Recently, SEGA has put some serious effort into making the Yakuza series one of their flagship franchises in the West. Preceded by the outstanding Yakuza 0 and Kiwami, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is the third game in the series to make its way to English-speaking players in the span of just over a year. Coming in hot with a brand new engine, two sprawling locales to explore and the bare-knuckle combat that fans love, The Dragon of Dojima’s latest adventure doesn’t quite reinvent the wheel, but it sure does keep it rolling.
Yakuza 6 is a Family Affair
Yakuza 6’s story takes place following the events of the previous game. After serving a three-year stint in prison for his previous crimes, Kazuma Kiryu returns to the Morning Glory orphanage. Unfortunately, his homecoming is no happy reunion. Upon his arrival, Kiryu learns that Haruka, his adopted daughter, has disappeared. Searching for answers to her whereabouts, Kiryu returns to the bustling streets of Kamurocho to find her.
However, problems begin the moment he sets foot on the seedy streets of the city. The criminal landscape of his old stomping ground has changed dramatically during his incarceration. The Tojo Clan — his old crew — is locked in a bitter war with Saio Triad. To make matters worse, the hierarchy of the Yakuza is in flux following the arrest of the organization’s sixth chairman, Daigo Dojima. What follows is another drama-filled story full of winding conspiracies, vicious new enemies, and more plot twists than you can shake a parking cone at.
The Same Old Song (Of the Dragon)…
If you’ve played a Yakuza game before, then you’re probably thinking this all sounds very familiar. And honestly, you’d be right. Yakuza 6: The Song of Life isn’t a huge departure from the series’ established conventions. The changes it makes to the formula are subtle, but they’re definitely meaningful. They come in the form of slight updates and tweaks that come together to make the action feel better than ever. This is in no small part thanks to the SEGA’s powerful new Dragon engine, which gives things a welcome shot in the arm in terms of polish and playability.
From the moment you take control of Kiryu, it’s plain to see that things are much more refined this time around. For example, combat, while exhilarating in previous games, could feel a bit stiff and cumbersome. Thankfully, that’s no longer the case. Pummeling punks and maiming mobsters is more fluid and responsive than ever in Yakuza 6. This makes all the difference when battling huge waves of enemies, where blocking and dodging attacks is essential to your survival. Trust me when I say this makes the frequent back alley brawls that much more enjoyable.
Sure, this added polish to the combat is great. But it’s not the only issue that’s been addressed with Yakuza 6. One thing I really appreciate is that there’s no longer any loading between outdoor and indoor environments. This means you can easily turn a street fight into a restaurant brawl, leaving patrons to cower in the corner. Shopkeepers are known to ban those who cause to much trouble though, so rumble with caution. Another cool new feature is the ability to explore the game’s two playable cities of Onimichi and Kamurocho in a new first-person mode, which really lets you appreciate all of the little visual flourishes the game provides. It’s a neat effect and one that really helps pull you into the game world.
Streamlined Street Fighting
The way Kiryu gains experience has also been completely reworked. Now, almost everything you do racks up skill points which can be spent on upgrading your stats and abilities. This means that in addition to fighting and completing story missions, now even trips to the arcades and karaoke bars can help beef up your character. And if you really want to test your limits, you can pump iron at the new Rizap gym to turn Kiryu into the ultimate fighting machine. The fact that every action pretty much nets you some form of experience makes every activity seem worthwhile, as even recreational activities can go a long way towards rounding out your repertoire of abilities.
Unfortunately, SEGA has limited Kiryu to a single fighting style in Yakuza 6. Admittedly, this feels like a bit of a step back for the series. I really liked being able to switch between three unique styles on the fly in Yakuza 0 and Kiwami, as they made fights feel much more dynamic and versatile. Still, some traits from the various styles in the previous games do surface in the form of the new Ultimate Heat Mode. This mode sacrifices your heat gauge to grant Kiryu incredible power. Once activated, Kiryu will automatically grab any nearby weapons – just like the Beast style in previous games – and unleash more powerful moves and QTE combos. It’s a cool feature, for sure. Though I do feel its low cost of admission can make it feel like a win button at times.
When all is said and done, I really liked Yakuza 6’s fighting system. It’s faster than ever and really packs a satisfying punch. However, I do wish there were multiple fighting styles to use to spice things up a bit. On the bright side, Heat Actions are still as brutal as ever and provide a sadistic spectacle to behold.
A Tale of Two Cities
Kiryu’s investigation unfolds not only in Kamurocho, but also the sleepy shipbuilding town of Onimichi, Hiroshima. While in Kamurocho, you’ll find tons of activities to keep you busy. These distractions include arcades filled with a number of SEGA classics including Fantasy Zone, Outrun, Puyo Puyo, and the phenomenal Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown. In addition to the arcades, you can also go out on the town and enjoy fine dining, sing to your heart’s content at karaoke bars or flirt it up at hostess clubs. The batting cages also make a return, allowing you to smash some balls into the stands. Hell, one optional mission actually has you managing a baseball team in fun little simulation. These minigames are as entertaining as ever and are sure to rob you of hours of your precious time.
Sadly, Onimichi pales in comparison to Kamurocho. There simply isn’t a whole lot of side stuff today apart from completing sub stories and exacting vigilante justice with the new Troublr app which constantly doles out bite-sized objectives that usually revolve around rearranging the faces of some ne’er-do-wells.
Speaking of side activities, one thing I really liked was the addition of a new Clan Creation minigame. Similar to an RTS, this mode has you amassing a gang of soldiers and capos to take down a troublesome group of heroes-turn-heels known as JUSTIS. The group is lead by the Six Lunatics, who need to be defeated in a series of skirmishes. During these fights, you’ll deploy various units to combat waves of the opposing gang’s forces and ultimately wipe out their captains. These battles typically conclude with a one-on-one battle with one of the Six Lunatics, who, once defeated, join your ranks. While it lacks some depth, it’s a really fun distraction. Better yet, you can register your crew online and challenge your friends.
The Circle of Life
Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is another outstanding entry in SEGA’s long-running underworld saga. Its story is gripping and personal – even by Yakuza standards – and will make even the most stony-faced gamers choke back tears at times. And the cast of characters is colorful and interesting, and they’re brought to life with the same excellent voicework we’ve come to expect from the series. Though I have to admit that it’s a bit disappointing that some of the series’ innovations in the fighting system have been scaled back a bit, the number of tweaks and refinements found within more than make up for Kiryu’s somewhat more limited moveset. And while I wish Onimichi had more distractions to keep me busy, it’s a welcome contrast to the urban jungle that is Kamurocho.
While I’m not sure if I’d consider this my favorite game in the franchise, Yakuza 6 still stands as one of the most enjoyable adventures available on the PlayStation 4. If you have even a passing interest in the series, you owe it to yourself to add this gem to your collection. Trust me, you won’t regret it. Just be sure to stock up on Kleenex, you’re gonna need it.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed) ; Publisher: SEGA ; Developer: SEGA ; Release Date: April 17, 2017; ESRB: M for Mature; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Yakuza 6: The Song of Life provided by the game’s publisher.