"There's murder, intrigue, babysitting, and thoughtful contemplation on what it means to be a man and a father in these changing times."
The Yakuza games were always at the top of my pile of shame. I briefly played a demo of the original way back in college (complete with Mark Hamill's awesome but entirely inappropriate voice over), but I bounced right off thanks to the clunky mechanics and overall lack of fluidity. I made the mistake of skipping Yakuza 2's release (which everybody seems to think is a series high point), zoned out for 3, 4, and 5, and finally gave the series a real try with Yakuza 0 last year. Admittedly, it still took me quite a while to really get what the big deal was with Kiryu (last name) Kazuma (first name) and all of his stoic awesomeness, but eventually I came to appreciate the melodramatic story mixed with Japanese zaniness. Yakuza 0 was an amazing place to start for a first-timer, and I've been anxiously awaiting the latest and last installment in The Dragon of Dojima's story. Finally, Yakuza 6 has reached the west, and it brings Kiryu's story to a close while also laying down a lot of great groundwork for future installments and interesting side stories.
Our story picks up several years after everything really hit the fan at the end of Yakuza 5 (and thankfully, Yakuza 6 includes movies to bring you up to speed with all of the previous games). Kiryu has spent some time in jail, and he reenters the world having learned about a terrible tragedy that's befallen his surrogate family. There's murder, intrigue, babysitting, and thoughtful contemplation on what it means to be a man and a father in these changing times. Series veterans might be a little disappointed in the narrative's renewed focus, as Kiryu is the only playable character and most of the series regulars are gone for one reason or another. While this may cut down on some of the epic scope from previous installments, it also puts Kiryu front and center in a way that makes this truly his story and a fitting finale for one of the more interesting characters in gaming today. Kiryu, much like The Witcher's Geralt, is trying to do the right thing for those around him, and he's also kind of a doofus who gets himself into a fair bit of trouble thanks to his sense of honor and duty. Still, he's a likeable enough guy, and I was pretty enthralled with his story the whole way through. Even when the story appears to be flying completely off the rails towards the end, it manages to keep the human elements of the story in the spotlight.
While the main story is well told and fairly exciting, it does suffer from some pacing issues here and there. I'm happy to report that you can fast forward through the vast majority of the dialogue, as Yakuza 0 quickly showed me the limits of my patience when it comes to hearing the same major plot points over and over. The writers seem to have a hard time keeping things concise, and at times I was ready to just get on with the next task instead of hearing the same reactions over and over. Some of the major plot twists are also about as surprising as a sunrise. One particular reveal is actually shown in a trailer, and if you know almost anything about Japanese cinema, then you can kind of see who the real bad guys are from the very start. Still, the story is entertaining, and I was surprised how well things came together in the end.
When you're not watching long and involved cutscenes, you'll spend your time wandering the streets of Kamurocho (a fictional red-light district in Tokyo) and the small seaside town of Onomichi (a real city in Hiroshima prefecture). I was expecting to find the environments fairly dull and repetitive, given that every Yakuza game focuses on recreating the same section of Tokyo, but I was surprised how fresh it managed to feel just a year after my previous visit. The whole thing looks better thanks to the new engine (more on that later), but the real focus is on the sub stories and various characters you meet and reunite with. In this way, Yakuza is far more concerned with making you feel like Kamurocho is a real place thanks to its inhabitants. You'll bump into people who need a favor or have a story to tell, and it all feels a lot more natural than most open-world games. There's a lot to do, of course, but Yakuza 6 has far fewer side activities and less content than Yakuza 0. That is certainly going to be a sticking point for fans, but for me, the game feels more focused and better for it. I found most of the side stuff more engaging, and the rewards play into the upgrade systems in a way that's far more fulfilling than Yakuza 0's weird CP system.
At this point, I pretty much expect that I will be fighting roving bands of thugs should I ever take a trip to Tokyo. Yeah, you get into a lot of fights in Yakuza 6, and that's essentially the game's bread and butter in terms of gameplay. The new Dragon Engine is fully on display here, as just about everything is physics based in this latest installment. You'll watch enemies ragdoll and flop around the environment as you kick their teeth in, and it's incredibly satisfying to knock a flashing neon sign into someone's backside. Keep in mind, however, that those thugs can do the same thing to you, so there's a definite flow that amounts to more than just mashing square and triangle over and over again. Thankfully, I had a lot of practice after my 60 plus hours with Yakuza 0, but there's a real style to the combat that you'll have to get used to if you're a newcomer. Make sure to focus on crowd control and try not to wade into a large number of enemies or you'll certainly pay for it with a ton of your precious health bar.
Perhaps the biggest change to Yakuza 6 comes in how you power Kiryu up over the course of the adventure. Instead of dumping tons of money into an odd skill tree, you now gain five different types of experience points that you'll spread over Kiryu's repertoire of skills. You'll upgrade his base damage and health, learn new heat moves (massive attacks that you have to build up to during combat), and spice up your social skills to help in some of your side activities. You gain all of these experience points from everything you do in the world, which incentivizes you to get into fights, play a round of darts, or hang out at the internet café. In this way, Yakuza 6 constantly rewards you for goofing off and finding your own fun, and I wish more RPGs would incorporate this style of upgrade system. Can you imagine if Gwent gave you some new powers in Witcher 3? Yeah, I probably would have stuck with that card game a bit longer if it played directly with the rest of the experience. Yakuza 6 revels in this connection between various systems and is all the better for it.
This upgrade system also helps to make Yakuza 6 incredibly immersive. It feels natural to get into a fight, hit up the bar for some food in order to gain back your lost health, earn some experience points for eating the local sushi delicacy, and then dump those experience points back into your combat skills for later use. The system isn't totally balanced, unfortunately, as I earned far more strength and agility points than the ever important charm points, but that's also because I spent far more time brawling instead of drinking with friends. I also found myself strangely addicted to the baseball minigame (complete with the best use of the PS4's touchpad I've seen yet) and the simple-but-fun exercise of throwing darts at the local bar. Baseball is further fleshed out with a light management sim that has you making friends around Onomichi to build a championship squad, and I'm hoping to spend a lot more time with my team over the next couple weeks. There's also a gang management minigame that I'm a little less than excited about, unfortunately. It plays like a strange reverse tower defense game for your cell phone, but it feels a little slapdash and isn't nearly as addicting as Majima's hostess club from Yakuza 0.
While Yakuza 6 is certainly a very fun and addicting experience, it also shows some serious signs of strain when it comes to the series' more glaring issues. While the following complaints are far from a deal breaker, they are becoming harder and harder to ignore given how many of these games exhibit the same problems. Combat is certainly fun and exciting against your standard mook enemies, but things can get incredibly aggravating during boss encounters. These battles are supposed to be exciting tests of Kiryu's skills, but they often degenerate into a frustrating war of attrition. Your opponents cheat like an arcade coin muncher, ignoring your attacks at random times and taking away most of your health with a basic combo. They also have almost zero wind up on their attacks, so all of Kiryu's defensive strategies are basically Hail Mary desperation moves that you'll have to dial in before you see the assault coming. You'll be forced to suck down health potions just like all of the previous games, and things get especially bad when there's a super-tough enemy mixed in with a bunch of redshirt schmucks. Kiryu can take an agonizingly long time to recover from even the most glancing of blows, and that can leave you at the mercy of a super-tough enemy who flies in out of nowhere. The way Yakuza 6 handles heat mode (where Kiryu essentially turns into a Super Saiyan) is also quite problematic. The camera zooms in way too close, keeping most of your threats off screen, and then the game does this weird thing where Kiryu will automatically pick up any nearby weapon and start swinging it around like his Beast stance from Yakuza 0. It's designed to help you, but it's incredibly aggravating to slowly whip a bicycle around in a circle when you needed to hit that guy directly in front of you fast. Thankfully, holding L2 will keep you from picking up random objects or using your heat attacks, but it's an awkward compromise to an awkward system. You can dish out a great deal of extra damage in heat mode, sure, but you'll also take far more because you can't properly defend yourself at times.
It's also worth noting that the way Yakuza 6 handles the main story progression is occasionally troublesome. You'll bounce between Kamurocho and Onomichi as the story develops, but you can't move between zones until the very end of the adventure. This quirk was present in Yakuza 0, but it's more pronounced here as you have a single character with lots to do in both places. I wanted to spend some time with my baseball team, but I was forced to ignore my friends for hours until I finally got the opportunity to return back to Onomichi. It makes sense in the context of the story, but it can cut off the more fun parts of the game for long periods of time.
In the end, Yakuza 6 is a satisfying conclusion to Kiryu's story that manages to push the series forward while also casting a bit of a spotlight on the more glaring issues that should probably be addressed. The new engine is a big step forward for the franchise, but it's also got a lot of the same issues and quirks that fans have been complaining about for years now. It's exciting to think about the prospect of Yakuza Kiwami 2 and the new Fist of the North Star game making it to the west, as these games seem to be adding a lot to the proven formula. Count me in for whatever comes next, but I would very much like to see a couple key changes to smooth out some of the rougher parts.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.