Ryū ga Gotoku (like a dragon) is a phenomenon in Japan. Although in the west we simply know the series as Yakuza. I’ve had the opportunity to play the latest game in the series, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, from end to end. And whilst I have a lot of thoughts to share, we should first cover some background details. Much like how Sonic defined Sega throughout the 90’s, Yakuza is beginning to feel like the new flagship franchise for the 2000’s and beyond. For those that have not played it, it is in essence an amalgamation of Shenmue, Virtua Fighter and Streets of Rage.
All the way back in 2005 we met Kazuma Kiryu and arrived in Kamurocho for the first time. Kiryu is implicated in a murder he didn’t commit but takes responsibility for it nonetheless. Over the series we followed his rise to the head of the Tojo Clan and subsequent attempts to leave the criminal life with his adopted daughter Haruka. In Yakuza 3 he was trying to run an orphanage yet his links and pride keep drawing him back. In Yakuza 5 he was trying to make an honest living as a Taxi driver, but again circumstance drew him back into the criminal world. The past few games the story has been split between multiple characters. But now for Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, it all comes back to Kazuma Kiryu, The Dragon of Dojima. This is perhaps his last game as a protagonist and what a send off it is. In all honesty Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is an extremely well made game and a fitting end to an era.
Kiryu has spent three years in prison to cleanse himself of any connection to the underworld he has long sought to escape. He arrives back at his orphanage to find Haruka is missing. She was last sighted in Kamurocho so there we head once again. Things have changed, the Tojo clan are locked in a war with Chinese Triads. We find out she has been in a hit and run incident and is seriously injured. The kicker is that it turns out she also has a baby. Given she may not make it through and Kiryu is not the child’s relation, the decision is made to take the baby and go in search of the father and answers. The story itself is very well written and well paced. It features Beat Takeshi as an actor as well as several New Japan Pro Wrestling stars as part of a build your crew mini game. Yakuza is all about moments.
There are several scenes of interaction and conversation that are genuinely endearing. The story is set both in Kamurocho and a new fictional town in Hiroshima overlooking the ocean, with both settings looking great. The contrast of Hiroshima to Kamurocho works really well and you can sense the difference in pace between the two environments. The characters I met while playing really grew on me and I really enjoyed how the relationship between them built throughout the game. You really don’t need to have played the previous games to enjoy this one but helpfully the game does include a memories section on the menu so you can check out a summary of the story so far if any background is required. The main antagonist Ed is genuinely intimidating, think huge Chinese guy with ring glasses and a flick knife. His introduction is extremely well delivered and makes very clear the type of violence he is capable of. I definitely looked forward to our future meeting.
Gameplay wise, Yakuza 6: The Song of life is essentially about a couple of things. There is a narrative, recreation in the form of mini games, exploration, and violence. This particular game has the benefit of a brand new engine powering the action, the Dragon engine. What this essentially means (aside from looking amazing) is that there are no load times or pauses when you head into a shop for a sandwich, a meal, or a beer. There are also no load times or introductions when you run into some punks or enemies in the street.
Previously you would touch shoulders, there would be some words spoken, and then a fight would ensue. Now you can see them indicated on your mini-map and when they notice you an exclamation mark appears above their heads a la metal gear solid, then you are welcome to unleash incredible violence upon their unfortunate souls. One of the most fun aspects of this is when you see them before they notice you. Unleash a flying jump kick, pick up whatever lies near you, and take care of business.
This is a very pure game in many ways. As far as controls go during combat you’ve got one button for kick, one for punch, one for grab, one for dodge, and the shoulder buttons are block and focus on an enemy. You build up your heat meter and then depending on the situations and what moves you have chosen to learn (fights earn you points to exchange toward moves and attributes) suddenly triangle becomes available and you can use a heat move. One of my favourites is throwing an enemy head first into a microwave at the local Poppo (7/11) and the helpful attendant hits the button with obvious consequences.
Violence aside, there are many extracurricular activities to occupy your time. Kamurocho is host to two Sega Worlds which are fully functioning arcades. Featuring classics such as Outrun, Super Hang On, Space Harrier, Puyo Puyo, AND Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown. Aside from spending your time in the arcade, there is karaoke at the always present host clubs, spear fishing, a baseball simulator, you can run a cat café, and go online in a somewhat explicit video chat mini game with unlockable videos plus more.
I personally spent more time in online chat than is healthy depending on your point of view. I do warn you though that should someone walk in while you are playing at the wrong moment there will be some explaining to be done for sure. I think it if I was ten years younger and straight I would have spent a lot more time with this particular distraction. But being a bit older it is hard not to cringe. I think it is great that we get Yakuza unaltered and uncensored nowadays but I think given this is an adult game and we all have the internet, Soft Porn just isn’t necessary.
In the end, the game is both the culmination of the series and also the closing of a chapter. Kazuma Kiryu has been central to the series and despite all the challenges and multiple attempts to leave the world of organised crime, it finally feels as though his narrative arc has come to an end. As someone who has played the series, it was quite an emotional journey, if I am honest. Story aside, it is also the best game engine in the series so far and they finally managed to get the mix of mini games, exploration, fighting, and story just right. You could play straight through the story in approximately 20 hours not counting side missions and recreation. If you take your time and take in all that Yakuza 6: The Song of Life has to offer, you will be playing for a long time to come. Post completion you have free reign of the game to do whatever you please and complete all of the sub quests and side stories you skipped through the main story. Even if you have not played a game in the series before I guarantee the characters will grow on you and I challenge anyone to play the game and not marvel at the skill of the storytelling.
The Bottom Line...
I genuinely enjoyed playing this game right from the beginning to the end. The balance of gameplay between recreation, battles, and story is spot on. You can easily continue through the story and come back to sub quests and gaming later. I found it a bit hard to stay away from the arcades and the many restaurants and distractions on offer. It would be a stretch to say it is my favourite in the series as all of them have their charms, although it certainly ranks highly in my mind. As far as effective and pure storytelling goes, for many Yakuza 2 was the peak. But with Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, we might have a new challenger.