Before playing this title, I had never known about the Yakuza series. What lured me to Yakuza 6 was my soft spot for anything Japanese and the fact that I may or may not have found the protagonist super attractive. Thankfully, it was more than just a bishōnen paradise. What I expected was a Japanese version of Grand Theft Auto; What I got was a colorful blend of storytelling and characters that not only circled around corruption, but also the trials of fatherhood.
Yakuza 6 is a welcoming entry point for newcomers and veterans alike. The game’s main menu features extensive recaps of the past installments thus far (excluding last year’s Yakuza 0) and the exhaustively long opening scene has you literally walking down memory lane to introduce the series’ key players. Loading screens also feature little tidbits of info to flesh out characters and locations.
You play as Kazuma Kiryu, the former 4th chairman of the Tojo Clan. After finishing a three year stint in prison, all Kiryu wants is to retire at Morning Glory Orphanage and live with his surrogate daughter, Haruka. But upon arriving, Kiryu finds out that Haruka was in a tragic hit and run accident, which has left her comatose. The one thing that she has left behind is a mysterious one year old son, Haruto. With the baby at his side, Kiryu is determined to find Haruto’s father but soon realizes that the baby has a target on its back.
The story will feel fundamentally similar to J-dramas for those who know them, packed to the brim with political intrigue, romance, and more villains than one can keep track of. There are plenty of new characters that are introduced and have decent character arcs, but Yakuza veterans may be disappointed with the lack of returning characters from the series roster. There are cameos and mentions of old characters here and there, but for the most part, they are separated enough to make this latest installment stand on its own.
Throughout the Yakuza series, family has always been a recurring theme; Whether it was the clan or Haruka, Kiryu always made it clear what he was fighting for. With Kiryu now an old man (despite looking like he’s in his late 30’s), he’s looking at a new generation forming before him. And though they may be decades apart, he and his peers start to understand who their family is together. This is where Yakuza succeeds; through compelling exposition, we feel the struggle of both the young and the old as they face betrayals and possibilities of losing the ones they love. But while the overarching theme is effective, it’s the filling that falls flat. Yakuza 6 starts off coherent with the focus primarily focused on finding Haruto’s father. But once Kiryu starts getting drawn into yakuza conflict, it starts to become unnecessarily convoluted. Suddenly, we’re thrust in with wholly underdeveloped villains and an uninteresting plot line about uncovering some sort of conspiracy.
Kiryu doesn’t speak much, but when he does, it’s typically with his fists. Combat is very straightforward, with Kiryu throwing punches a majority of the time in the age old Yakuza brawler style. It’s a very repetitive process of game play, so from the perspective of a new player, the system ultimately makes the combat feel more like a chore, so I can only imagine what it feels like to series veterans. Especially considering that Yakuza 0 and Kwami alone had 3 combat styles to choose from in each, and Kiryu’s in 6 has been consolidated into only one. However, players can mix it up a bit by unlocking multiple “Heat” actions, which are basically the game’s set of rush mode attacks. The attacks vary from generic (body slamming enemies) to downright silly (sticking enemies’ heads in convenience store microwaves). It’s an easy system to master, but its lack of strategy and overabundance of button mashing makes for the weakest aspect of the game.
And while the game’s story certainly has its pick of vibrant characters to root for (and against), you can’t help but notice one glaring issue: its treatment of women. In 25 hours of gameplay, there are only two women present and both are defined by their maternal roles and relationships to the men at hand. Neither of them have any agency and even have to apologize for choosing other men than the ones who sought after them, and given that the game is in a contemporary Japan this feels like a missed opportunity. This might have flown in previous installments, but in 2016-2018, you’d think a game of this profile would be a little more progressive, regardless of being set in Japan or being about crime culture. Yakuza 6 is a work of fiction, and therefore should provide an opportunity for at least trying to bridge the gap, but this turn from Sega doesn’t even make the slightest attempt.
Yakuza 6’s storyline may only be 25 hours or so, but Sega fills up the game with enough side quests to keep you busy. There’s a new addition called the Troublr app, which will flood Kiryu’s phone with rescue missions throughout the city such as saving women from perverts and delivering a man toilet paper. If you don’t complete them right away, they’ll count as failed and will disappear (which would be a cool feature if they didn’t just reappear later on, but that’s video games).
There are also simple “sub stories,” which can be activated by talking to people or simply being in the right place at the right time. Many of the quests are simple collecting a list of jobs, but it’s the kooky subject matter that makes them so fun to take part in. Kiryu’s indifference toward anything and anyone lands in him in ridiculous scenarios such as filling in as the Onomichi mascot or help bring in stray cats to a cat cafe. It mixes in more contemporary themes to make Kiryu’s age even more apparent. They’re fun as quick breathers in between story missions, but don’t add anything more than a quick punching match.
Sega manages to make a tiny, closed environment feel so vibrant. Using real-life establishments such as Don Quixotes and APA Hotels, it gives the fictional Kamurocho a slice of Tokyo culture. The nighttime settings bring out the crowds and colors of the food stands and shops, making it feel like you’re actually walking through the famous city. And while much of the city is out of bounds, there are plenty of shops and arcades to explore. Kiryu can enjoy some karaoke, visit an internet cafe, or try out a plethora of authentic Japanese dishes from a multitude of restaurants.
The 2nd location, Onomichi, is a little quieter to mirror the sleepy, rural feel. Unlike its livelier counterpart, it’s primarily used for story missions and doesn’t have much in terms of activities except a few side quests here and there. With how much detail went into Kamurocho, it’s disappointing that Onomichi was left so barren.
Yakuza 6 may feel a little hollow at times, but Kiryu’s arc is the reason to keep playing. Whether you’re a new or veteran player, you will feel a personal connection to his story. Yakuza 6 may not stand on the same level as another game about fatherhood that came out this year, but it’s certainly worthy enough to be in the same conversation.