No matter how many movies they’ve seen, or albums they’ve listened to, or video games they’ve played, every fan dedicated to a particular genre of entertainment has their points of shame—those specific things that they’ve never experienced when it seems like everyone else in the universe has. In the thirty-plus years that I’ve loved Japanese gaming (since first being introduced to the country’s efforts on the NES and Sega Master System), I’ve played countless releases, series, and franchises—but, somehow, have never played a single Yakuza game.
Given that Sega’s long-running franchise based around Japan’s criminal underworld has been one of those things that people like me have talked about, begged for, and obsessed over across the years, I knew at some point that I’d have to make things right by finally sitting down with one of Yakuza’s chapters. However, where I had thought that would come from with what seemed to be the most sensible place to start—last year’s Yakuza 0—that experience would instead come from the complete opposite end of the saga with Yakuza 6.
Initially, this might seem like a bad place to start for newcomers such as myself. When the game kicks off, we’re obviously deep into a saga that’s been rolling along for years, and our protagonist Kazuma Kiryu is just getting out of jail for—something? Finally freed, Kiryu looks to have a life away from the yakuza down in Okinawa with the kids from the orphanage he owns and the young woman he sees almost as a daughter, Haruka. Of course, retiring to a more tropical part of Japan wouldn’t make for much of a story, so it’s quickly revealed that Haruka has been missing for three years, only to show up right after Kiryu’s release as the victim of a hit-and-run—where’s she found clutching an infant son.
Thus kicks off Kiryu’s adventures in Yakuza 6 as he tries to piece together who was targeting Haruka, where she had been during his time in prison, and who is the father of her son Haruto—all while attempting (and failing) to avoid becoming re-involved in Kamurocho’s seedy underbelly. (He doubly fails at this attempt to just be an “average citizen” when he also crosses paths with the yakuza of Onomichi, an area of Hiroshima that serves as a secondary setting in Kiryu’s search for the truth.)
At first, I had planned to use the “catching you up with the Yakuza series” option that’s offered on Yakuza 6’s main menu, but I couldn’t even make it through the recap of the original Yakuza. For a series that’s so known for its cinematic nature and cutscenes, why would such an option be little more than just page after page of text? When you’re presenting so much backstory, so many characters, and so many other details to try to remember, I think this was an incredibly poor way to go about doing so. Instead, I decided to just dive straight in—and ended up having little problem doing so. For most of the characters or narrative beats that connect to past chapters, it really only took a few lines of dialog or a quick cutscene to hammer home why they were important. Other than that, Yakuza 6—at least from every impression I got—tells a mostly separate, self-contained tale that sees Kiryu put into an almost outsider’s position when placed in this more modern world.
And that, really, was one of the most compelling elements to Yakuza 6 for me. The Kamurocho we see here is one that’s moved on without Kiryu during his time away, and Onomichi is a place that has little reason to care about who the “Dragon of Dojima” is in the first place. In fact, Kiryu is generally treated as an old man past his prime—both in terms of his physical and leadership power—and that makes him a fascinating character to me. Kiryu is a legend in this world, but not one that has any direct place in it at this point, and as a newcomer, it’s almost more interesting (for now) to hear of his legacy through other characters in the game without having actually seen it. Rather than being a man I’ve helped to reach this point over many, many long years, Kiryu is instead a myth, something almost larger than life.
In that, I came to love Kiryu far more than I could ever have imagined. He’s just so damn cool—someone who walks that delicate line between being relatable and being untouchable. Kiryu is of a character type that’s so easy to get wrong, because it’s hard to give someone the “badass” personality that he has without them feeling disconnected from those around them on an emotional level. It’s also very dangerous to create an “unbeatable” hero due to the fear that your story will become boring from the lack of any sense of real threat or potential loss. (See the later Die Hard movies as a perfect example.) And yet, I loved knowing that Kiryu would always win. The thrill didn’t come in wondering if he could beat the next major challenge or not, it came in wondering just how many of Kiryu’s punches would land on his foe’s faces in reaching the fight’s conclusion.
Kiryu does have one weakness, but it has nothing to do with the man himself: Yakuza 6’s fighting engine. To be clear, I’m not saying that it’s bad, and I enjoyed pummeling enemies from the lowest thugs up to the most dangerous of bosses all of the way through my 27-some hours of playtime. The problem is, most of the time, the combat just doesn’t display the level of style or attitude that the rest of the game exudes. In a tale of criminals waging war with one another, where street punks battle sharply-dressed hitmen for control of the streets of Japan, Yakuza 6’s combat isn’t nearly as raw or as brutal as it should. This is a game where I feel like combat should both satisfy me on a primal level while also bothering me a bit on a more civilized one, yet that feeling just isn’t there.
This also comes into play because the game’s combat lacks the necessary amount of weight and complexity to make you feel like you’re fighting for your life against men who are seriously out to stop (or even kill) you. While playing Yakuza 6, two other games came to mind—The Last of Us and the new God of War—and I kept wishing the team at Sega had crafted something that blended a more dynamic combat system, where how Kiryu hits his opponents can vary greatly on things like positioning and the surrounding environment, with punches and kicks that have more weight behind them. In most others games, I’d just happily mash buttons in a combat system similar to Yakuza 6’s without any real complaints; here, I just wanted something more.
Speaking of more, while Kiryu shines brightly as the center of Yakuza’s story, nearly everyone around him had a valuable part to play—and it’s rare that I’ve come to love an entire supporting cast as much as I did here. From old friends like Sky Finance’s Akiyama and Detective Makoto Date, to newcomers like Onomichi’s Hirose family and bar “mama” Kiyomi Kasahara, nearly every side character endeared themselves to me not because that’s simply what the game wanted, but because their personalities and stories made them compelling. Heck, even little Haruto won me over in those times that he was in Kiryu’s care, when having to look after a virtual baby could have been a miserable experience. (Of course, in my case, it probably didn’t hurt that I’m just four months into being a new parent.)
Backing up the cast in Yakuza 6 is a narrative that had far more of an emotional impact on me than I could ever have expected. I came into the game expecting your typical yakuza drama, and while it certainly is that on some level, the story also has many more layers to it, giving it a surprising amount of depth. Saying that Yakuza 6 is about Japanese mafia families is like saying that Star Wars is about the Jedi—sure, they’re a central part of the story, and the driving force behind the events that are taking place, but there’s much more involved than just people running around with lightsabers. What added to this for me was that each of the game’s chapters plays out very much like a Japanese television drama, with the same kinds of storyline beats, revelations, characters, introductions, and episode cliffhangers. As a longtime J-drama fan, I really couldn’t get over the feeling that I was back in Osaka watching the latest season of a show play out, which especially hits home for anyone who recognizes the real-life acting talent that voices—and lends their faces with amazing results to—the cast. Oh hey, I’m sitting here talking to Beat Takeshi while he eats ice cream! And now I’m in a back alley beating up Hiroyuki Miyasako from Japanese comedy duo Ameagari!
And this, really, is where I think the Yakuza series can lose people (such as my coworker Nick Plessas when he reviewed Yakuza 0)—and I completely understand why. Yakuza 6 often feels more like story interspersed with game than it does game interspersed with story, and when those long cutscenes play out, they’re very Japanese not only in theme but also narrative style. I think it could be easy for some to find them boring, or drawn-out, or overly dramatic, but as a J-drama fan, man did I love every minute of them. I was so invested in what was going on with the events of the story and its characters, and there were numerous times where I had real emotional reactions to what was taking place, from being on the verge of tears during a few key scenes to feeling legitimate hatred for particular characters in others. (And boy could I say a few things about how JRPGs could learn a lot from Yakuza when it comes to presenting a lot of storytelling while also not wasting my time with unbearable drivel pretending to be exposition.)
There absolutely is gameplay in Yakuza 6—more than just that fighting Kiryu and company will get into—but what I found was that the game only gives you as much as you work to get from it. If you want to beeline through the streets of Kamurocho and Onomichi as you rush from one storyline beat to the next, you should be able to do that without too much trouble. Take time to stop and look around each area, though, and you’ll find a lot more to see and do. One of the things I expected coming into Yakuza 6 was a diverse roster of mini games, and they’re definitely here, from helping out a baseball team, to net cafes where you can engage in some hilarious “adult” chat with camgirls, to working with a personal trainer on specific diet and exercise routines, to the at-one-point-in-time “too hot for Americans” adventures at the local hostess club, to even overseeing large-scale clan-based street battles. On one end of the spectrum, I ended up being kind of disappointed with my trips to sing some karaoke; on the other end, my brain still cannot comprehend the local arcades offering up a roster-complete two-player version of Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown for no extra real-world cash.
Of course, there’s also the various missions you’ll find scattered between both cities, which can range from the typical kind of side quest you’d find in a game based around the yakuza, to some truly fantastical situations that I won’t spoil here. What I really appreciated was that missions aren’t just offered up to you—you have to find them, or sometimes even understand that you’re seeing the start of a new mission once you do. There’s a lot hidden in the streets of Kamurocho and Onomichi if you go looking for it, and to be honest, there’s still a few things that I know lead to a mission or new mini games that I’ve yet to figure out how to properly unlock.
On that, though, there were a few scattered moments where I felt like there was supposed to be something more that I might be missing, something that I either just didn’t understand or hadn’t discovered in all of my time playing. One of the biggest signs of this for me was, after about the first hour or so, I seemed to almost never need money. I mean, there definitely were things to spend yen on for side reasons—making my cute Japanese cabaret club sweethearts Erina and Hikaru happy doesn’t come cheap, you know—but my bank account seemed to be growing exponentially faster than I could spend it. To be fair, though, I’m the type of person to not use a lot of recovery items in games, and I found almost no reason to muck with most of the equipment offered up in Yakuza 6, so maybe that’s where all of my money was supposed to be going.
There’s one final point that I’d like to touch on, but it’s one that I’ll admit I can’t talk about as much as I’d like to: the game engine as a whole. From my understanding, Yakuza 6 is running on new tech called the Dragon Engine, which brings upgrades such as, for example, being able to seamlessly enter and exit buildings without encountering any kind of loading screen. Having not played the previous games, I can’t confirm that they had those points of loading when going from outside to inside (or vice versa); I can say, however, that I never had to give a second thought to darting in and out of buildings, as if everything did just exist there as one giant open world. While things seem to run great for the most part, I did encounter moments here and there where issues like screen tearing would pop up (which was especially prevalent indoors)—outside of a few instances of feeling a little queasy, though, for the most part those issues didn’t greatly affect my enjoyment of the game. Also, in doing some research, it seems the move to a new tech engine may explain why some previous mini games (such as bowling) are non-existent, while others rely more on quicktime-style button prompts versus direct input.
If you’re a long-time Yakuza fan, it’s nearly impossible for me to tell you how Yakuza 6 compares to the previous games in the series, or even be able to judge what you’ll think of it at the end of the day given the hopes and expectations you’ll no doubt bring with it. Let’s be real, though: hardcore fans have already pre-ordered their copies, and will be swayed little no matter what I (or any other reviewer) say. So, then, let me speak to those out there who have never played a Yakuza game, or those who have a casual interest in the series but weren’t sure if jumping back in with this seventh chapter was the best idea.
After somehow avoiding the series for 12-plus years, I’m really kicking myself for having taken so long to play my first Yakuza game—but I’m also kind of happy that I did so with Yakuza 6. This—perhaps final—tale of the legendary Kazuma Kiryu in his later years was as captivating for its story of a man’s struggle against the pull of the criminal underworld as it was touching for its tale of a man fighting to protect the people in his life that he cares most about. It’s a movie as much as it is a video game, and while neither of those pieces are perfect, each is made stronger by relying on the other for support. Even though it tells a story that comes late in the Yakuza saga, it’s still a perfect place to have your first experience like I did—except that, like me, you may walk away from it torn on if you now want to go back and play all of the previous games as well, or if it’s better to leave them as the legend you’ll have now built up in your head.
It’s taken me a long time to experience the Yakuza series, but Yakuza 6 makes me so thankful that I finally have. The insurmountable badass Kazuma Kiryu is surrounded by a fantastic cast of characters and some gripping drama—it’s just a shame that the “game” portion of this video game isn’t quite what it could be. Still, this is a superb adventure from beginning to end, and further proof of the magic that Japanese developers can weave when they put their minds to it.
M – Mature
|Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is available on PlayStation 4. Primary version played was for PlayStation 4. Product was provided by Sega for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI. Check her out on Twitter and Mastodon.