Yakuza 6: The Song of Life marks the end of a chapter in Sega’s storied franchise. First released in Japan in late 2016, Western audiences have had to wait almost 18 months for the 6th instalment in this venerable series to make its way to our shores. Built from the ground up for the PlayStation 4, Yakuza 6 ushers Kazuma Kiryu and his associates into the current generation. While the game is more streamlined than its predecessors, including a simplified combat system, its compelling crime saga is told with heart and more than makes up for these shortcomings, making Yakuza 6 one of the PlayStation 4’s more memorable titles in 2018.
Yakuza 6 continues the story of former Yakuza boss Kazuma Kiryu and his associates. Although the series has been running since 2005, newcomers don’t need to worry as the game provides players with a useful “replay” feature which summarises the previous games in the series (and there are quite a lot of them). It’s worth noting that Yakuza 6 is largely self-contained, and while there are series mainstays who return from previous games, you are never left wondering who they are for long as the game does a good job of explaining their role to you.
The game opens with Kiryu discovering that his adopted goddaughter, Haruka, was involved in an accident in downtown Tokyo, leaving behind a newborn son, Haruto. Originally believing that Haruka was settling down in a quaint seaside town in Hiroshima, her appearance in Tokyo puzzles Kiryu. Through a roughly 25-hour long campaign, players proceed to piece together the puzzles: What brought Haruka back to Tokyo? Who is Haruto’s father? Why is everyone trying to beat you up? At a high level, Yakuza 6 is a story about family and loyalty. Some say blood is thicker than water, but how far will you go for family? And what is family – is it strictly blood-related or can you create a familial bond with strangers through trials and tribulations? Kiryu often wrestles with these questions and, by the end of the game, players will too.
Players will visit two different, fictional cities: the bustling red-light district of Kamurocho in Tokyo and the quaint seaside town of Onomichi in Hiroshima. Both feel distinct and showcase different regions and cultures of Japan. They are very immersive and, as someone who has been to Japan multiple times, playing Yakuza 6 transported me back to the streets of Tokyo. From the chimes in the convenience stores to the way the narrow alleyways of Onomichi are laid out, the painstaking attention to detail shines through. More impressively, loading times are virtually non-existent and the game seamlessly transitions between indoor and outdoor environments, further increasing the sense of immersion. You can also explore these cities from a first-person perspective.
However, Kamurocho and Onomichi are merely vehicles for the game’s story, which is absolutely the best part of Yakuza 6. It is an epic crime saga which is engaging, humorous, and at times emotional. There were twists and turns which I didn’t see coming – all the hallmarks of a well-crafted and directed narrative. Special mention must also go to the characters, most of whom are complex and layered, and who remind me of the depth of characters in some of gaming’s greatest. Let’s say that this is the first time I have empathised with Japanese gangsters.
It’s worth noting that the story is told primarily through cutscenes. Like the Metal Gear series, long cutscenes which take control away from the player are the conduits for storytelling. Get ready to put down your controllers quite often. Thankfully, the dialogue is incredibly well-delivered and the localisation well-produced. Characters are distinct and speak with different accents, depending on which prefecture in Japan they come from. The game also doesn’t try to “whitewash” a lot of the issues in Japanese society (such as burgeoning Chinese and Korean immigration into Tokyo), and it is all the stronger for it.
You’ll be doing a lot of fighting through the main story. Yakuza 6’s combat system is a simplified version of previous games’ systems. For example, there is only one fighting style/stance now compared to the three that you could choose from previously. While the combat isn’t as refined as games like Arkham Knight or Sleeping Dogs, it is still satisfying and fun, albeit a little too easy. Brutally slamming a goon’s face into a wall never gets old.
There are a heap of things to distract you from completing the main story missions. Sub-story missions are aplenty and feature some of the most interesting characters in the series to date. These include social-media obsessed millennials and salarymen who are addicted to “live chat” (a quintessentially Japanese form of adult entertainment). Most of these are genuinely hilarious and provide a welcome relief from the sometimes heavy story. However, these are usually completed quickly. I wish there were a little more substantive. Besides the sub-story missions, you can also visit karaoke bars, engage in clan wars, go drinking and visit cat cafes. My favourite activity, however, must be hitting up the arcades in Kamurocho to play a couple of rounds of the complete version of Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown. Yes, the full version of that game is playable on your PlayStation 4.
Technically, Yakuza 6 is presented well, although it has some rough edges. Character models of the main cast are terrific but others are decidedly last-gen. For a game with so much dialogue, it is also disappointing to see that the lip syncing is often “off” in the cutscenes. Facial expressions can also appear robotic, although I have noticed that this is not uncommon in many modern Japanese games. The audio presentation is uniformly excellent and the voice actors do an admirable job in delivering their lines with the right amount of gusto, panache and camp. It is also wonderful to see revered Japanese comedian Beat Takeshi featuring in a recurring role in the game.
Ultimately, Yakuza 6 is a confident, self-assured game. Despite some of its technical issues and simplified combat mechanics, there is no other game currently available on the platform which quite combines its mature story, multi-faceted characters and offbeat side missions. The story is full of heart and charm and is bound to stick with players long after the credits roll. Yakuza 6 is a fitting send-off to series mainstay Kazuma Kiryu and is one of the more memorable games on the PlayStation 4 in recent memory.