Built on a brand-new engine and billed as leading man Kazuma Kiryu’s exit from the long-running Sega series, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life manages to feel like a reboot and a finale all at once. The result is a subdued, surprisingly intimate game that ends with a satisfying bang.
The Yakuza series has always been something of an enigma outside of Japan. Its distinct combination of tense crime drama, quirky writing, and classic brawling action never garnered a huge audience in the West. Last year, though, that started to change. First Sega released Yakuza 0, a prequel that served as the perfect entry point to the series and followed it with a modern PS4 remake of the original PS2 game. (A remake of Yakuza 2 is also launching in August.) These releases helped set the stage for Kiryu’s final quest.
Although Yakuza 6’s plot contains as many dizzying twists as much of the rest of the series, it’s largely self-contained and doesn’t rely on much prior knowledge. After spending three years in prison, Kiryu emerges to find that his adoptive daughter Haruka is missing. What begins as a simple quest to learn what happened to her ends up leading him to expose dark secrets in a sleepy Hiroshima town while battling rival yakuza, Korean mafia, and Chinese triads along the way.
It’s a good story well told, and although longtime Yakuza fans might be disappointed with the relatively small number of returning characters, the new cast is uniformly excellent. Battle Royale and Death Note star Tatsuya Fujiwara has a major role, but the most notable part is a small-time elderly mob boss played by yakuza movie legend “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, whose turn is laced with pathos and woven through the heart of Yakuza 6’s narrative.
While Kitano’s trademark mumbling and perpetual poker face may well have made him a flattering target for Sega’s artists, that doesn’t stop his portrayal from being the most convincingly captured movie star performance I’ve ever seen in a game. Yakuza 6 is the first mainline entry in the series to have been built from the ground up for the PlayStation 4, and it shows. It’s never been the most technically accomplished of series, but Yakuza 6 is still a big visual leap forward.
Beyond the obvious improvements to fidelity, the new Yakuza engine allows for a more fluid take on the series’s action. Fights can now spill from the streets into buildings, for example, allowing you at last to destroy the meticulously arranged shelves of a Japanese convenience store. The new first-person mode is also a great way to inspect the greater fidelity. There’s still nothing quite like Yakuza’s blend of Final Fantasy-esque JRPG with Streets of Rage-style brawling, and the overdue visual upgrade helps the formula hold up.
Unfortunately, the increase in quality comes with a decrease in quantity. Kamurocho, the perennial Tokyo location, is notably more cramped than in other Yakuza games, with previously accessible areas closed off for “roadworks.” Although Onomichi, the new Hiroshima setting, is beautifully realized, it’s a smaller town without all that much to do. Kiryu’s own abilities have been cut back, too: there’s just one fighting style this time around, down from the four seen in Yakuza 0 and other recent entries.
The main storyline is also a little shorter than previous games; I finished Yakuza 6 in a relatively brisk 25 hours. But there’s still a lot to do, especially if you dive into the side missions and optional activities, which offer some of the most entertaining moments in the game. One mission saw me chasing a Roomba through the streets of Tokyo in an attempt to retrieve an engagement ring, while for another I donned a gigantic fruit costume to play the role of one of Japan’s numerous local mascots. You can also visit arcades to play Sega classics like Space Harrier, Out Run, and — amazingly — Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown. That this is the only way present-day Sega will touch one of its most revered series ever is a pretty strong measure of how Yakuza’s popularity has grown, at least in its home country.
Last year’s wonderful Yakuza 0 introduced a lot of people outside Japan to the series. Its prequel story and decadent amount of content serve as the perfect entry point for new players. On paper, Yakuza 6 falls a little short in this regard. It’s a lighter offering that doesn’t have the advantage of starting its story from scratch. But while I’d still recommend playing 0 first, Yakuza 6 works better on its own merits than I’d expected. Thankfully, Sega didn’t lean on cheap fan service to wrap up Kiryu’s story, and in many ways, Yakuza 6’s tight, focused nature works in its favor.
It’s not the biggest nor the best game in the series. But whether you’re calming a crying baby with motion controls or bashing a gangster’s head in with a bicycle, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is a poignant, bloody, and altogether brilliant send-off.
Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is available April 17th on the PlayStation 4.