Yakuza 6: The Song of Life (PlayStation 4 Review)
A brand new Yakuza release is like taking a vacation back to visit some friends in an old, familiar town. Almost annually, the cityscape changes with new developments. Your old friends have been busy, and it’s nice to catch up. Maybe we’ll even get caught up in their hijinks, or maybe we’ll just spend some time bonding at the karaoke. Whatever the case, some things have changed a little with Yakuza 6: The Song of Life. There’s a sombre air surrounding the familiar town of Kamurocho. It’s uncertain if we’ll be back here, because our friends are now moving on and this is the last time we’ll see them.
That opening may seem a little dramatic. The western release may not be confirmed, but there still remains a remake of Yakuza 2 on the horizon. All the same, Yakuza 6’s narrative really drives home that this will be the final new story featuring the charismatic series protagonist, Kazuma Kiryu. Much of the storyline for the first Yakuza is echoed here, accompanied by the sense of finality. Kiryu is faced not just with the consequences his presence has had on the city and others, but with the danger of his own legend as well. In his wake, allies face similar tribulations as Kiryu’s own story, and the protagonist can only watch on. Ultimately, Yakuza 6 is somewhat a character study of the aging Kiryu, celebrating his impact—his legacy—on the series at large. Though the narrative serves to provide opportunities for Kiryu to face himself in the mirror, the traditionally complex mysteries found in the franchise still remain.
After spending three years behind bars, the now free Kazuma Kiryu is learns that his adopted daughter—Haruka Sawamura—has gone missing. A short investigation in Kamurocho uncovers the tragic hit-and-run that left her in critical condition, leading the protagonist to the discovery that Haruka became a mother during his sentence. The hunt for baby Haruto Sawamura’s father becomes the protagonist’s core motivation throughout the story. Through his quest, Kiryu finds himself in the sleepy Hiroshima town of Onomichi where he befriends the loveably endearing Hirose yakuza family. As with any Yakuza title, the mystery becomes so much more than its premise would lead players to believe. There’s plenty of conspiracies, political intrigue, and dramatic revelations that ensure the title still feels like it’s been taken straight from a TV drama. There’s even some strong comedy scattered throughout, without the mood whiplash that often follows such tonal shifts. Director Toshihiro Nagoshi is a master of blending tones and bringing characters to life.
Before focusing on the gameplay, it’s worth noting the performances on display here. Takaya Kuroda delivers an incredibly human and empathetic performance as the leading man, Kazuma Kiryu. While the support cast bring their characters to life to a degree that might shame most movie and television performances, Takeshi Kitano is especially noteworthy as Toru Hirose. It’s hard not to be drawn to him, much like his yakuza crew. The title features some incredible facial motion capture that enables the cast to truly embody their characters. Even a cursory exposure to Japanese film and TV will lead to some familiar faces. I’ll repeat my earlier sentiment: Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is like a TV serial in most every respect and it’s wonderful.
In contrast to the sombre atmosphere, Yakuza 6’s gameplay is still cartoonishly violent. In fact, it’s perhaps more cartoonish than previous iterations. With a new physics engine, Kiryu is able to bounce around his opponents with tremendous force. There’s something cathartic about just launching violent gangsters and yakuza through the air. While combat actions are fairly limited, Kiryu has enough options to make him flexible in most any situations. Additionally, the protagonist is able to take advantage of almost any nearby object as a weapon, provided it can fit in his hands. There’s a smaller selection than the previous titles—no pliers, fish, or mystery drugs can be found this time—but they’re still as brutal as ever. At least, until they break. Similarly, there appears to be less Heat Actions—violent contextual attacks that often provide a moment of respite—but those aren’t any less visceral and rewarding.
When taking a break from the story or combat, players can enjoy a wide range of minigames. The selection, much like Kamurocho itself, feels a little bit stripped down compared to previous releases. The overall scope of Yakuza 6 seems larger, offering better motion and physics in and out-of combat, but this seems to be at the cost of the overall quantity in the game. Some locations are closed for repairs or development, obscured by scaffolding, while others remain inaccessible. Players may not be able to enjoy bowling anymore, but there are still a range of new minigames introduced by the title. Staples like the karaoke, mahjong, cabaret clubs, SEGA arcades, and batting cages continue to remain, but particular focus surrounds the Rizap bodybuilding and the simple RTS-styled Clan Creator games. Onomichi is also host to both an on-the-rails shooter spearfishing minigame, and a baseball management minigame. There are still others that have been excluded from my list too. The point is, there may feel like less to toy with, but there’s still a great breadth of options of which many are fun.
Honestly, Yakuza 0 was the first in the series to provide a real sense of synergy between the character progression and the game’s systems. That’s continued here. While the 1980’s bubble economy has burst, players can freely spend experience points on any stats or actions they want. Additionally, these experience points are split into five different categories, such as Agility or Technique—each often be accrued differently. For example, the baseball minigames are a great way to obtain Technique points, or the Clan Creator will reward players with a lot of Charm points. Of course, combat rewards different points as well. Every possible action in the game serves to bolster Kiryu’s own repertoire of skills. Additionally, players can further enhance skills with the equipment found in the game. Yakuza 6’s range of content isn’t just a fun experience, it’s rewarding as well.
In this regard, exploration of both Kamurocho and Onomichi can be rather gratifying. While littered with minigames and restaurants, both locations also feature various sidequests. Some come in the form of trouble missions—randomly occurring side content that can involve putting out fires or beating up bad people. Others come in the form of side quests that can often be described as pastiche. This is where players familiar with the franchise can enjoy some cameos from recurring characters. A personal favourite is the return of the Pocket Circuit Fighter character from Yakuza 0 and Kiwami. There’s some good comedy to be found, but there’s also some moments of reflection as Kiryu falls behind on technology and the rapid changes that have taken place in three years. It’s a real shame, but this leads to where the game’s struggle to match its scope is really felt.
At its peak, Yakuza 6 is incredibly emotional. For returning players, there’s almost a bond shared with characters born out of familiarity. Fans have shared the highs and the lows with the cast, and it’s a real loss that many memorable characters are left in the backseat. The title takes an opportunity to have a fresh start in Onomichi, but a last meaningful moment in the main story wouldn’t have been remiss. To some degree, this sentiment also extends to Kamurocho—a city that somehow feels smaller despite the increased exploration options provided by Kiryu’s new ability to navigate it. It’s an intimate, richly dense location, but players are no longer able to overhear pedestrian banter or interact with the wandering NPCs. Some old landmarks are no longer accessible. Despite that, the freer access to the city’s interiors may feel like a fair trade-off when players are shoving thugs into microwaves as they trash convenience stores. City exploration has never been so fluid and unrestricted—a sentiment that’s a little paradoxical given the loss of some areas.
At its heart, regardless of its flaws, the title is a very honest and emotional send-off for the series’ iconic lead. At times, it may feel unfulfilling. Sometimes it’s just hard to say goodbye, and we can’t get everything we want from a farewell, but Yakuza 6: The Song of Life does it with great grace. It’s hard to imagine a Kamurocho without Kazuma Kiryu, but it’s a damn satisfying conclusion to his arc.