You may not be aware of it, but the SEGA dream lives on today. It may not be through the middling success of Sonic the Hedgehog (it'll bounce back from Sonic Forces, right?), but through the excellence shown in their very own Yakuza franchise, a series that has always been more popular in Japan than in North America up until the globally successful release of Yakuza 0 last year. A blend of over-the-top beat-em-up action and RPG elements, the Yakuza series stands as SEGA's competitor to Grand Theft Auto. The series offers a solemn, serious story not dissimilar in tone to the Metal Gear Solid franchise, with hours of minigames and distracting sidequests. Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is not only an excellent conclusion to this high-quality action series, but it refines its best traits to the point of greatness.
As with the rest of the series, the latest installment tells the story of Kazuma Kiryu, a fearsome gangster known as "The Dragon of Dojima," an ultimately bighearted and caring man who has never taken a life but would easily risk his own for those he cares for. One of these people is Haruka Sawamura, who he raised and cared for since the beginning of the series. In the previous two main entries, we have seen several playable characters whose fates interweave with Kiryu. In Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, we see the dramatic finale of Kiryu's story, with the focus shifted entirely on him. Being such a memorable and iconic character to the series, he definitely gets the send-off he deserves.
Set three years after the events of Yakuza 5, Haruka's days as an idol have come to an end, and Kiryu is left believing he is to blame after being accidentally ousted by her in an emotional retirement speech. Serving four years in prison for his past crimes in an act of appeasement, he returns to his orphanage and discovers that Haruka had disappeared nearly three years ago, so he sets out to find her. Instead, he learns that she was struck by a car in a gang related incident, taking most of the damage to protect her one year old son, Haruto, and leaving her in critical condition.
Angered, Kiryu flip flops between Kamurucho, Tokyo and Onomichi, Hiroshima, looking for the child's father and trying to find answers. Along the way, he meets and befriends the Hirose Family, a local Yakuza gang raised by a lovable patriarch, who do everything they can to help him. But, as it turns out, the answers Kiryu seeks about his foster-grandson go far deeper than anybody would believe, and with rising tensions between two major Yakuza factions, his former Tojo Clan and the Omi Alliance, the Korean Jingweon Mafia, Chinese Triads, who recently expanded into Japan, he needs to fight harder than ever to come out alive.
The story of Yakuza 6 follows the trend with other games in the series: highly cinematic, incredibly stylish cinematography, and ultimately satisfying to watch. The lengths Kiryu goes through to help others go far past that of a simple yakuza code of honor. He's an intimidating figure in an outdated leisure suit, but if he sees a stranger having a bad day, he's the first to do whatever he can to help. He's a stand-up guy, and his good nature is always complimented by those he surrounds himself with, be it the reckless, young yakuza members he teaches manners to or good-natured detectives who help him out on his adventures.
The new characters and setting of Onomichi left an interesting and refreshing take on the series, showcasing a more rural, laidback lifestyle than the intense, fast paced way of life in Kamurucho. The newly created Dragon engine allows for the most emotive story visualization I've ever seen in a video game, with every last line in the game having full voice acting. The acting and the overall story is at the top of its class, but, as with every game since Yakuza 2, there is no English voicing option, meaning you're going to be doing a lot of reading. That could be a negative to some, but not to me, as I feel it adds to the tone and realism.
While the emotional, soap-opera-esque main story may not be what you're looking for if you aren't a fan of cinematic cutscenes (and this game has a LOT of them), you can still skip through them and get right to the gameplay, which is where the Yakuza party really kicks off. First off, the combat in this game is incredible. As you roam the streets of Kamuchuro and Hiroshima, you're going to encounter thugs, Yakuza, triads, and more—all of whom will attack you when they spot you. And the fun really begins when they do. Using fighting game-styled combos, you punch, kick, and block your way through a crowd of yakuza, gaining enough energy to enter Extreme Heat Mode, which allows you to pull off some crazy, hyperviolent actions.
Aside from that, during fights you can find a plethora of items laying around, waiting for you to pick them up and bash some heads. There is nothing more pleasing than picking up a motorcycle and devastating your foes by swinging it around. In addition, Yakuza 6 ditches the skill tree of past games for a menu that allows you to upgrade your stats, battle moves, and other miscellaneous things that make you more proficient in other aspects of the game. These unlockables keep the game incredibly refreshing, transforming the gameplay towards the end.
One issue I found with the gameplay in Yakuza 6 in contrast to earlier games is that there are fewer crazy Heat Actions that you can perform. It's still fun, but not as vibrant or wacky as past Yakuza games. The controls have been heavily simplified from previous games in the series and allow you to get more creative in your fights. This can be a negative if you're a fan of the several movesets and fighting styles of Yakuza 0 and Yakuza Kiwami, but it's a positive for a newcomer to the series to jump in and enjoy.
There are also a ton of sidequests and minigames that never fail to entertain. On your journey, you're going to meet up with a ton of strange characters who make up for some great comic relief, with lines and quests that are written just as well as the core story. There's also a social media app called "Troublr," which allows Kiryu to pick up requests and help people out in different ways, from defusing a bomb to bringing napkins to somebody trapped in a toilet. There are so many small details in the game, such as the revamp of in-game vending machines, where you can buy beverages and drink them as you walk around, offering temporary stat boosts. You can eat at restaurants when you're hungry, and earn experience points from just about anything you do.
When it comes to minigames, there are so many things to do it'll make your head spin. In the middle of the game's missions, you can take a break and go to batting cages, sing karaoke, go to hostess clubs, get involved in online chatrooms, compete in Pocket Circuit tournaments, play a trading card game that features anime women as insects, start a fitness regiment, or play darts and mahjong. You can even purchase and manage a goddamned cat cafe, where you find and befriend stray cats to take into your cafe for people to appreciate.
In addition, the Club Sega arcades that are a mainstay in downtown Tokyo have returned in this installment with more games than ever. You can play full arcade versions of games like Puyo Puyo, Space Harrier, OutRun, Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown, and Super Hang-On. If you have any friends to play with, Puyo Puyo and Virtua Fighter 5 are available to play in couch multiplayer. The inclusion of these games within Yakuza 6 is ultimately one of the most wonderful things I've seen in an open world game.
Aside from the fun things to do in town, there's also a Clan Creator mode that flips the game's format upside down with strategy RPG gameplay. You can build up your own gang, recruit new members, and grow in size to the point of taking down JUSTIS, a new gang in Japan with incredible size that causes trouble on the streets. The mechanics work perfectly, and it's a refreshing break from the adrenaline filled, face-to-face fighting. Clan Creator mode is by far the most expansive minigame in the entire Yakuza series, with an online multiplayer component, an ARG hosted by SEGA, and several hours of content.
While the open world of Yakuza 6 may not even be a fraction of the size of a game like Grand Theft Auto V or Far Cry 5, the true charm of the game lies within the world's absolutely perfect design. Kamurucho and Onomichi are fully realized, dense, breathing towns that take less than five minutes to run a circle around, but simultaneously can leave you distracted for hundreds of hours. While other games with massive, sprawling maps that might take hours to explore, the small areas of Yakuza 6 are completely packed with people, bars, restaurants, and tons of entertainment centers. Every building is different, every sidequest is brimming with originality and fun.
In my opinion, this is the most immersive game ever made. In every way, the game finds a way to put you in Kiryu's shoes, from making friends at a bar to becoming a miniature car racing champion. I didn't even know the game had a first person mode until much later, but you don't even need it to feel like you're connected to his world.
Visually, the game is stunning. You can see each individual pore in the characters' faces, right down to visually accurate sweat and tear drops. The scenery is incredible looking and there is a true attention to detail in just about everything that you see with a wild amount of clarity. I personally would have preferred some more PlayStation 4 Pro options; the option to choose a higher framerate over a higher resolution would be nice. With some very minor issues with pop-in and aliasing aside, Yakuza 6 stands as one of the most visually impressive games I've ever played. I have no complaints about the music either; it adds to the intensity of any situation and impacts emotional scenes in the way it should.
Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is a great entry to the series, and it's easily the most accessible. While it is the final entry in the series to feature Kiryu, you really don't need to play previous entries to understand and enjoy it. While some gameplay elements have been streamlined and a few features were stripped from the decade old franchise, it doesn't take away from the fun. Its new engine completely transforms the series into such a beautiful sight. The story is captivating to no end, with characters you can come to love, and the absolute roller-coaster of the final five chapters. You can beat the main story in twenty hours, or you could spend over one hundred getting distracted by the game's well illustrated, complete, and vivid open world. If you're a fan of crazy action games, exploring a world, or you just love a good cinematic experience in a video game, I cannot recommend this game enough to you.