Built on a new engine and considered the departure of the leader Kazuma Kiryu of the long-running Sega series, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life manages to feel like a reboot and a one-time ending. The result is a tenuous, surprisingly intimate game that ends with a satisfying hit.
The Yakuza series has always been something of an enigma outside of Japan. His distinctive combination of criminal drama, quirky writing and classic fighting action never got a big audience in the West. Last year, however, that began to change. First Sega released Yakuza 0, a prequel that served as the perfect entry point to the series and followed with a new PS4 version of the original PS2 game. (A new version of Yakuza 2 will also be released in August.) These versions helped set the stage for Kiryu's final quest.
Although the plot of Yakuza 6 contains as many vertiginous turns as much of the rest of the series, it is largely autonomous and does not depend on much prior knowledge. After spending three years in prison, Kiryu emerges to discover that his adopted daughter, Haruka, is missing. What begins as a simple quest to find out what happened to him ends up guiding him to expose dark secrets in a dormant city of Hiroshima as he fights yakuza rivalries, Korean mafia and Chinese triads along the way.
It's a good story well told, and although Yakuza fans have long been disappointed with the relatively small number of returning characters, the new cast is uniformly excellent. The star of Battle Royale and Death Note Tatsuya Fujiwara has an important role, but the most notable part is a small-time mafia boss played by the legend of the yakuza film "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, whose turn is full of pathos and woven through the heart of Yakuza The narrative of 6.
While Kitano's characteristic buzz and perpetual poker face may well have made him a flattering target for Sega artists, that does not stop his performance from being the most convincingly captured movie star performance I've seen in a game. Yakuza 6 is the first main entry of the series that has been built from scratch for the PlayStation 4, and it shows. It has never been the most technically accomplished series, but Yakuza 6 is still a great visual leap.
Beyond the obvious improvements to loyalty, the new Yakuza engine allows a more fluid take of the action of the series. The fights can now be spilled from the streets to the buildings, for example, which allows him to destroy the meticulously arranged shelves of a Japanese convenience store. The new first person mode is also an excellent way to inspect the highest fidelity. There is still nothing like the combination of JRPG's Yakuza of Final Fantasy with Streets of Rage fighting style, and the delayed visual update helps maintain the formula.
Unfortunately, the increase in quality comes with a decrease in quantity. Kamurocho, the perennial location of Tokyo, is noticeably narrower than in other Yakuza games, with previously accessible areas closed for "road works". Although Onomichi, the new stage of Hiroshima, is done wonderfully, it is a smaller city without much to do. Kiryu's skills have also been trimmed: there is only one fighting style this time, below the four views on Yakuza 0 and other recent entries.
The main story is also a bit shorter than the previous games; I finished Yakuza 6 in relatively quick 25 hours. But there is still much to be done, especially if you immerse yourself in side quests and optional activities, which offer some of the funniest moments in the game. One mission allowed me to chase a Roomba through the streets of Tokyo in an attempt to recover an engagement ring, while for another I put on a giant fruit costume to play the role of one of Japan's many local pets. You can also visit the arcades to play Sega classics such as Space Harrier, Out Run and, surprisingly, Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown. That this is the only way in which the current Sega will play one of its most revered series is a good measure of how the popularity of Yakuza has grown, at least in its country of origin.
The wonderful Yakuza 0 from last year introduced a lot of people outside Japan to the series. Its history of prequels and its decadent amount of content serve as the perfect entry point for new players. On paper, Yakuza 6 falls short in this regard. It is a lighter offer that does not have the advantage of starting your story from scratch. But although I still recommend playing first, Yakuza 6 works better on its own merits than I expected. Fortunately, Sega did not rely on cheap fan service to wrap Kiryu's story, and in many ways, the narrow and focused nature of Yakuza 6 works in his favor.
It is not the biggest game or the best in the series. But whether it's calming a crying baby with movement controls or hitting the head of a gangster with a bicycle, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is a touching, bloody and totally brilliant farewell.
Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is available on April 17 on PlayStation 4.