Yakuza 6: The Song of Life Review

The Yakuza series has always played to a niche crowd. My introduction to it began in 2009 with the release of Yakuza 3 for the PlayStation 3. At the time, I was lured in by the suggestion that it was Grand Theft Auto set in Japan. That comparison was largely incorrect, as I quickly discovered that SEGA’s character-driven crime adventure had next to nothing to do with the cacophony of Rockstar’s infamous games. Where Grand Theft Auto offered cartoonish violence, biting social commentary, and high, drug-fueled energy, Yakuza 3 (and its sequels) garnered acclaim for its measured and evenly paced cinematic nature, which made playing the game a lot like reading a novel you can’t put down.

I’ve dabbled with SEGA’s franchise off and on since then, most recently picking my way through its prequel Yakuza 0, and found that nothing much has changed over the years. So it makes sense that Yakuza 6: The Song of Life effortlessly continues the grand tradition. It has everything a Yakuza fan could want, further solidifying the franchise as one of SEGA’s most endearing cultural imports. Each Yakuza adventure is built on the foundations of those that came before.

This sixth (well, technically, seventh) game has relied on connections, characters, and callbacks that extend all the way back to the series 2005 debut. Jumping into Yakuza at this stage might feel irresponsible. After all, they tend to have as many characters and convoluted plots as George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. However, each new entry goes out of its way to accommodate both new and returning players through extensive plot summaries of all previous games (though Yakuza 0 is conspicuously absent) that show how an entire game’s story weaves into the next. You’ll miss some of the finer details but these executive summaries are more than enough to bring you up to speed on the exploits of Kiryu Kazuma, Fourth Chairman of the Tojo Clan.

Beginning immediately after the conclusion of Yakuza 5, Kiryu recovers in hospital after his battle with ambitious Tojo clan member Masato Aizawa. Oblivious to the fact that his ward, pop idol singer Haruka Sawamura announced her retirement and confessed to her adoring fans that her loving and faithful guardian was a former yakuza. As punishment for his involvement with Aizawa, Kiryu is sent to prison for three years - a sentence he sees as the best means to finally cleanse himself of his criminal past. Upon his release, Kiryu returns to the Sunshine Orphanage that he manages, hoping to spend his days caring for the children he started raising in Yakuza 3.

Naturally, things don’t go as planned. In his absence, Haruka left the orphanage believing the media fallout surrounding her retirement would ruin the prospects of the other children, but hasn’t been seen or heard from since she moved to Kamurocho, Tokyo’s infamous yakuza-run entertainment district and center of the Yakuza universe. Despite his fierce reluctance, Kiryu is forced to go back to Kamurocho only to find it caught in the middle of a three-way turf war involving the Tojo clan, a Chinese mafia outfit called the Saio Triad, and an army of street toughs unironically calling themselves JUSTIS, who have misguided designs to rid the area of its criminal element.

And Kiryu wants nothing to do with it all. His story is a deeply personal one, involving a seven-pound bombshell: Haruka’s infant son, Haruto Samamura. When a car accident puts Haruka in a coma, Kiryu takes the child lest he becomes a ward of the state. He then scours Kamurocho and eventually, the sleepy Hiroshima town of Onomichi in a quest to find Haruto’s father and make an account of the young woman’s absence. In true Yakuza fashion, nothing exists at face value. Before long, both Kiryu and Haruto are drawn into a far-reaching conspiracy involving the Tojo Clan, the Saio Triad, and Kiryu’s old Korean rivals, the Jingweon Mafia.

Yakuza 6 trades on the theme of the old versus the young. As an older man, though you wouldn’t know it by looking at him, Kiryu finds his traditions and world view challenged by a new wave of young upstarts who place a higher value on business relationships and finances. Though revered by friends, former Tojo members, and immediate counterparts, Kiryu - the illustrious Dragon of Dojima - is seen as a relic of a bygone age. That isn’t to suggest that the new, fiscally minded Tojo and Jingweon clans have shied away from violence as a means to an end. Indeed, Kiryu’s close confidants lament that state of the Kamurocho, as the Saio Triad engages in horrific acts of murder in an attempt to expand their territory. And with the Tojo Clan in outright war against the Chinese, Kiryu is put in the uncomfortable position of getting involved with the organization he swore to leave behind.

The Song of Life shares many of the narrative and gameplay mechanics that give the franchise its unique identity. The presentation is rich and cinematic, with a camera favoring close-ups and wide dramatic angles to add depth and drama to nearly every scene. The story is doled out across over a dozen chapters and told through extensive cutscenes, both pre-rendered and real-time, that can last anywhere from five to twenty minutes in length. A single chapter follows the recipe of two parts storytelling and one part open-world gameplay. Travel to and from objectives gives the player plenty of time to indulge in the sights and sounds of Kamurocho. Although the scales tip in favor of exposition dumps and deliberately paced dialog, Yakuza 6’s heart lies within the brawler genre. Whether finding himself cornered in an alley by street thugs or locked inside mission-critical areas, generous portions of the game are dedicated to the sheer pleasure of beating the crap out of yakuza lowlifes using a combat system that’s heavy on theatrics.

The combat system is easy enough to grasp as Kiryu can inflict pain using combinations of punches, kicks, and grapples. The brawler gameplay stands in a stark contrast to the heaviness of the story’s subject matter. You can spend ten minutes sitting through a discussion about the plight of the heihaizi (children born outside of China’s One Child policy) only to find yourself bashing in people’s faces in with traffic cones, bicycles, and street signs a few minutes later. Punches and kicks are simple and effective moves to take out low-level toughs, but the true goal is to use these moves to build up Kiryu’s heat level, paving the way for more powerful, and lively, contextual maneuvers.

Yakuza 6 is at its most animated during combat and some of the context-based attacks are wonderfully over the top and painful. As you fight, whenever Kiryu or his opponent is in a position to perform launch into a Heat technique, an icon pops on the screen for as long as the window of opportunity is available. If someone comes at you with a knife, you can use some of Kiryu’s Heat to take it away, stab the guy and plunge the knife deeper by slamming your knee into the handle. Heat can also be used to trigger a limited “super” mode that does additional damage and launch special, high-end QTE-based attacks that work great against tougher enemies and bosses. With every successful battle, Kiryu earns EXP points across five different character attributes. EXP can also be earned by completing side quests and engaging with diversions. Instead of spending money to invest in Kiryu’s abilities a la Yakuza 0, you’ll unlock combat skills, heat techniques, and improve his traits by spending these points.

Using a piece of sheet metal to bodyslam an opponent is a good way to chase away the blues caused by The Song of Life’s often overwrought storytelling. You know what’s also fun? Substories! As you wander through Kamurocho and Onomichi, you’ll come across people toiling under the weight of their personal problems. In one scenario, Kiryu must find Haruka Sawamura merchandise for a small child. While walking through Onomichi, he bumps into a young woman claiming to be from the future. An elderly man needs help trying to pull his loved ones away from a cult. Many of these stories are often ridiculous and silly, designed to provide much-needed comic relief. There’s one quest in which an app developer needs Kiryu’s help to test out a new AI assistant. A cemetery in Onomichi turns into a battleground against pirate ghosts (or are they ghost pirates?). A YouTuber wanders Kamurocho with a selfie stick wanting to do a web documentary on the yakuza.

With no connection to the main story whatsoever, these substories are meant to be enjoyed for their jovial spirit. Should you tire of running across town helping people, Kamurocho is littered with diversions primed to take your money. Sing epic love songs and power ballads at karaoke bars! Drink with friends! Impress women in hostess clubs! Play darts and then spend time in the batting cages! Play vintage and current video games at Club Sega! All these attractions are available to you from the beginning and can be enjoyed as a nice break from the main game. You’ll find even more things to do through Troublr, an app that people use to post short, random assignments. Think of it as TaskRabbit, only with more punching.

There comes a point where Kiryu is tapped by his allies to lead large-scale gang fights called Clan Battles, representing Kiryu’s physical interactions with the JUSTIS vigilante group. After the initial tutorial, these become another in a long list of optional side quests (and a good source of income). As a field commander, your job is to place units along an avenue where battles take place, the goal being the total destruction of all foes within a specific time frame. Units are split across Soldiers, made up of class types like fighters, heavies, and grenadiers, and Lieutenants that function as hero units equipped with special abilities. Taking the time to train and recruit new lieutenants is the key to playing through more difficult battles that span multiple areas and JUSTIS bosses. Like sub stories and diversions, Clan Battles offer a nice break from the main game and it’s worth trying them out at least once for the victory cutscene alone. They can even be taken online, letting you lead your army of thugs against a friend’s.

Apart from Clan Battles, another diversion worthy of its own paragraph is the Internet cafe. While hostess clubs and karaoke allowed Kiryu (and the player) to have some face time with cute ladies, 2016 has given rise to live chatting with cam girls. Very much an extension of Yakuza 0’s “video booths,” live chat lets Kiryu interact with two women, presented here as pre-recorded FMV sequences, by using the controller’s face buttons to type out pre-written text in response to their flirtatious dialog. Successful typing will get these women to eventually strip down to their underwear and writhe around erotically in front of the camera. You are encouraged to revisit the chat to watch different interactions unfold, all of which can be viewed at your leisure whenever you visit the Internet cafe. The whole thing hilariously recreates the experience of being in a cam girl chat room (not that I know anything about that, *ahem*), complete buffering animations to hide FMV transitions, and chatting alongside other horny Internet users identifiable only by their goofy screen names.

Yakuza 6 is built around the glitz and glamour of a Goodfellas-esque criminal underworld. Important people have meetings inside elegantly furnished conference rooms that sit atop Kamurocho like a crown. During the day, the red light district is as exciting as a mid-day hangover. But when the sun goes down, Kamurocho turns into a glittering sea of neon signs and LCDs screens, designed to lure in patrons like a shrewd siren. Walking along the main streets or maneuvering through the back alleys make striking visuals begging to be captured with Kiryu’s cellphone camera. The graphics in The Song of Life are amazing at every turn, thanks to the new "Dragon Engine" which brings near photorealistic textures and effects to the game's gorgeous visual presentation.

If the idea of guiding the Dragon of Dojima through the bustling streets of a popular and dense entertainment district, stuffing his face with different meals, popping into convenience stores, partaking in various extracurricular activities sounds like your thing, then you don’t need any more reasons to go out and pick up the game. I was fully engaged with Yakuza 6 right from the beginning, and grew to appreciate all its twists and turns, double crosses and numerous conspiracies featured in its well-plotted and scripted story. If there is a fault, it lies in the lack of character and things to do in Onomichi. It suffers from being a humdrum town with few shops to buy health supplies for some of the more brutal fights that take place there. You never spend more time there than necessary, which makes the location feel a little wasted. Given the major events that go down in Hiroshima, however, these sections certainly don’t overly affect the game negatively.

Yakuza 6 offers one of the finest, most realized crime stories of the medium. It also marks the conclusion of Kiryu Kazuma’s story, granting him an ending befitting such a well-rounded character. And the best part is that you don’t have to be a Yakuza expert to appreciate how it all ends. If anything, I feel a fierce dedication to play through the series from the beginning and experience what has only been alluded to in later games. With its rich characters, fully realized world filled to bursting with charm and personality, and a powerful message on what it means to be part of a family, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is not just a fine conclusion but is representative of the medium’s ability to tell interesting and moving stories.

Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.