comes along and upends it all. The latest entry in the series may mark the end of Kiryu’s tale, but don’t worry; Sega gives The Dragon of Dojima the sendoff he deserves.
Without getting too deep in the weeds, Yakuza 6’s story centers on Kiryu’s adopted daughter Haruka Sawamura, who is struck by a hit-and-run driver early on. She was holding a child at the time of the event, and that child’s identity is paramount to the overall arc. The long story is told through an abundance of cutscenes, but I was engaged throughout. Players who are concerned about jumping into the finale without having played through all the other games shouldn’t worry, either. While the story is complicated, it’s largely self-contained. The game cleverly provides context for the important players in the world, and in rare instances when a cameo or reference didn’t click for me, I never felt lost.
The story provides broad motivations, but much of the Yakuza 6 experience is about making your own way through the world. Between Kamurocho’s familiar neon playground and the comparatively calmer Onomichi in Hiroshima prefecture, Yakuza 6 gives you plenty to do. The two locations are a joy to explore, and they’re brimming with optional activities. Kiryu has a lot of time on his hands, and I looked forward to every opportunity to keep him busy. Many of the missions provide rewards that feed into two of your biggest diversions; the people you help often want to join your baseball team or help take down gangs in your new Kiryu Clan. I’ve spent my fair share of time in Yakuza’s batting cages, and it was satisfying to show off my skills while managing my own crew of sluggers. I didn’t find the clan missions (which are basically tower-defense, minus the towers) quite as interesting, but I was still compelled to complete them all.
The brawler-style combat feels satisfying, whether you’re swinging your fists or whatever random props you can grab, and I appreciate little touches like the way terrain affects how you take down goons. Getting into scraps is quick, too, which encouraged me to seek out encounters even near the end of my adventure. Dragging enemies into stores, where the battles continue, is particularly fun – probably because I didn’t have to worry about picking up the mess. Thanks to a reworked leveling system, I leveled up abilities and unlocked moves the way I wanted, rather than having to work my way around a preset ability grid. All these little elements help deliver an exhilarating sense of freedom.
One of my favorite things about Yakuza 6 is that it delivers surprises at such a steady clip. Kiryu’s quest has life-and-death stakes, but he’s pretty much down for whatever along the way. If you’re interested, you can spend countless hours in side missions and other activities, including spear-fishing, babysitting, and chatting up ladies online. Japan’s citizens have their share of issues, too, which don’t necessarily involve gang warfare. I was eager to lend a hand to everyone who needed help, partially because the rewards can be great, but also in large part because these side missions are so delightfully strange. More importantly, it’s a blast. A typical Yakuza 6 session – if such a thing exists – can include darts and karaoke, before concluding with a goofy quest to retrieve an engagement ring from an errant robotic vacuum. The game does a great job in delivering both a meaningful and emotionally resonant story, as well as some of the weirdest, silliest stuff I’ve seen in a long time.
As fun as it all was, I’m still sad to see Kiryu off. He leaves the series on his own terms, and the conclusion is a fitting tribute to the character. One of the things I’ve liked most about him is how he remained decent, even though his lifestyle frequently put him into contact with decidedly less decent folks. Heck, one of the game's lengthiest mission chains is focused on making friends with all the patrons at a bar. Kiryu approaches the bizarre situations he encounters with grace and empathy, while also bringing a righteous rage when necessary. I’ll certainly miss Kiryu, but we clearly haven’t seen the end of Yakuza.