Before jumping into Sega/Atlus Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, I had only started with last year’s Yakuza 0 prequel. Years of playing Grand Theft Auto, True Crime, and other games of the open world criminal genre let me foolishly believe I grasped the premise right away. Crime guy becomes the anti-hero through doing crimey things. But as you’ll see, once you get through the dense stratosphere of Yakuza 6’s violent premise, there’s an entire world of incredible storytelling permeating in a satisfying end for the Dragon of Dojima.
YAKUZA 6: The Song of Life
Developed by: SEGA
Published by: SEGA
Available for: PlayStation 4
Release Date: (North America, Europe) April 17, 2018
Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is a semi-open world game and one of the few examples of scenarios where martial arts actually solves problems. You play as Kazuma Kiryu, former member of the Tojo Clan of Yakuzas. Kiryu is fresh out of a three-year prison stint and just wants to see his adopted niece Haruka Sawamura. Things don’t exactly go to plan. While on the run with a baby of her own Haruka is put in a coma after an out of control car nearly kills her. Kiryu not only seeks the driver responsible for his family’s condition but must also seek answers as to who the father of Haruka’s baby is. This will lead him down a road flanked by the ghosts of his past.
Like any good TV drama series, the quest for retribution and baby daddy answers is an overarching story that umbrellas a mountain of subplots which hover over even more mini events. We’ll talk about the game’s vault of mini-activities in a bit but let’s finish talking about how good Kiryu’s story is. Exploring themes of parenthood, aging, and family legacies; this hero’s journey leads to some dicey Japanese missions that bring him back in touch with a former life of crime. You’ll do a lot of punching and kicking to establish a new clan, track down former yakuza brothers, and punish the invading Chinese triad.
Kiryu as a character is like stone come to life. By design, he’s stoic, calm demeanor, and always cool. Until you piss him off. Something inside this man opens to unleash the fury of a Van Damme from the 90’s. When the time comes, players will get to open up a cup o’ whoop ass on street thugs, triad members, even other yakuza in simple button combination combat. The level of hand-to-hand combat violence in this series has always been incredible, but Yakuza 6 managed to downplay it in a way that blends better with the story. Think of what zombies are to The Walking Dead, something that’s always there but only used when necessary. When one of the thugs came at Kiryu with a knife, I disarmed him and smashed it through his sternum with a knee strike. Another instance saw our protagonist body slam a sandwich board sign picked up off the street onto an attacking Yakuza.
Kazuma Kiryu is called the Dragon of Dojima and for good reason. He’s fierce but above all else, he has a presence that commands the audience’s attention. If you’ve never played a Yakuza game there’s several ways you’ll be caught up with the character’s story through recaps viewable at your leisure. For us who love our backstory in comic book form, Sega has you covered with free digital interactive comics to read that touch on the events of previous games (http://yakuza.sega.com/experience/comic). As digital comics go, they’re incredibly well done. Though we do stress there’s little intimidation to simply jumping into Yakuza 6 because its themes are incredibly grounded and its main character is rigid for the right reasons.
What the Yakuza series has done better than any game on the market, and exemplified in the sixth numbered installment, is the design of its setting. Open world games such as Assassins Creed have become a trend in gaming today, but often developers mistake size for substance leading to big open worlds that end up feeling empty. Yakuza 6 reuses its setting from previous games and that’s not a bad thing. The developer has densely populated the streets of Kamurocho with graphics card taxing people that react to our character. Not only that, but almost every corner of the city has sub-activities that open up new story paths. Kiryu will find gyms to train in, batting cages, internet cafes, karaoke bars, and more which will provide dozens of hours worth of activities to play through. The variety of mini-game you can play is staggering with one of the highlights being a social simulator where you’ll attempt to become a regular at a bar by choosing the right dialogue answers to conversations. It may not sound exciting but the writing in the particular part is surprisingly well thought out, crafting a quirky story of its own. Above all else, befriend stray cats whenever you can in the game. They’ll lead you to a CAT CAFE! You’re welcome.
The game also has the second city of Onomichi, Hiroshima to explore. Compared to the neon and tech of Kamurocho, Onomichi’s warm sunlight and small-town feel give it a stark but relaxing contrast. This new area will present stories and challenges of its own from playing baseball to unlocking a brand new strategy based mini-game where you’ll control your own gang pieces in a real time strategy simulator that plays out like a simple chess game.
Hundreds of tiny “this is awesome” things fill out the game. If you’re a fan of Japanese culture you’ll pick up on many of the touches such as legendary actor/director Takeshi Kitano playing the head of an Onomichi clan or New Japan Pro-Wrestling stars Kazuchika Okada and Tetsuya Naito making appearances as leaders of a street gang called Justis. I’ve only spent about 20 hours with Yakuza 6 to finish the game’s main story but I have yet to complete half of what it offers.
Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is an exquisite acquired taste. The form of storytelling it takes is slow and very Japanese. If you get hooked into the game’s story early you’ll spend long periods of time not pushing any buttons as some of the cutscenes are incredibly long. Then there are the moments where it feels as though its gone off the rails. I understand Japan has its own kink subculture but the character portrayed in Yakuza doesn’t seem to lend himself to being exposed to things like internet chats with young scantily clad girls. It’s a minor complaint here that can be chalked up to “you do you, Japan”.
Overall, Yakuza 6 is a powerful and packed story that bids farewell to an honorable throwback of a character. Whether you’re new to the series or have followed the Dragon of Dojima for years, this is something worth checking out when it arrives on the PlayStation 4 in April.
8/10- Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is a modern day Ikiru, quote me on that SEGA.