As someone who has never played a Yakuza game until now, I was initially tentative in picking up Yakuza 6: The Song of Life to review. A game with such a storied and beloved history felt like something a newcomer such as myself just couldn’t navigate. Yet within the first hour I was hooked. The story of Kiryu Kazuma, the hardened Yakuza legend with a heart of gold, intrigued me, especially after the in-game recap of previous events (and reading a few wikis). However, the story of The Song of Life really comes into its own, sowing themes of loyalty, revenge, and family - all hallmarks of a good Yakuza story. Yakuza 6 tells this story with relative ease as well, with massive set piece fights, moments that add layers of levity to an otherwise dark and complex tale, and with a flair that has become synonymous with the series as a whole.
Yakuza 6 takes place in Kamurocho, a fictionalized version of Tokyo’s red light district, and has you take the role of Kiryu, the Dragon of Dojima, fresh out of prison following the events of Yakuza 5. Upon being released, Kiryu returns to the orphanage he and his adoptive daughter Haruka have run only to realize that she has gone missing. Kiryu begins his adventure by tracking down former associates trying to find clues into Haruka’s disappearance, spanning across Kamurocho and Onomichi, a small town in the Hiroshima prefecture, learning with each step he takes that not everything is at it seems at first glance.
Yakuza 6 was the first major Yakuza game built from the ground up with the PlayStation 4 in mind. While it doesn’t have any PlayStation 4 Pro enhancements, The Song of Life still looks incredibly pretty, though it is marred by some visual and performance issues. Frame rates tend to buckle when traveling down the crowded city of Kamurocho, with screen tearing occurring pretty much every time you panned the camera. Additionally, with Yakuza 6, as Digital Foundry reported previously, the game targets 900p as its resolution, upscaling it to 1080p on normal screens. This adds a layer of blurriness and fuzziness when looking at scenes in front of you, definitely distracting from the overall presentation.
Which is a shame because there is so much to like about Yakuza 6’s visual style. The character models look fantastic, especially the shaders on the clothing. Walking down the streets of Onomichi or Kamurocho at night is incredibly atmospheric thanks to the fantastic lighting, volumetric fog and high quality reflections. The game makes incredible use of bounce lighting as well, giving the scenes a realistic hue based on the lights around you. Animations are also incredibly fluid, albeit as fluid as a targeted 30-frames-per-second can look. The distinctive way Kiryu and the other characters stand, walk, run, and more tell so much about their overall personality. Every single detail in the world seems distinct and purposeful, from the signs on the street to the way Kiryu’s demeanor softens when something mildly amusing is playing out in front of him.
Progression in Yakuza 6 is based around a system that is designed for customization. Gaining experience points is also easy, thanks to the frequent fights Kiryu will find himself in, the various sub stories that litter Onomichi and Kamurocho, and the various restaurants which grant experience points for each meal your consume. With all of these avenues to obtain experience points, you’ll find yourself able to purchase upgrades quickly, charging up your attack, defense, evasion and more. The more you unlock, the better skills, combos and heat actions you can unlock as well. There is even a tier of progression that boosts the amount of exp you can earn in any given experience category, such as attack or defense.
Even after completing the main storyline and many of the sub story missions I was still unable to obtain enough exp to unlock everything, meaning venturing out and fully experiencing what Yakuza 6 has on offer is worth it to fully max out Kiryu’s abilities.
Each skill you increase will make Kiryu more and more effective in combat, such as performing leg sweeps when getting up after getting knocked to the ground, or following up a quickstep with a devastating counter attack. Additionally the more heat actions you unlock, you have more and more opportunities for taking out opponents quickly by triggering one of the actions in a battle. Some of the best actions require pinpoint timing and perfect placement, so unless you like getting into brawls you’ll likely unlock more than you’ll ever actually see - I still have not been able to trigger the microwave heat action no matter how many Poppos I lead my combatants into.
Combat in Yakuza 6 is surprisingly both simple and complex. In large brawls in the street it can feel absolutely chaotic and inelegant - a flurry of fists and feet with no rhyme or reason put behind them. However, in the larger set piece battles, these large scale fights turn into one part all out brawl, one part chess match. This is especially true when you go up against one of the bosses in the game, as you cannot simply wail on your opponent and expect to achieve victory. The Dragon of Dojima is legendary for his fighting prowess, but these guys aren’t slouches either.
The draw back to fighting is that even with all of the various weapons, world items and more you can use in a fight, the combos and systems just don’t feel all that complex. While stringing together a combo is does take some timing to get down early on, by the end of the game you’re simply pressing square and triangle with the occasional side step throw in for most battles. The boss fights came as a relief at that point as they provided more complexity in the flow of the fight than anything else. Additionally, the camera gets completely in your way at times, becoming more of a hindrance than a help. You can press L2 to center the camera on Kiryu, but within a few punches it has swiveled out of position, forcing you to recenter it.
Yakuza 6 has always been known for mixing the complex stories of the Yakuza with the wacky, over the top action of the fights, however the sub stories really make the world worth exploring. From befriending a catless cat cafe owner to helping a time-traveling teenage girl, these sub stories give the serious and sober story moments of much needed levity. My biggest pet peeve in Yakuza 6 is down to how these quests are triggered. There have been moments where I feel the rush of urgency in a main quest and am desperately trying to get to the next objective only to be stopped by a Siri-shade throwing phone AI hell bent on survival with no way to get out of it. The game on multiple occasions took me out of the moment thanks to walking down a street and accidentally triggering a story quest. This seamless transition is welcome in some aspects of Yakuza 6, such as the transition from regular exploration to being in a fight or moving from a cutscene to controlling the action again, but I would like for a little bit more control over which sub stories I choose to interact with at a given time instead of being forced into it.
One of the major game modes brought to Yakuza 6 is the new Clan Creator mode where you recruit fighters to combat rival gangs in the Kiryu Clan. The story contained within this mode is interesting and has some of the most interesting characters in the game, but at the end the real-time strategy battles left me feeling bored. Throwing units at waves of enemies can only keep me entertained for so long, especially when there are so many other compelling side activities to do, such as Karaoke or playing old SEGA games in the arcade. The Clan Creator mode is available to play online against rival clans on the PlayStation Network, but to unlock the best captains you need to pay for DLC packs, meaning if you don’t buy these packs you’re at a disadvantage the minute you go online against someone who has.
In the end though, Yakuza’s story is where the game fully shines. A tale of a father trying to help his daughter is one that hits home for me (I have an 8 year old daughter who is my entire world), and the way the story is set up and told had me gripped (and at moments full on crying) the entire 20 hours or so it took to complete. Each character you interact with, from the returning cast of Akiyama and Detective Date, to new characters you meet along your way, are each believable and compelling. They’re written so well and their portrayals make you experience the ups and downs with each of them as you go through this story together. The motion capture and facial animations in the cutscenes are some of the best I’ve seen in a video game to date as well, which is why it was incredibly jarring when the cutscenes ended and the rest of the exposition played out at times with stiff, unwavering and emotionless character models. These moments should have been triumphs, but instead at times fell flat thanks to the lack of character on display compared to moments before.
All that said, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is a game I keep going back to. Even after finishing the main quest I want to keep playing and exploring the world of Yakuza. It also inspired me to get into the larger series, and as a result I just installed Yakuza 0 to start playing. As someone who never played a game in the series until The Song of Life, I can’t imagine how players who have followed the journey of Kiryu Kazuma will feel at the end of what SEGA has said is his final entry in the series. All I know is that the legend of the Dragon of Dojima will live on with a new generation of fans thanks to an excellent entry in the series.
- Outrageously well written characters
- Compelling story keeps you engaged
- Kiryu is an absolutely likeable protagonist
- Beautiful visuals and incredible world design
- Sub Stories triggering unintentionally is annoying
- Game suffers from massive performance issues and subpar resolution
- Clan Creator mode feels tacked on
- As great as the cutscenes are, in-engine cutscenes look and feel stiff
Full Disclosure: Code provided by PR for the purposes of this review. Reviewer is also friends with a SEGA team member who worked on Yakuza 6.