Thanks to Sega’s recent push to reintroduce the Yakuza franchise to a new generation of gamers on PlayStation 4, the series has seen a massive boost in popularity. In fact, if it wasn’t for the US release of Yakuza 0 two years after the initial release, I may have missed one of the best open world action adventure games of all time. Since then, Sega has released Yakuza Kiwami, a remake of the original title, Yakuza Kiwami 2 in Japan with the US release to follow this Summer, and the swan song for series protagonist Kiryu Kazuma; Yakuza 6: The Song of Life.
The Song of Life’s narrative centers along Kiryu’s personal life, and those he cares about most. Haruka Sawamura, a daughter figure to Kiryu, has been a series mainstay since the original title, however, in Yakuza 6 she is struck by a hit-and-run driver. At the time of the accident, she was clutching a child, who plays an integral role in the narrative as Kiryu sets out to find the identity of the child and the father. I won’t divulge any additional story elements, but I will say that I felt compelled to keep playing throughout each of the chapters. Although it is only my third Yakuza experience, after reviewing both Yakuza 0 and Yakuza Kiwami, it would be amiss if I didn’t mention that the engaging narrative is without a doubt the best so far in the series. The self-contained plot doesn’t require you to have any previous knowledge, but you can read through a synopsis for each one from the main menu.
Yakuza 6 lets you once again explore the vast streets and alleys of Kamurocho, however, being set in the year 2016 things look slightly more modern for the infamous red light district of Tokyo. Even Kiryu has stepped into a technological age, utilizing a smartphone to serve as the in-game menus, keeping track of your current quests, stats, and inventory. You'll also journey across the slow-moving water town of Onomichi in Hiroshima prefecture. It’s a much calmer experience than the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. The optional substories in either location are once again worth completing, introducing you to some of the most unique and bizarre characters in the game, along with some of the most absurd story arcs and laughs, which is in stark contrast to the serious main narrative. Eventually, you’ll become captain of a local baseball team and lead your team to victory, by recruiting others on the streets of Onomichi. In Kamurocho you are getting slightly more violent by bossing your clan numbers and participating in clan battles, which feel like a tower defense title, minus using stationary towers. Instead, you’ll spend points on various types of soldiers and elite characters with special abilities and skills.
The melee-focused combat system feels refined and smoother thanks to the seamless transitions, whether you are knocking thugs to the ground with uppercuts, stomping on the face of yakuza members, or swinging a destructible bicycle at groups of foes. Engagements begin much faster than in previous games, speeding up the time you’ll spend in encounters, something I much appreciated. Some of Kiryu’s moves are dependent on the verticality of the environment; you should try leaping off a set of stairs are your enemies. One of the nicer touches happens when you are chased into an establishment during a fight. Don’t worry about the mess, but you are more than capable of destroying the corner convenience store or throwing thugs through panes of glass. Be careful; you may get yourself barred from the store in the process. Gone are the different fighting styles from previous games, and instead you focus on unlocking new abilities and context-sensitive rush skills. Thanks to a new engine, the sheer amount of foes you will face on-screen has been bumped up, making those engagements even more thrilling.
One of the best parts of the Yakuza franchise is the ability to play at your own pace. While you’ll always have a carrot dangling in front of you, telling you where to go to progress the narrative, but you are free to spend countless hours searching for side missions to complete. As always, you can spend time playing mini-games, such as hitting the batting cage, working out, darts, spearfishing, karaoke, and even venture into online live chatting (maybe not around children). You never know where you are going to find new side missions, so I made it a habit of exploring every street and alleyway in between chapters. Still haven’t gotten friendly with all the roaming cats in Tokyo...yet. The rewards are well worth the effort and can assist you with the main storyline.
Unlike previous games in the series, interacting with places in both locations has a significant gameplay element. Eating at any of the restaurants still provide a quick health boost, but also yield experience points based on each category, but you are a limited to how much you can eat at once. Beverages can be purchased from the seemingly endless amount of vending machines, each one providing a temporary stat boost for ensuing encounter. Even playing classic games at the arcade produce generous amounts of experience. For these reasons, you’ll want to spend time living the life of Kiryu instead of merely running from waypoint to waypoint.
Yakuza 6: The Song of Life brings a fitting and satisfying conclusion to Kiryu’s story and character. Even though I have only played three Yakuza games, I will miss his attitude and demeanor always fighting for what is right and honest. The Song of Life struck a perfect balance between goofy and serious missions, but I would have liked to see some of the other series-favorite cast have a more prominent role. The smaller scope of the narrative gives off an intimate sensation, but with that being said, I am quite interested in where Sega will take the decade-old franchise in the future, especially with its growing popularity in the West.
Note: The Yakuza 6: The Song of Life review is based on a digital PlayStation 4 copy of the game, provided by the publisher.