The latest entry in the Yakuza series is a much harder sell than either the prequel Yakuza 0 or last year’s remake, Yakuza Kiwami, of the very first game in the series. The game isn’t free from the elaborate continuity of previous titles in the franchise, but its lengthy intro and the optional plot summaries of its precursors will fill you in on all the relevant details. When all is said and done, the story stands just fine on its own, though Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is still a jarring step down from the dizzying highs of Yakuza 0, which successfully introduced the series to a legion of new fans in the West.
This isn’t to say that Yakuza 6 is a departure. It once again features longtime protagonist Kazuma Kiryu—now pushing 50 and here the only playable character—running around Kamurocho, a fictional version of Tokyo’s red-light district. Fresh out of prison, Kiryu finds his intended retirement upended when he learns that his surrogate daughter, Haruka, is comatose and now a mother to an infant son. In search of answers, he again wades into the depths of the Tokyo underworld, where everyday life rubs up against the melodramatic goings-on of the city’s ferocious gangsters.
The Yakuza games, though heavy on violent melees between rival gangs and other criminals, have long insisted that the mundane is just as engaging as their ever-winding main stories of betrayal, honor, and deception. To prove it, these games fill their worlds with side ventures of varying complexity: Here, Kiryu can manage a baseball team, sing karaoke, track down strays for a cat café, play Virtua Fighter 5, and go harpoon fishing in a minigame that resembles an on-rails shooter. Optional sidequests bring the stoic Kiryu into amusing conflict with things like an overzealous smartphone helper app and a town mascot, and through the use of the vigilante app Troublr, he can help innocent bystanders and undertake other rescue missions.
With its focus on helping others and interacting with the world, the Yakuza series rebels against open-world games that lean on the player’s obsessive desire to collect things, capture territory, and acquire experience. Each game’s side content is humanistic, adding context to the campaign’s central conflict by coloring in the edges of the characters, establishing what they fight to preserve. The franchise’s affection for people is such that it shows violence not just for the sake of it, but as a disruptive force to everyday life.
But the minigames are fewer in number in Yakuza 6, and only one—a series of middling clan battles beholden to a fussy interface—approaches the depths of the engrossing cabaret and real-estate management of Yakuza 0. The side stories also come in smaller numbers, and though they’re fully voiced and some are still quite funny, they scale back the outlandish situations and dialogue choices of previous entries. This leaves many of the side stories not so far-removed from the barebones Troublr combat missions.
The game is running on a new engine, which is noticeable in the improved graphics and the absence of loading screens whenever you, say, exit a shop and enter the fray of a street fight. The improvement is such that it might be tough to want to go back to any of the earlier games and endure their lengthy loading times, but dramatic concessions in the quality of side content and the combat complexity don’t entirely seem worth the trade-off.
In contrast to the multiple fighting styles in Yakuza 0 and Yakuza Kiwami, Yakuza 6 returns Kiryu, in a split-the-difference compromise, to just one style, positioning him as a jack of all trades. Despite the initial thrill of Kiryu’s new fluidity when moving between opponents, his condensed moveset is too limited for a game that’s over 20 hours long. Though you can earn new moves and badly needed boosts to things such as combat speed, those upgrades never really succeed in staving off the sense of repetition; they only make that repetition more tolerable than the game’s frustrating, lethargic early hours.
Yakuza 6 hinges its narrative on twists and reveals, padding out its playtime by heavily relying on characters who keep mum about relevant matters. And because the game spends so much time tying the story into knots, including so many opposing factions into its campaign, a strong villain never emerges. Parts of the story are quite good, with a likable cast of new characters—including, at last, one played by the legendary multi-hyphenate Takeshi Kitano—who underscore themes about wayward children, about how they’re molded into something hateful or something kind by their upbringing.
Yakuza 6’s thematic consistency is impressive, though the game scarcely gives women the space to be more than props or damsels or to speak up when they’re shamed for having lives outside the constraints of possessive men. The game wants to be about parents in general, but in a series steeped in the kind of male bravado where expensive suits are cast off in one swift motion to reveal extravagant back tattoos, it’s mostly just about fathers.
Yakuza 6 isn’t just billed as running on a new engine; it’s also meant to be Kiryu’s last starring role. Sega is clearly trying to capitalize on last year’s newcomer-friendly prequel and remake to sell this newest installment, hoping that the franchise will get a serious foothold in the West. In many ways, the game is a transition. But despite maintaining the endearing parts of the franchise that make it so refreshing amid a glut of solipsistic sandboxes, Yakuza 6’s many concessions show that it isn’t an entirely comfortable one.