Is the Noid really the villain this time? Or is he the true hero we all need?
Yakuza 6 has a very unique goal in mind: to wrap up a story over a decade in the making. Plenty of games tell a story, and many of these tales span multiple entries over a handful of years. Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, exists as a send-off to Kazuma Kiryu more than anything else, and that is apparent in all facets of its design. It’s a far slimmer package compared to recent breakout hit Yakuza 0, or even older titles like 4 or 5, and the shift to the new Dragon Engine has also forced a series of apparent sacrifices to get the game out to the world. Yakuza 6 is absolutely a transitional game, it’s just a shame Kiryu won’t be around to see a more polished product.
Luckily, Kiryu’s swan song is consistently gripping: our hero travels to Kamurocho and inevitably Hiroshima to search for answers after his adopted daughter Haruka is hit by a car (while also carrying her son that nobody knew about). Furthermore, in the time since Kiryu was involved with his ex-yakuza family, the Tojo Clan, power has shifted both in and outside the family. The drama is plentiful throughout 6’s story, with many great twists and wonderful character moments. Most of the plot focuses on Kiryu dealing with his immediate family, making the story far more personal than previous tales focused on yakuza conspiracy. This hiccups at the end, which – not to spoil – does end up getting a bit too big for its britches. Thankfully, this brief set piece doesn’t detract from the personal stakes Kiryu has in the story.
With many previous characters in jail or in exile, Yakuza 6 focuses on mostly new characters. One highlight is Tsuyoshi Nagumo, a hardheaded yakuza captain with a huge crush on a local bartender. Kiryu knocks him around a bit, but after a harrowing run in with a more powerful member of his family, Nagumo becomes enamoured with the Dragon of Dojima. It’s extremely endearing, and I quickly warmed up to him and the rest of the small yakuza family that Kiryu shacks up with in Hiroshima. Famed yakuza movie star Takeshi Kitano, also known as “Beat” Takeshi, plays a role in the story as well, but one that doesn’t pay off until the end of the game.
It’s apparent just how much focus the story of Yakuza 6 was given in development the more you play it. Previously, Yakuza games would give you story quests at a far less pressing pace, allowing you free time to roam around and interact with the city. This time, the game feels almost linear. Yes, you still have opportunities to break off from the main quest and goof off, but with the way the game is structured, it’s hard to tell when those moments are. You’ll be told to handle pressing issue after pressing issue, with seemingly no time to spare on things like substories or mini-games. Every moment in the story is pulling you to the next beat, even if you’re physically able to run off and enjoy the side content. There’s never a moment where it doesn’t feel wrong to tear yourself away from that main questline.
Kiryu is slowly dragged back down into the yakuza lifestyle he had hoped he left three years prior. Now in his 50s, he just wants to spend time with his daughter and the orphanage he helped found. Kiryu’s desperation surfaces throughout the entire story, but other characters seem less focused on his worry, and more on constantly bringing up just how old the Dragon of Dojima is. He hasn’t slowed down at all, which would be a valid and interesting avenue to explore, but people are still calling his ability into question. Hell, he’s buffer than ever. It almost makes me wish the developers had actually made Kiryu a weaker character, instead of beating it over your head that he’s old with no changes to his ability.
To an extent, Kiryu’s abilities actually feel like they’ve been nerfed, but not due to age. The multiple fighting styles from 0 and Kiwami have been narrowed down to a singular style, leaving you with far less options in combat. Sure, Kiryu has a solid combat moveset, but it quickly becomes more and more repetitive without the option to shake things up. Heat is different yet again as well, with balls next to your health filling up, not only allowing you access to heat moves mid-fight, but a new super form that allows Kiryu to shrug off attacks and do big finishers. All of your combat skills are upgraded through a new EXP system where you gain points in a variety of stats and use them in specific slotted upgrades. It’s nowhere near as understandable as previous Yakuza upgrade systems, and the combat barely changes with each upgrade.
With this focus on the main plot, sidestories don’t factor into the game as well as previous entries, unfortunately. There are no markers on the map for undiscovered substories, forcing you to wander around blindly to stumble upon new ones. While this is something you had to do previously at times, in 6 it feels completely random. It doesn’t help that a good portion of these sidequests are devoid of the humor recent entries have had. Maybe the only ones I full-on laughed at were the Michio mascot substories, which involved Kiryu entertaining children and fighting thugs in a mascot suit. The more involved minigames are also a bit disappointing, such as a simple gym membership event with a confusing stipulation; After each workout, you are given a vague hint at a food to follow up with. For example, one said “beef, but if you feel like it, get this side!” I expected any beef to work, but I was supposed to dig around the restaurants and find the order with that specific side, even though it was implied in the text to be optional.
Other minigames are available in Yakuza 6, but they often require more legwork than they’re actually worth. The cat cafe, for example, just involves randomly running into cats on the map and feeding them cat food you have to buy from convenience stores. Feeding them food they prefer increases their bond with you, but you have no idea what kind they like until you feed them. After you befriend the cat, they’re sent to the cafe, where you can sit with them in the room. That’s really it. The baseball minigame is similar, involving running into men in Hiroshima and giving them items so they’ll join your baseball team. Of course, some of them want items you can’t get in Hiroshima, but you can’t freely travel to Kamurocho until the post-game, meaning if you’re in the middle of a story mission, you’ll have to write down what the men want, as the information isn’t kept in-game.
The most involved minigame is likely the clan creator. Wrestlers from New Japan Pro Wrestling challenge you to large scale clan battles, and Kiryu is tasked with assigning roles to different yakuza he meets to fill out his own gang. The fights play out similarly to a reverse-tower defense game, with your characters storm areas guarded by your enemy’s goons, making their way to the leader. There’s some strategy involved, with different leaders of yours providing support to your own gang with special power-ups. A word of advice, however: the Yakuza social media pages have been releasing codes to unlock the NJPW guys immediately (you can also unlock them through normal gameplay). Don’t use the codes unless you want to remove any challenge from the mode, as they’re very strong.
From the way it looks to the way it sounds, Yakuza 6 is leaps and bounds better than previous games. As the first PS4 exclusive entry, as well as the first to use the new Dragon Engine, Yakuza has never looked so pretty. A new first-person mode allows Kiryu to walk around and really absorb the sights, and while this is a momentary distraction, it’s a welcome addition with the nicer textures. Another welcome addition is the full voice acting, another first for the series. Every single character in every single conversation has full voice over, a marked upgrade from the grunts and chuckles that occured during non-mainline cutscenes. One slight issue with the new engine is the wonky physics, which react hilariously when Kiryu runs into objects. This can sometimes be a detriment mid-battle if you get sent flying into an object and end up creating a chain reaction of falling over things, but usually it’s more funny than annoying.
Yakuza 6 closes the door on Kazuma Kiryu, but leaves a window open for the future of the franchise. If a more slim and more personal experience is what you’re looking for in a Yakuza game, then 6 will deliver. However, if you were sold on the excess of humor, rewarding minigames, and style that Yakuza 4, 5, and 0 provided, then temper your expectations on Kiryu’s finale. While Yakuza 6 may be a small disappointment, it leaves room for vast improvement in the series’ imminent future.