It has been roughly two years since Yakuza 6: Song of Life was released in Japan. This is also the time since Yakuza 5 was first released in the West. This timeline meant that I was simultaneously playing one of the greatest open world games I had ever played while watching trailers and eagerly anticipating the sequel. I tried to avoid spoilers as best I could, but when a friend of mine told me she had just finished the Japanese version of Yakuza 6 herself, I asked her for her general impression. "Ehhh," she said, "you'll see"
Despite its numerical value, Yakuza 6 is the seventh game in the Yakuza series. These open world games see you running around various locations in Japan and beating up different kinds of roughnecks who challenge you in the streets. They center around the story of the series' main protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, a former member of the Yakuza with a strong sense of morality for what is right. Since Yakuza 4, the series has been opening up and introducing new locations beyond Tokyo's fictional Kamurocho. It has also added new protagonists, all the way up to Yakuza 5's whopping five playable characters and six different locations. As the final chapter in Kiryu's story, how does Yakuza 6 stack up in terms of scale?
To put things simply Yakuza 6 has taken things right back to basics. You will see more in common between Yakuza 6 and the recent remake of the original Yakuza game than recent entries such as Yakuza 5 or Yakuza 0. It has gone back to its origins with Kiryu as its only playable character. Most of the action is set in series staple Kamurocho, though they have added Onomichi as a second location for good measure. As the final part of Kiryu's adventure, it fits to center all of the action around him. We don't take time to discover other characters motivations or individual stories. All the spotlight is on Kiryu, as it should be. This helps balance the game's narrative. With five protagonists to cover, Yakuza 5's story was bloated and fragmented. Yakuza 6 focuses in on a tight and interesting narrative which follows Kiryu's personal story.
Following a three year stint in jail, Kiryu leaves to find that his surrogate daughter Haruka has left her home in Okinawa. While searching for her back in his old stomping ground of Kamurocho, he discovers that she has become the victim of a hit and run and that she lies in a coma. Not only this, but Haruka has a child named Haruto who was saved by her in the accident. In searching for Haruto's father, Kiryu finds a trail that leads to the sleepy seaside town of Onomichi and a small local Yakuza family within Hiroshima's Yomei alliance. The story of Haruto's lineage is shrouded in mystery as Kiryu discovers that he's not the only one searching for his absent father. Soon, he's on the trail of why Haruto is so important to the Yakuza, and how he is linked to the great secret that Onomichi is hiding.
While expansive Yakuza based stories are not something that everyone can relate to, the key themes here are easy to connect with. The main theme is family. Whether it is Kiryu's connection to Haruka or the connection that the Yakuza family feels as fathers, sons, and brothers, there is something here for everyone to relate to. While the Yakuza always seem to get involved with him, Kiryu's adventure begins as a purely personal one far away from organized criminal involvement. His struggle to keep his family safe despite his past is a touching one that both fans and newcomers can enjoy.
In fact, I feel that newcomers to the series will have a better time with Yakuza 6 overall. Yakuza 6 introduces a cast of new and enjoyable characters. From Beat Takeshi's friendly yet mysterious Yakuza patriarch Toru Hirose to Tatsuya Fujiwara's fresh-faced Yuta Usami and loveable ape Tsuyoshi Nagumo, each new face adds to the deep storytelling. They are all well written, and while it is their first outing in the Yakuza series their characters are so detailed that you feel as if you know them instantly.
However, these new characters come at the price of the old. Series favorites, Majima and Saejima are only featured briefly in the opening and closing cutscenes. Haruka spends most of her appearance here in a coma. Similarly, Kiryu's successor as chairman Dojima spends most of his time in jail. Old friend Akiyama appears in a few missions but is largely missing from the main story. The only old character we see a lot of apart from Kiryu is friendly cop Date. While I can understand the developer choosing to showcase a new story and not shoehorn in old characters, I can't say I wasn't disappointed. As this is Kiryu's last outing in the Yakuza games, it is not unrealistic to expect it might be the final appearance of many of these popular characters connected to him. It would have been nice to say goodbye to these characters with a flourish, just as we could for Kiryu.
I will say that the ending is one of the best things about the story in Yakuza 6. When players have connected with a character for so long, particularly one as enduring as Kazuma Kiryu it's difficult to write him out of the series in a way that ensures that he won't be coming back. Yakuza 6 pulls this off perfectly giving Kiryu the ending he deserves and allowing players to say goodbye to him proudly. I don't want to spoil it here, but I'm sure series veterans will find it fitting of his character.
The thing that disappointed me most with the simplification of Yakuza 6 was the changes to gameplay. In Yakuza Kiwami, Kiryu has four different fighting styles to switch between at will during battle. This meant that you could change up your strategy in order to defeat all manner of foes. Yakuza 6 arms Kiryu with just his standard Dragon fighting style, which is fun, but lacks the variety of previous games. The goofy heat moves return complete with fun animations, but they are simpler to pull off. One technique you start with consists of seven quick time events every time. If you can pull it off, it will half a boss' health in one shot. They've also replaced the skill tree with skill points that can be spent on anything from health and attack power to new techniques and speed boosts. All forms of leveling up in Yakuza 6 are left in the player's hands, which encourages you to indiscriminately feed EXP into whatever is available to you.
As we only have one playable protagonist and just two playable locations, naturally Yakuza 6 is a lot shorter than its numerical predecessor. The main story in Yakuza 6's campaign can be played out in under 20 hours to Yakuza 5s 40-50 hour marathon. Yakuza 6 maintains Yakuza's strong tradition of bolstering content through side missions and subplots, but I don't feel that it has really added much from previous entries. The quirky side missions are still here, whether it is opening your own cat cafe, romancing hostesses or following drones and they will still give players a much-needed chuckle. However, the two new editions to Yakuza 6's sub stories are both a little mediocre.
The first is Troublr, an app which tells you about people in need around the city. You simply go to the spot, assist the person with an item or through beating away threats, and receive a thank you text for your help. This annoying app seems to go off every few minutes, playing an alert through your controller complete with vibration every time. You only get a little EXP in return for your help, and it feels like this was added in more for padding than anything else.
The second is the clan system. In this main subplot, you must assist a gang as they take down their citizen terrorizing rivals. Instead of playing like a brawler, these sections resemble a strategy game in which you deploy troops to take down the enemy. While I welcome a shift in style from the standard gameplay, I don't like how this aspect of the game was forced into the main plot. You only have to participate once, as an introduction to the system, but I still feel it should have been left as optional. This system didn't really interest me, but I can see players really enjoying the change of pace.
Overall, Yakuza 6 is a very good game with a well-written narrative and some fun boss battles and side missions to play through. However, it's not a very good Yakuza game. The key formula to all Yakuza games is still here, with quirky combat, a fun story and great characters in a big open world playground, but it is so stripped bare compared to Yakuza 5 that I can't help but look upon it negatively. While I still enjoyed my time playing Yakuza 6, I feel like my fun was severely cut short by its brief main storyline, and I missed my favorite characters dearly. However, newcomers to the series will fail to see what Yakuza 6 could have been and will have a great time exploring this unique series.
Our Yakuza 6: The Song of Life review was conducted on PlayStation 4 with a copy provided by the publisher. The game will be released on April 17th, 2018.
Yakuza 6 is a great game because it's a Yakuza game, but it's not a great Yakuza game. It still has the great brawler action the series is known for, and a tight put together story. However, the tightening of the narrative in no ways makes up for all the great things I missed out on from the previous game.
- A Great End to Kiryu's Adventures
- Tight Narrative Focus
- Interesting New Characters
- Combat Lacks Variety
- Missing Beloved Characters
- Lacking Content