Jumping into the “Yakuza” series right now is a tricky proposition. Sega’s long-running underworld crime saga has been out for more than a decade and has several chapters that follow the exploits of legendary gangster Kazuma Kiryu.
The developers have been trying to get both new and longtime fans into the series with a two-pronged approach. They keep adding new chapters with the series even going as far as creating a “Yakuza 0” that looks at early days of Kiryu. The other part of the effort is the remastering of the past entries to the series with “Yakuza Kiwami 2” coming in August.
The latest entry, “Yakuza 6: The Song of Life,” shows Kiryu at the opposite end of life. He’s 48 and raising a new generation at his orphanage in Okinawa. After spending three years in prison, he has sworn off the yakuza life, but he ends up being pulled back in after Haruka, one of his wards, ends up in a coma. She was injured in a hit-and-run while protecting her baby named Haruto.
The mystery behind the incident leads Kiryu to Onomichi in Japan’s Hiroshima prefecture and to his old stomping ground of Kamurocho. Like in previous entries, the developers do an excellent job re-creating the real-life locations in the video game. They capture the historic Senko-ji temple on the Onomichi hillside and they replicate the frenetic and risqué allures of the Kabukicho red-light district in the fictional neighborhood of Kamurocho.
For newcomers, playing “Yakuza 6” is like entering the Marvel cinematic universe by starting with “Thor: Ragnarok.” On its own, the game is a good experience that goes enough into the backstory that players won’t feel lost, but they won’t be able to appreciate the jokes and depth of the storytelling. “Yakuza 6” features references to previous sub stories and characters in the series while Kamurocho itself has undergone a dramatic transformation over the years.
With that said, the game still retains its melodramatic storytelling and its quirky sense of humor. Kiryu’s mission to uncover what happened to Haruka during his time in prison brings him in the middle of a gang turf war. Players can expect twists and turns as his personal life intertwines with underworld politics.
It takes a few hours for this part of the narrative to hit its stride, and even after that, “Yakuza 6” will introduce some of its newer gameplay elements such as the clan creator that lets Kiryu build his own gang. He can command his squad of fighters to battle other street crews with mechanics that resemble a real-time strategy game.
Although it’s the serious plotlines that move the narrative forward, the fun of the “Yakuza” games has always been the weird side quests that Kiryu comes across. He’ll have to defeat a scam artist masquerading as a guru for a cult. Another misadventure has him installing a rogue AI program on his phone and finding a way to uninstall it.
Most of these subquests have Kiryu battling ne’er-do-wells or comically inept foes. At first, it’s a delight, but over time, the flaws in “Yakuza 6’s” combat system become more and more blatant. The progression system that powers up the legendary Dragon of Dojima is straightforward and rewards players who battle, eat and dabble in hobbies. Fans should appreciate its simplicity compared to past games, but its fighting system feels dated.
The combat is still friendly toward button-mashers, but it can be difficult when dealing with multiple foes. The lock-on system requires Kiryu to face an opponent and that leaves him open to attacks from behind. Often blocking is more effective than evasion in tight spaces and there isn’t much feeling of reward when pulling off combos. Fighting is often about trying to beat annoying enemies in the shortest amount of time possible while using the fewest resources.
Thankfully, “Yakuza 6” has enough distractions and minigames to keep the constant fighting from growing dull. This entry has adapted with the times with smartphones, high-tech dart boards and internet chatrooms. Players can enjoy some of these classic “Yakuza” pastimes in an updated format or they can try new activities like speargun fishing.
If only the series took the same modern approach to the combat system, “Yakuza 6” could have been a chapter that revolutionized the series. Right now, it’s a very good chapter that veterans of the franchise will love.