I purchased the original Yakuza for the PlayStation 2 back in 2006, naively thinking that I’d stumbled across what many had billed as Grand Theft Auto in Tokyo. Although the game didn’t live up to those particular expectations, I’d discovered something else: Kazuma Kiryu. Through the years, I’ve watched the former yakuza battle his friends, Korean mobsters, and an assortment of street thugs. Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, the final installment in this epic series, showcases an older, wiser Kiryu, a man who clearly wants to put his troubled past in the rearview mirror. Having spent so much time with our hero over the years, I hated to see his journey come to an end. Thankfully, Yakuza 6 gives the big guy a fitting conclusion that pays tribute to one of the best video game characters I’ve ever encountered.
If you’re worried about jumping into the game without having played the other entries, don’t fret: Yakuza 6 provides handy, easily digestible recaps of the previous games and gives you a brief introduction to the more important characters in the series. I benefited greatly from the recaps, as it’s been a while since I’ve journeyed through most of the games (with the exception of Yakuza Kiwami and Yakuza 0). Even if you choose to skip the recaps, Yakuza 6 still operates as a great standalone adventure. Getting to know Kiryu doesn’t take much effort, and the writing paints him as a very sympathetic character despite his history of violence. Lots and lots of violence.
However, a word of warning to newcomers: Yakuza 6 doesn’t have a problem taking the game away from you. Things begin with an almost hour-long cutscene that sets up the story and introduces you to the main players. Long story short: Haruka, the young girl who views Kiryu as a father figure following the events in prior Yakuza games, publicly announces her decision to retire from the idol business. Kiryu, meanwhile, ends up spending a few years in jail, during which Haruka helps out at our hero’s orphanage. When the tabloids the orphanage in a negative light due to her association with a former yakuza, she decides to hit the road. Not surprisingly, Kazuma’s concerned about her well-being, especially since nobody’s heard from her in ages. Her trail goes cold in Kamurocho, a city our hero knows all too well.
After visiting some old haunts and trying to locate a few contacts that might help him locate Haruka, our hero makes a startling discovery: Yes, Haruka’s alive, but she’s in the hospital following a brutal hit-and-run. In yet another twist (the game has many, many twists), Haruka has a baby, and the boy’s mysterious father apparently isn’t in the picture. With Haruka in the hospital and the child’s dad missing in action, Kiryu takes responsibility for the boy, despite protests from his friends and child protective services. He sets out to locate the missing father, a perilous quest that offers more violence and bloodshed that he’d anticipated. Of course, the legendary Dragon of Dojima hasn’t lost his edge, and he’s ready to take on anyone who stands in the way of helping Haruka and her adorable son.
Despite playing babysitter for a large portion of the game, Yakuza 6 doesn’t deviate too much from the formula fans have come to know and love. You’ll spend a lot of time roaming the streets of Kamurocho and Hiroshima, beating up tons of bad guys, eating in an assortment of restaurants, and completing side quests for some very peculiar individuals. However, while some of the optional missions are beyond silly, the main storyline keeps things dark, serious, and, at times, gruesome. Kiryu’s journey through Kamurocho and Hiroshima offers up a tale that’s possibly the most dramatic in series. And while there are some light-hearted moments to help break up some of the more depressing elements, the story keeps things grounded – at least, as grounded as a Yakuza game can.
Fortunately, if you need a break from the endless melodrama and bloody violence, Yakuza 6 offers up a ton of mini-games and distractions. As in previous installments, you can partake in some awkward karaoke, or spend some time sharpening your swing at the batting cages. If video games are more your forte, the Sega Arcade gives you access to Outrun, Space Harrier, and Virtua Fighter 5: Showdown. Additionally, you can play darts, work your way through the menus of the game’s numerous restaurants and bars, battle criminals with the help of a social media app, and track down keys to the locked safes scattered around the map. Perhaps most delightfully, players can also assist the owner of a cat cafe by feeding stray felines around town. When you’ve gained an adorable fluffball’s trust by figuring out which food it enjoys the most, someone will pick up the cat and take it to the cafe for some much-needed TLC. Insert all the feels here.
For those who need some a bit more stimulating, Kiryu can head to a local internet cafe for a bit of naughty live chat. During this saucy mini-game, which features full-motion video, the Dragon of Dojima chats with an attractive woman who’s more than eager to shed her clothes and show some skin. Players will help Kiryu hen-peck his randy responses in the chatroom, allowing him to increase the cam girl’s happiness and, in turn, her willingness to, say, take off her top. It’s one of those moments where you hope your significant other (or your children) doesn’t wander into the room when you’re encouraging a curvy young woman to squeeze and caress her cleavage. Uncomfortable? Maybe. Hilarious? Yes, but only because it fits so well into Yakuza 6’s decidedly warped world.
Of course, the best pastime involves wandering through Yakuza’s incredibly vibrate world and getting into scrapes with large groups of people. Thanks to next-gen technology, the number of foes you’ll battle at once has grown quite a bit, so it’s not uncommon to find yourself squaring off against five or more hoodlums who want nothing more than to smash your face against the sidewalk. Fighting feels much more fluid in the new installment; Kiryu smoothly transitions from one enemy to another like a seasoned pro. The camera never seems to get in the way of your over-the-top street fights, even when you’re battling numerous foes in very confined spaces. Yakuza 6 doesn’t reinvent the wheel with the fighting system, but it polishes the rougher edges to make this beast glisten like so many broken teeth.
Thankfully, the developers took a completely different approach to Yakuza 6’s progression system. In previous installments, leveling up Kiryu felt too linear; you could follow different paths, but you’d have to unlock skills you didn’t want or need to get to the more interesting stuff. During the course of the game, each mission, side quest, street fight, and visit to an eatery causes Kiryu to gain muscles, agility, guts, technique, and charm, which players spend to increase Kiryu’s health, attack, defense, evasion, and heat gauge. They can also spend points on various upgrades to the big guy’s move set and other important skills. This essentially lets you control how you want to play the game, and it makes for a much more satisfying experience. You’ll no longer need to waste your precious XP on a skill to unlock the special move hidden behind it. It’s incredible what a difference that makes later against much stronger foes later in the story.
Naturally, Yakuza 6 isn’t without its problems. For starters, the cutscenes often ramble on for way too long, to the point that the mind starts to wander during some of the optional missions. While all of them now feature full voice work from a wonderful cast (including Beat Takashi, Ichi the Killer‘s Nao Ohmori, and Battle Royale’s Tatsuya Fujiwara), this occasionally seems to work against the game in the long run. I’m not opposed to punchy, well-written cutscenes, even if they’re a bit overlong, but sitting around for ten minutes while a wannabe idol discusses her problems with Kiryu seems a little unnecessary. Little often goes a long way, a rule that Yakuza 6 seemingly doesn’t care much about. There’s also one hideously annoying mini-game that requires you to calm a crying baby as Kiryu wanders the streets in the middle of the night in search of milk. Yeah, it’s as fun as it sounds. Minor quibbles in the grand scheme of things, but quibbles nonetheless.
Despite those minor hiccups, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life serves as the perfect send-off for, in my opinion, one of the greatest video game characters of all time. The battle-worn Kazuma Kiryu might have been difficult to love at times – he’s deeply flawed and tragic, after all – but that only served to endear him to me, as well as countless fans, over the years. Watching the character grow and age throughout seven installments felt natural, and his conclusion in Yakuza 6 serves as a fitting end without any compromises. Thankfully, even after spending hours with the main story, I still have plenty of side quests, mini-games, and other distractions to keep me busy during my trip through the Premium Adventure mode. Maybe I’m just prolonging the inevitable, but sometimes it’s just hard to say goodbye.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which was provided to us by Sega.
Although the game sports a few bothersome hiccups, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life ultimately serves as a near-perfect send-off for the Dragon of Dojima after years of delivering bloody knuckles and scarfing Smile Burgers.