They say first impressions last. And thank goodness this isn’t always true, because while Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is not immediately endearing, it’s worth letting it warm up.
The game opens with around an hour of opening cinematics, broken up by one short combat tutorial. Now, I’m into cut scenes, I enjoy plot-heavy, dialogue-driven games. But the narrative style that launches Yakuza 6 falls into the same trap as the Star Wars prequels: scene after scene of humourless characters delivering exposition in sit-down meetings.
Here’s a blow-by-blow of that first hour. Dry dialogue while:
- Sitting at a bar
- Standing on a stage
- Standing in a hallway
- Lying in a bed
- Sitting in a wheelchair
- Sitting at a dinner table
- Sitting on the beach, looking at a phone
- Standing in another hallway
- Walking down a city road (to its credit, this bit had more movement, danger music and fire)
- Sitting in an apartment, looking at the fire
- Standing on a porch
- Sitting at the same dinner table again
- Back on the porch again!
- Standing slightly closer to a road, but with the porch very close by.
This was not a great start. But, very aware that I was entering the sixth instalment of a franchise that’s been around for over a decade (not including spin-offs or whatever Yakuza 0 is), I wanted to keep an open mind.
And thank goodness I did. Once the cut scenes let up, and I was able to just play the game, I slowly started to get it. It’s a little like Tekken, or Metal Gear Solid, in that the tone is audaciously inconsistent. Here we have the wooden and often silent protagonist Kazuma Kiryu heading a dark and serious plot. But when it comes to the gameplay, the fun really starts, and we wind up with a jarring contrast of silly and serious.
Sure, you could say the silliness undermines the straight-laced themes. This makes it easy to mock or dismiss. But if you choose to take it in on its own terms, Yakuza 6 is very rewarding to engage with. This is showcased nowhere better than the use of bicycles.
If I could offer you one piece of advice for a street fight, it is this: watch for bike stands. Because even if you’re a seasoned, legendary yakuza boss, nothing ends a fight quite like lifting a bicycle in both hands and body-slamming your foe.
It’s very silly. And very fun.
It’s in these moments that Yakuza 6 shines. The main story does pick up, but it never truly manages to stop being a chore in comparison to the ocean of ridiculous environmentally-interactive martial art madness to unlock, and side-quests to stumble across.
I still haven’t unlocked the chopstick-parry, but I’ve seen the thumbnail preview in the in-game smartphone menu, and I can’t wait.
The combat itself is somewhat forgiving to a button-mash approach. It basically comes down to the light attack, heavy attack, grab, and dodge buttons. A step up from button mashing light and heavy attacks would be adopting the Witcher or Bloodborne approach, throwing in strategic dodges. This is more or less where I am, but I definitely get the impression that there’s a more true-to-brand Yakuza fighting rhythm that I haven’t quite dug into yet.
I may have spent a little too much time replying to the Battle Master’s combat tips with cat stickers. They weren’t always appreciated, but he’d always politely reply.
The more fun you choose to have with fights, the more fun the game will be, of course. As mentioned, you could button mash your way through a lot of it. But I chose to focus my experience points on new moves, rather than increased HP and strength stats. This opens up opportunities. To reference The Witcher and Bloodborne again, the combat of Yakuza 6 really started to click for me after unlocking basic parrying. And it just got better from there.
Being a light-footed, sidestepping, bicycle slamming fighter was loads more fun than trying to progress as a HP-heavy basic tank. Given the sheer number of new moves available, I would say this is deliberate. I felt encouraged to vary my fighting style, and eventually to even leave the familiar bike stands! Many of the unlockable moves are contextual on your environment.
The wonderful thing about Yakuza 6 is there is always something to be distracted by. At first, it feels like a nuisance. There’s a terribly important mission that requires my urgent attention. I don’t have time to join a gym, or play old Sega arcade games, or look longingly at foods that shine in the same glorious glaze used by Final Fantasy XV’s resident chef.
But then some side quests and mini-games began to actively seek me out, starting dialogue with me on the street as I rush to the next terribly important main story mission point. And I got sidetracked. And two things happen at this moment. First, the realisation that the main story plot point isn’t actually on a timer – even though it was discussed urgently at the last cut-scene, it’ll patiently wait for me whenever I decide to follow up.
Secondly, and more importantly, the side quest is so much more fun. Whether Kiryu needs to sub in for an absent TV show mascot, or offer sage advice to some youngsters who recently watched Freaky Friday, or just calm down a crying baby, these are the entertaining and often legitimately laugh-out-loud hilarious gems hidden behind Yakuza 6’s sombre shroud.
Maybe I am going a little hard on the primary story. A few chapters in, Kiryu softens, I start to sympathise for his cause and relate to his decisions. Supporting characters gain a bit of depth. There’s a particular cut-scene that relies heavily on toilet humour, which really turned me around.
It does bother me that the few women in the game are generally relegated to tired tropes – almost exclusively damsels in distress. But not every time, and there’s a significant character who is on the fringes of being the proverbial innocent virginal dreamgirl. But she’s also an single mother, who isn’t judged for being so by other characters. It feels like a nuanced subversion of that expected character type.
Yakuza 6 is what it is, and is unapologetic about it. It’s unapologetically Japanese, with its sometimes confusing labyrinth of menus and Japanese-only audio. It’s unapologetically male-driven, very few female characters and constant talks of patriarchs. It’s unapologetically a sequel, with frequent reminders of Kiryu’s former glory days in the Tojo Clan.
Most importantly, it’s unapologetically a game. It doesn’t obsess with realism. It aims to entertain, not to immerse. And if you approach it on those terms, it excels.