What a time to be a Yakuza fan. Zero and Kiwami last year, Song of Life and Kiwami 2 this year, Online and Hokuto no Ken in the near future and Shin Ryu Ga Gotoku on the horizon, it’s fantastic. Anyway enough gushing. Yakuza 6 is the latest and last entry in the story of Kazuma Kiryu, the strongest and most noble hot Dad in Japan, a man who’s spent twenty eight years beating the shit out of every member of multiple mafia groups from around East Asia while taking the time out to do literally anything else, all with the same level of commitment and sincerity. After the events of Yakuza 5, Kiryu is serving a three year prison sentence, so as to clear his conscience and slate for good before returning to “Morning Glory” orphanage, which he runs. Haruka, his adopted daughter, has become a tabloid obsession after she revealed her relationship to Kiryu, known only to the public as an infamous ex-Yakuza, and flees said orphanage so as not to mess up the orphans’ chances in life. Kiryu gets out, discovers she’s in a coma after being hit by a car, and not only does she now have a baby named Haruto, but no one knows who the father is and she recently spent time in Onomichi, Hiroshima; home of a Yakuza clan so fearsome and secretive that no one’s ever even tried to fight them, and no one knows if their chairman is even still alive. As a swansong for The Dragon of Dojima, it’s bittersweet and fitting. Rather than go for an MGS4-style “The gang’s all here” story that ties up all the loose ends and brings back everyone who’s ever been relevant to the story in any capacity, Song of Life is just another story for Kiryu, in which he forms close bonds to the small-time Hirose family, solves some mysteries and bows out gracefully, letting the story of the Tojo Clan and Kamurocho go on. There’s a strong theme of parenthood, in particular the relationship between fathers and sons, and the sacrifices big and small that parents make. Interestingly despite his popularity and upcoming new campaign in Kiwami 2 Majima is barely in it, but the game reintroduces the Korean Jingweon just in time for players to deal with them in the same game, and the Snake Flower triad is back from Kiwami 1, all but destroyed and replaced by the new Saio Triad. The new characters are universally good; the scrappy Hirose family and their adorably placid patriarch played by legendary actor and director “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, Jingweon boss and a sort of SNK cross between Vergil and Liquid Snake: Joon-Gi Han, and some truly detestable villains whose identities I won’t spoil. It’s a strong story of human relationships, the strain put on them by a life of organised crime and people’s own personal ideas of identity and how relationships work, as well as how damaging a lust for power can be and the consequences it can have.
If you’ve never played a Yakuza game, it’s basically an RPG with free, open melee combat and a load of minigames and side quests. The combat is as satisfying as ever, but has been streamlined to its slight detriment. Heat actions- strong, special attacks using the environment or weapons, and governed by a bar under Kiryu’s health, are reduced in number. There is no longer any way of finishing off a downed enemy with a loafer stomp or punch in the mush, and the three fighting styles from 0 and Kiwami have been melted down into one, as it used to be. Kiryu’s style is reasonably quick, powerful brawling, with a new “Extreme Heat” mode activated by the player, which enables the automatic weapon pick-up element of the “Beast” style, as well as new heat moves and added armour to attacks. Completing missions, even the “defend yourself” objective you’re given whenever you’re in a street fight, earns points in five different sections that can be used to buy new techniques or upgrade Kiryu’s health, damage, defence, evasion and heat gauge, all scored on a letter grade system. Bosses have only one health bar now, but activate their own permanent heat mode about halfway through the fight for armour at the expense of blocking. They too have been streamlined, though for the better: for the most part they lack the irritating trend with some bosses in the series of attacks that render Kiryu stunned and leave only small, awkward openings to counter. The characteristic minigames are present and correct, and alongside the sidequests they drew me in more than any other game in the series. Karaoke, darts, mashing face buttons to have Kiryu get way to enthusiastic talking to live-action cam girls, finding and befriending stray cats for a cafe, going to the product placement gym, it’s all gold. The biggest new change is to the open world itself; Kiryu can walk in and out of shops freely, fights can spill into businesses, and doing so gets you barred for a short time. Cars drive through the streets and have to be negotiated. Onomichi is a sleepy seaside town, in contrast to the bustle of Kamurocho, which having stayed largely the same since the original game is pleasingly familiar; a comforting base on which to layer on the new changes. Kamurocho itself is one of the best aspects of this series and to have it grow whilst being comfortingly familiar is a triumph of design.
Yakuza 6 maintains the high standards set by a series that is now twelve years old; if you know the series then you know what to expect, and whether you’re a fan or not this is worth playing. Kazuma Kiryu’s final chapter is a moving, emotional story with great new characters, wrapped in a thick layer of satisfying combat and engrossing minigames. It’s the best of the three recent Yakuza games, and quite possibly the best Yakuza I’ve played. Kiryu will be missed, but what a way to bow out.
By James Lambert