It has been over a year since the Japanese release of Yakuza 6: The Song of Life in Japan. Yet, good things come to those who wait, and this is definitely the case with Kazuma Kiryu’s last adventure.
We have known for a long while that the sixth chapter of the series would be Kiryu’s sendoff, and while I obviously won’t tell you how it happens, I can definitely say that it’s a worthy and fond farewell.
Before I go on, I have to bring up a relevant disclaimer: the Yakuza series has been an extremely relevant part of my life as a gamer and as a person. For the past twelve years, Kazuma Kiryu has been like a friend that has grown up together with me, has shown me a perspective on life that was foreign but respectable, has made me smile, laugh, cry, and sometimes even cringe a little bit. He even helped me to learn some important lessons.
The series helped spark and consistently fueled my love for Japan, as I saw with my own eyes Kabukicho (the real counterpart of the game’s Kamurocho) change and evolve in real life (partly for the better, and partly for the worse) exactly as it did on the screen.
While I’m writing with the purpose of being as objective as possible, you should keep this in mind as you read, as I’m holding back tears even as I write this review. Call me a crybaby if you will, but I feel that’s a testament to the value of the series as a whole, and of this game in particular.
Yakuza 6 begins pretty much exactly where Yakuza 5 ends, with Kazuma Kiryu going to jail to atone for his crimes. Unfortunately, things are pretty bleak, as Haruka decides to publicly confess her connection with the former mobster. Yet, showbusiness in Japan can be brutal and allows no room for feelings. This act of respect and love for the man who took her in and brought her up abruptly ends the idol career that she worked so hard for.
Things go from bad to worse, as outraged fans start to troll her on social media, and she goes into hiding in order to avoid repercussions on Kiryu’s orphanage and on her friends who live there.
When our hero is finally released years later, he finds out that Haruka is in a coma after being involved in a car accident, and that she even gave birth to a boy named Haruto, whose father is unknown.
It’s time for the mature and weary hero to roll his sleeves up once more, and right all the wrongs that were done in his absence, while looking for Haruto’s father (and tending to the kid himself), and seeking the truth behind Haruka’s condition.
The main story features a shift in tone compared to the previous games, with generally bleaker and more mature themes (not that Yakuza didn’t delve plenty into the bleak and mature before), while on the opposite end, additional sub-stories often take a turn for the funnier and even surreal side of things, providing a charming contrast between light and dark hues, and a welcome break from the drama.
As usual, the cast of characters is superb, with extremely likable elements that increase the value of the storytelling, also thanks to the top-notch acting by a star-level cast that includes popular Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano- Believe me when I tell you that his performance loses nothing with the transition to digital.
While many love to compare Yakuza with the Grand Theft Auto series, this is one of the main differences: Rockstar would have a thing or twenty to learn from the enthralling story and the deep and multifaceted characters featured in Sega’s games.
The one slightly disappointing area of this grand finale is that beloved characters of series, first and foremost Goro Majima, are almost completely absent. I can’t say I didn’t miss them.
The audio of the game is fantastic, including a compelling score that well underlines most moments, including both story and gameplay, while voice acting that is nearly unparalleled.
As I did with previous games, I can definitely applaud Sega’s choice of completely skipping the English track, presenting the game in Japanese with subtitles. Not only it feels a lot more authentic, but it would have required a prohibitive budget to do justice to the Japanese track.
While I don’t agree with every single translation choice made by the team (but when do I, really?) this is certainly one of the best localizations I have seen in a long while. Everything has been preserved. Despite the presence of mature themes and imagery, Sega did absolutely nothing to make the game more palatable to western sensibilities. That means that its full Japanese flavor has been preserved with all its quirks and controversies, and that’s definitely great value for those who aren’t horrified by the idea of enjoying the unfiltered depiction of a different culture.
There are many who believe that localization needs to be rather heavy-handed in order to make a story and dialogue enjoyable for an English-speaking audience, and Yakuza 6 is once more a demonstration of just how false that concept is.
Yakuza 6 is the first game of the series using the brand new Dragon Engine, and that brings along quite the jump in terms of visuals. Definition and details are up across the board from gameplay to cutscenes, and environments have never been as beautiful as they are in this new game.
I was walking around Kabukicho just yesterday, and even if the game depicts the district as it was two years ago, the resemblance is absolutely amazing. The Dragon Engine really brought the environments to life. Admittedly, I’d have enjoyed the real-life stroll more if solicitors didn’t stop me every fifteen feet to try to drag me into a “titty bar” or a sketchy massage parlor, but this goes to show that Yakuza‘s persistent thugs aren’t that unrealistic after all.
The game is also partly set in Onomichi, a quaint fishing town in the Hiroshima Prefecture, and that’s actually even more visually charming than Kamurocho. It may partly be the novelty effect, but I found my time in this second location massively entertaining, especially paired with the amazing acting done for the local characters and the evolution of the story.
The effects of the new engine expand way beyond simple visuals. Pretty much gone are the slightly awkward transitions between exploration and combat, while entering interiors and establishments is now seamless. There is something intensely satisfying about fighting in a convenience store while devastating enemies and physically-enabled merchandise alike.
Combat controls also feel a lot more responsive and natural, having lost most of the clunkiness that some might have found distracting in previous games of the series. A completely overhauled physical interaction between character models and the environment improved both gameplay and visual spectacle.
On the other hand, transitioning to a completely new engine comes at a cost. There is only one fighting style, and some aspects like heat actions feel slightly sacrificed compared to the variety offered by previous games like Yakuza 0. That being said, battles remain very satisfying, and I feel that the smoother gameplay makes up for what has been left out.
As usual, you can expect a ton of minigames, including full-fledged versions of many arcade titles, all the way to more complex features like baseball, administering a cat cafe, and the clan creator, that is basically an RTS game within the game. Many minigames are well integrated with their own substories, and they bring hours upon hours of fun to the menu.
While the variety is definitely satisfying, there are a few that I sorely missed from previous entries. The Mini 4WD play spot is probably the one that I would have really liked to see implemented with the new engine and the better physics, but unfortunately, it wasn’t to be.
From a gameplay perspective Yakuza 6 makes some steps forward and some step backward compared to its predecessors. It definitely succeeds in showing the promise of the Dragon Engine. Yet, probably due to the inherent difficulties of transitioning to the new technology, combined with time constraints due to the annual nature of the series and its spin-offs and remakes, it forced the team to trim down a bit of the fat. If you’re familiar with the franchise, you probably know that Yakuza‘s fat is actually a whole lot of fun.
Due to the long window between original release and localization, I actually already played extensively Yakuza Kiwami 2 (the remake of Yakuza 2 released in Japan a few months ago), which is the second game made with the Dragon Engine. This actually helped me solidify the belief described above, as the developers made massive improvements on top of what Yakuza 6 offers. You could say that 6 is an enticing (and extremely entertaining, don’t get me wrong) promise, and Kiwami 2 is the fulfillment of that promise.
Despite the few shortcomings, Yakuza 6 is a worthy successor for the franchise and an absolutely fantastic experience that will keep most enthralled from the beginning to the end, with a whole lot of extremely welcome detours due to the wealth of side stories and additional content.
It isn’t just a lesson in storytelling and character development, but it keeps up with the series’ tradition of going above and beyond the call of duty in delivering a massive package of content for the price.
Ultimately, it’s a great sendoff for one of the best characters of the history of Japanese games (and of gaming as a whole), and while Kazuma Kiryu isn’t going to disappear due to the upcoming remake, I can definitely say that I’m going to miss my stern and stoic best friend with a heart of gold.
Dear Ichiban Kasuga, you have some big, fancy shoes to fill.