Life goes on; that is a fact. Japan’s latest—perhaps greatest—modern samurai-hero Kazuma Kiryu has been taking players on a punching tour through meticulously crafted neighborhoods for more than ten years, through thick and thin. From the bountiful lands of the late PS2 to the struggle of the HD era on PS3, and now the resurgence of Japanese hits on the PS4, Kiryu has survived them all.
Akin to 2017’s sad superhero flick Logan, however, time has caught up with the honourable ex-yakuza. At one point perhaps, he could have defied aging like James Bond or Spiderman: ever only a reboot away from new life. However, the legacy option is never quite as satisfying—especially for a character who already felt old fashioned, as an honest man and career criminal with a heart of gold. Seeing Kiryu grow and change, having to deal with the ever-shifting landscape of the underworld, but also with becoming the patriarch of his own family (criminal and not), is far more interesting a premise for his swansong.
Yakuza 6: The Song of Life will surely ruffle the feathers of the series fandom, but ultimately, it is a fitting end to a powerful character’s story and a bold new step for SEGA. The title eschews much of the expansion and heft associated with the PS3 games, while never becoming disillusioned or grim in the vein of True Grit or Logan. Instead, players can expect another action-packed saga of new blood, old friends and enemies, the challenges of parenthood and finding some measure of peace; one that still manages to carry the hilarious charm of its predecessors.
Yakuza 0, the previous main entry in SEGA’s epic gangster drama, was undoubtedly the series’s Final Fantasy VII. The game attracted new fans with its flashy 1980s setting and two-threaded origin story for the series’s OG rivalry between Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima. At the same time, as a critical darling and unexpected sales success, Yakuza 0 became part of 2017’s greatest redemption narrative. 0 helped prove (along with Nier: Automata and Persona 5) that idiosyncratic adventures from classic Japanese developers could still hold their own in the headlines and on the charts.
Yakuza 6 has a lot to live up to—but its modus operandi was never one-upping its immediate predecessor. At this point, the series has already evolved immensely: from an action-packed gangster movie in the first to an enormous RPG taking place across multiple Japanese cities in Yakuza 5, with several spin-offs between for good measure. Any bigger and the whole affair would be unwieldy, as with later Assassin’s Creed games.
Similar to the very next Final Fantasy game then, Final Fantasy VIII (and arguably Assassin’s Creed Origins), fans of the ongoing series will be divided on Yakuza 6 and its different approach. However, like the aforementioned games, just because 6 will be divisive with fans does not mean it cannot be an outstanding entry point for new players and an excellent, even touching, experience. Even as an ‘eight’, Yakuza 6 is still far from a ‘thirteen’ (ask a Final Fantasy fan about that).
With a brand new graphics engine and improved flow between exploration, cinematics, and battle, Yakuza is finally realised in true current-generation presentation alongside other recent Japanese open-world titles such as Metal Gear Solid V and Final Fantasy XV. Unlike the PS3 entries, 6‘s visuals are much more consistent throughout. Characters blend into their environment, rather than standing out like action figures. The always well-crafted cinematics now play with shadow and light more realistically, too, and loading times on the base PS4 are very quick.
Alongside the significant visual overhaul, the game continues to boast the engaging story and blistering brawler action the series is known for, but now with a more inviting presentation. Any fan of open-world games should give Yakuza a shot now, as the series’s mix of humour, action, and crime drama supports a universe of interesting side-missions, loveable characters, and in-depth minigames.
As in its predecessors, the game stars Kazuma Kiryu, former yakuza and adoptive father of Haruka Sawamura, former pop idol. Before this summary starts sounding like the densest plot recap of a television drama in its seventh season on air, rest assured that entries in the Yakuza series mostly stand alone, and essential information is communicated through the story or background information that is easily accessible in-game.
An awful lot has happened to Kiryu and Haruka in the decade since the first game, but those other stories are for other times. In this case, Yakuza 6 is the perfect fade-out, a definitive ending to complement the introduction in Yakuza Kiwami last year. No character-switching nor impending doomsday (though the game still gets wacky enough) is present, and the relatively small open world drops down from five zones in Yakuza 5 to two.
Changes to the combat system will be the most divisive for long-time fans. The “fighting styles” introduced in Yakuza 0 have been removed, but so have the arbitrary walls that go up whenever Kiryu is attacked on the street. Rather than teleporting to a small box in some parallel dimension for fights, everything takes place on the same map. This technology trade-off is worthwhile for now, but those who miss the fighting styles will still prefer the approach that Kiwami and 0 took.
As for the story, the writing in Yakuza 6, and the English localisation for that matter, are both top-notch. Unlike the farcical Far Cry or Grand Theft Auto series, Yakuza takes its world seriously, even given its sometimes riotous humour. Like a great Agatha Christie mystery, the characters are heightened, but not superheroes; funny, but not flippant; serious and yet often self-aware. Taking centre stage in Yakuza 6 are the guitar twangs and country bumpkins of Onomichi, a fictional town in Hiroshima, making for an excellent contrast to the series’s typical bustling centre of Kamurocho.
This sleepy seaside town serves to highlight Kiryu’s frame of mind as he unravels the mystery at the heart of the game, suggesting the sort of settled-down life that he might one day have wished for. At the same time, Onomichi’s bottom-rung street punks and youngest yakuza initiates wish for greater things—like travelling to the big city—with a verve that recalls the fire that still burns deep within Kiryu. Life goes on, and Yakuza 6 does its best to show that; even though it may be an end for Kazuma Kiryu (whatever that means, ultimately), the world keeps spinning. All the character can do is pass on what he knows to the next generation.
A generation, mind you, that will be coming sooner than might be expected since the next entry to the series is already on its way. Even at the pace of always releasing new games, SEGA has taken a moment to slow down and properly conclude the tale for one of its most popular characters.
Yakuza 6 is another standout entry in the most fascinating series of this renaissance of Japanese video games. The game is better than the already great Yakuza Kiwami that released late last year and is possessed of a profound, yet silly, tone that fans of the Metal Gear and Final Fantasy games of old will love. Adherents of previous games might be blindsided by the game’s sole focus on Kazuma Kiryu, but the long-striving Dragon of Dojima is deserving of some sort of conclusion. The series has seen more sprawling and fully-featured entries—including the upcoming remake of Yakuza 2, which will see a greater focus on Majima’s ongoing story—but that cannot detract from the enjoyment to be had saying goodbye to one of Japanese games’ best ambassadors.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4.