Long-time fans of the Yakuza series are likely a little floored with the sudden new rush of releases in the West. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that each new entry into the series would bring with it a three or four year wait to see if it would even come West. With the release of Yakuza 6, and the recent announcement of Kiwami 2 for August of this year, we’ll have seen four mainline games released in two years.
If any series deserves all this sudden recognition, however, it’s Yakuza. After all, it’s been fantastic since 2005 – it’s just taken us a little while to realize it.
You’d think as the latest – and last – entry into the hard life of series-lead Kazuma Kiryu, Yakuza 6 would bring with it an awful lot of baggage. Indeed, it’s that weighty history that always made me reticent to dive into the franchise many years ago – but I can safely say that Yakuza 6 demands nothing of its players.
Whilst prior knowledge is rewarded with plenty of callbacks and nods to the series long-reaching roots, they are by no means necessary. Despite the six mainline entries preceding it, including last year’s fantastic Yakuza 0, Yakuza 6 can be enjoyed by both newcomers and veterans.
Stoic badass Kazuma Kiryu has just gotten out of his latest stint in jail, having heroically taken the fall for one of his many miscreant friends, and has decided to retire to Okinawa to spend his waning years in the company of his family – an orphanage peopled by kids Kazuma has helped rescue. Upon returning to the orphanage, however, Kazuma finds one of those children missing and heads back to the mainland to find her. Before long, Kazuma finds himself thrust once more into the back-biting, melodrama-fuelled world of the Yakuza, only now toting a baby he’s picked up along the way.
If this seems like a bizarre turn of events, it is. As strange as it may be, however, Yakuza is never hard to follow – even if this is your first time in the neon-soaked streets of Kamarucho. Through a fully-voiced campaign packed with beautiful cutscenes, Yakuza never misses a beat in telling a fast-paced, violent story about a street-tough with a heart of gold. Kazuma’s soul-piercing glare tends to rub people the wrong way, and he ends up at the business end of their baseball bats on more than one occasion, but through an action-packed tale filled with the weirdness that makes Japan so special, we grow to love it all – the sights, the sounds and the extroverted characters of Japan through Yakuza’s unique filter.
Following the phenomenal Yakuza 0 is no mean feat, as the follow up Kiwami proved a mere six months ago. The incredibly long shadow cast by that prequel can still be felt in Yakuza 6, but despite coming up short in a few areas Song of Life is still a massive success. The wacky variety 0 offered up at every turn is restricted here, replaced instead by a more focused game that streamlines systems seemingly in the hopes of drawing the biggest crowd possible. For the most part this gambit pays off, as Yakuza 6 is the most fun and instantly-gratifying game the series has offered up yet. Whilst a bevy of fighting styles and deep customization have been sacrificed at this particular altar, the results make for an interesting sequel rather than an incremental evolution.
Throughout Yakuza 6 you’ll be running from point A to point B completing tasks and furthering the story in the two large maps the game has to offer. The red-light district of Kamarucho in Tokyo, and a quaint little village in Hiroshima. These two wildly different locales make for a great dichotomy in terms of atmosphere, and I really loved poking around each one to find its many secrets – whether those were unique minigames, befriending the locals or rescuing cats for my very own Cat Café.
When it comes to quests – be it mainline story quests or one of the many side quests and diversions – most solutions come at the end of Kazuma’s knuckles. Very few problems in Japan can’t be solved with trading blows and bloodying noses, it seems, and Kazuma Kiryu is as good a fist-flinger as we’ve ever enjoyed in videogames. His repertoire of moves slowly grows as you gain experience and unlock options in the no-frills upgrade menu, and whether you’re just starting out or finishing things up twenty hours later you’ll always feel like a badass. The 3D brawler set up works brilliantly, with Kazuma facing down whole gangs on his own by smacking them about with his fists or picking up potted-plants, bicycles or signposts to smack them even harder. Multi-man combat could easily feel unwieldy but thanks to a system that has been polished to a mirror sheen over the past decade everything just flows. Decimating your enemies with the Saiyan-like Super Heat or destroying them with context-sensitive finishing blows is a real trip, and it’s as fun here as it’s ever been.
Despite these rock-solid foundations, combat might get a little stale if Yakuza 6 didn’t have the fantastic gameplay loop it boasts. With every action – be that beating up thugs, eating at restaurants or playing games at the arcade – scoring you valuable experience points, you’ll find yourself constantly dipping into your menu and unlocking a new power or improving your base stats. These changes are immediately noticeable too, and act as a very tempting carrot-on-a-stick every time you find a side quest or a random encounter pops up on the map.
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