I should preface this by saying: I’ve never played a Yakuza game before. Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is my first foray into the story of Kazuma Kiryu, the hero and centerpiece of the Yakuza mythology. An older, former Yakuza, pulled back into the game because of numerous and all too dramatic reasons, Yakuza 6 could be for some a very trite crime story, but it’s so much more than that, and is easy enough to jump into for being the sixth, and possibly final entry to a long-running franchise.
To set the stage, Yakuza 6 does pick up right after the events of Yakuza 5, which are rather quickly resolved through a lengthy opening of about 40 straight minutes of cutscenes and set dressing. While pretty dense, I came to learn these long stretches of storytelling would be a recurring bit in Yakuza 6, so it doesn’t seem out of place. The Song of Life does a great job of getting you familiar with the returning Yakuza characters you need to know about, telling you their backstories, and getting you right into the action as quickly as possible. It’s honestly almost alarmingly deft in its delivery of exposition, getting you into the meat of Yakuza 6’s more focused story pretty quickly.
You take the reigns once again of Kazuma Kiryu, the series’ running protagonist, as he seeks answers for what happened to his now indisposed ward and surrogate daughter, Haruka Sawamura. After a terrible accident, he goes on a quite-lengthy chase that leads to… well, pretty much conspiracy after conspiracy; twist after twist; winding road after winding road. It’s a bit of a wild ride, to say the least. For those unfamiliar with Yakuza storytelling, much like I was at the beginning of this journey, imagine an immaculate and near-perfectly crafted crime-drama story, framed a bit like a soap opera, taking you into the deepest recesses of several different Asia-centric mafias and crime syndicates. Everything from the Yakuza themselves, their different clans and alliances, to the Korean and Chinese mafias as well.
Much of Yakuza’s story would be easily laughable if it wasn’t for the almost unprecedented tier of performance that goes into it. While I’m not an expert in Japanese performance, the deliveries throughout Yakuza 6 are some of the most captivating and intense I’ve seen across any media. While it essentially plays out like a soap opera, and it goes full soap opera with many of its twists and turns, you almost never bat an eye at it because you’re so enthralled with the characters and stories in motion. Kiryu himself, the main character portrayed for years by Takaya Kuroda, has now quickly moved up to one of my favorite video game characters of all time, almost entirely by his performance. But Kiryu isn’t the only standout member here; in fact, most of the new cast is stellar. They come into the story as young up-and-coming Yakuza members of a small Hiroshima family, and two in particular, Tsuyoshi Nagumo and Yuta Usami, standout as amazing ensemble cast members that complement and lift up Kiryu’s own character.
While the Yakuza games have typically all taken place in Kamurocho, a fictional burow of Tokyo based heavily on Kabukichō, Yakuza 6 takes you not only there, but also to Onomichi, a small slice of Hiroshima where many of the new cast members join the scene. While both settings are pretty small, and even though Yakuza 6 is technically an “open world” game, I wouldn’t say it has the same appear as open world games before it. The locales serve more as dense backdrops to the antics, story, and excellent sidequests of the game. They aren’t sprawling cities to explore, as both are no bigger than a couple of city blocks, but they’re densely populated with personality, locations to visit, and mysterious oddities and characters to find.
And for being a pretty small scale game, all things considered, Yakuza 6 packs itself with things to do. Maybe it’s running around helping feed stray cats so as to adopt them to an empty cat cafe; to follow would-be YouTubers around and stop them from running amok in the city, or infiltrate evil cultist headquarters and save folks from getting scammed. On top of these more straightforward sidequests, there are surprisingly deep side activities, like training your skills up at the gym or batting cages, a full on tower-defense style minigame to take down the new crime syndicate JUSTICE, which is entirely separate from the main story; hell there is even a full baseball management simulator hidden right near the end of the game. Everyone one of these activities is brimming with as much personality as the main story, and while many of them are a bit one note or linear, they’re all very different, very deep, and just as strongly written as anything else in the game, which is to say very well.
The main thing you do in between all of these activities though, and the main connective tissue of the story, is the fighting. Yakuza 6 is still, at its heart, a 3D brawler, and an absurd one at that. I’d say at least 40% of my time with the game was spent defending myself on the streets of Onomichi and Kamurocho, or battling through what felt like entire city populations in main story missions. There is a lot of punching and kicking and grappling to be had in this game. I just wish it was a bit more fun to engage with.
While I think everything around fighting is very interesting: how you get experience, how you can pour that into your individual stats (as each stat from health to defense gets its own experience pool) to more complex skills and abilities to use in combat, the fighting felt pretty much the same all the way through the game. It was just a little suffocatingly samey by the end, especially when things seemed to get just arbitrarily harder with higher health enemies that seem to just stagger less and do more damage. It made the latest game fights just seem frustrating, as all the new abilities I got in my experience splurges through the game gave me more tools to work with, but none of them seemed to matter enough to make that much of a different.
All that being said, and I think walking away from Yakuza 6 because of its increasingly route combat is completely fair, the scenarios the fights got you in in conjunction with the story and gravitas behind them were so compelling I’d power through them anyway. The narrative was the beating heart of Yakuza 6, and it’s more than enough to get you through the samey fights. That, and there are plenty of other more interesting gameplay tools just built into the dozens of side events that are plentiful across the two cities you explore, like the RTS JUSTICE fights and the sometimes absurd minigames.
Yakuza 6 lives and dies by its story, and it’s one that is absolutely worth seeing. It may be one of the most compelling narratives told this year, and as soap opera-adjacent as it can be, it’s still grounded with wonderfully charming characters that had me on the edge of my seat in hopes of seeing them pull through this one and come out on the other side okay.
As far as a place to come in on a franchise, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life may not be the best start, as for all intents and purposes, it seeks to conclude the long-running story of its main character, Kazuma Kiryu, but altogether it stands as a phenomenal standalone adventure and an emotional journey that can proudly stand on its own merits. While it’s not perfect, as the repetitive aspects of the combat, which acts as the cornerstone of most of the “gameplay” portions of Yakuza 6 is concerned, are all pretty route by the end of things, it’s still an epic journey of even more epic proportions.
Yakuza 6 review code was provided by the publisher and reviewed on a Standard PlayStation 4 system.