Yakuza 6 isn’t just the ending of a journey for Kiryu Kazuma, It’s the end of a journey for me, too. Years and years ago, I had heard of the Yakuza series and bought a few of the PS3 entries so that they could collect dust on my shelf, but It wasn’t until 3 years ago that I finally picked up the controller and starting the series all the way from the beginning. From then till now, I’ve been working my way through each entry in the series, from humble beginnings on the PS2 to grand adventures on the PS4. I’ve witnessed these characters grow and age over ten years of Yakuza, and loved every second of it. Now, with Yakuza 6, the generation-spanning story of ex-Yakuza legend Kiryu Kazuma comes to an end, and it’s going out with a hell of a bang.
Yakuza 6 picks up directly after the ending of Yakuza 5, but very quickly brings us forward 4 years in order to keep Yakuza 6 current with the year that it released in, a trend that every non-Zero Yakuza game has followed. It’s easy to start with almost any game in this series and still get a lot out of it, but Yakuza 6 isn’t quite as easy to do that with. A lot of the narrative is steeped in the events of previous games, and driven by the participants of said events. The story feels much more concerned with wrapping up a 7-game story and satisfying long-time fans than creating an easy-to-swallow entry point for newcomers.
Still, as the story comes to a close and the credits start playing, a few things nagged at me as someone who played through every game in the series. Kiryu gets a finale fitting to the Dragon of Dojima, but so many important characters from his past are either quickly brushed aside or missing entirely. There are a lot of characters whose fates are so closely entwined with that of Kiryu Kazuma, that it feels a little bizarre for them to not get the same kind of closure or development here.
For all the finality of the story in Yakuza 6, the gameplay experience represents new beginnings and a bright future. This is the debut of the Dragon Engine, a new game engine for Yakuza games that represents the biggest technological jump in the franchise since the leap from Yakuza 2 on PS2 to Yakuza 3 on PS3.
To start, this is visually the most stunning Yakuza game to date. Lighting and shadows look too real to be true, and the attention to detail on the hair and faces in the game is scarily impressive. So many Yakuza characters have their faces scanned directly from a real actor, and while protagonist Kiryu Kazuma was crafted from scratch ten years ago, the amount of realistic detail and polish put into his appearance in Yakuza 6 makes him look as real as any scanned-in celebrity face.
Even more impressive than the graphical fidelity is the added nuance and realism in the world. The arcades and shops you’d always experience a loading screen upon interacting with them can now be entered and exited seamlessly, and Kiryu will naturally bump into and knock over bikes or signs or other scattered objects as he’s running around town. These changes carry over into battles, as well; Kiryu can bump into a crowd of thugs on the street and instantly begin battling them, naturally chasing them into the convenience store they’re all standing in front of as the swarm of thugs knocks over magazine racks and mess up food shelves.
While much of what this engine introduces is an upgrade, its effect on the combat system feels like a huge change. Yakuza games have always had a snappy, precise flow of combat similar to an Arkham Asylum or Shadow of Mordor. You would zero in on a single target and dish out methodical combos on them until an additional target came along for you to counter and shift your focus on. Yakuza 6 changes the feeling of combat to be less about one-on-one action, and more about multi-man brawls.
Kiryu has all the same attacks and abilities as always, but they now have a bit more natural momentum behind them, and your fists and feet will deal damage to everyone in their vicinity, with the bodies of your opponents naturally flailing and falling aside as you tackle them to the ground or toss them into a wall. In the early game, this change doesn’t feel like one for the better. Kiryu feels sluggish, and hits never seem to have the impact that they should. It’s only when you begin upgrading your arsenal that you’ll start feeling like the same old Dragon of Dojima.
Dumping EXP into your stats and abilities will help you feel as fast and fiery as ever, but the experience system is another change that doesn’t feel like an upgrade. Yakuza games have gone through a number of different ways of dealing with upgrades and EXP gain, but the system in Yakuza 6 feels like a heavy dose of the worst parts of each. As you perform any activity in the game, from fighting to eating to doing karaoke, you’ll gain five different types of experience points. You’ll go to your stat page to spend these points on a number of upgrades, from minor stat boosts to new combat abilities, additional Heat actions or upgraded skills in side-content.
The separation of EXP types feels purely arbitrary, and only serves to needlessly complicate the way you obtain upgrades. Almost any activity you perform will net you a little bit of each EXP type, and practically every upgrade available is obtained by spending a combination of multiple types of EXP. If upgrading my sprinting speed only cost yellow EXP and gaining new Heat moves only cost blue EXP, I would be able to get behind the idea of this system. As it stands, the upgrade system in Yakuza 6 is like installing seven different locks on your front-door that all use the same key. An unnecessary complication.
One of the improvements in Yakuza 6 is far from unnecessary, though. In fact, it’s personally more significant to me than shinier graphics and ragdoll physics. Yakuza games are well-known for their absurd and intricate side-stories. These side-stories used to consist of voiceless text boxes and stationary character models, but in Yakuza 6, every side story is fully voiced, with slightly more involved cutscenes to boot. It sounds like a minor change, but it’s something that makes each of these events instantly more memorable and significant. When I met a real-life NJPW pro wrestler as part of an early side story, the voicework and accompanying music made me feel like I might be encountering the main villain of the entire game. It’s an incredible change that I hope to see in every Yakuza game to come after this one.
Most of the side-content in Yakuza 6 is standard affair for a Yakuza game. There are classic Sega games to play like Puyo Puyo or Virtua Fighter, and you can hit up a cabaret club to flirt with the girls or chat with tipsy patrons. One of the new side activities, though, is practically an entire extra video game. Clan Creator sees you recruiting fighters with varying names and stats into a personal army that you command in massive 100 vs 100 street battles. It’s an RTS-esque mode that gives as much as you’re willing to take. It can be fun and breezy if you don’t want to get too invested, but there’s a shocking amount of depth to it if you’re willing to put in the time, just like the rest of the game.
Yakuza 6 is a beast of a game, and it sends Kiryu off in style. The graphical upgrades are mouth-watering, and the seamless interior exploration makes an already immersive world even more engrossing. Combat feels very different from any other Yakuza game, and while it’s a little sluggish and unsatisfying at first, upgrades and stat buffs help make Kiryu feel like as much of a bruiser as he’s always been. While some important side-characters don’t get their moment in the sunset here, Kiryu Kazuma gets one last heart-breaking journey that parallels the highs and lows of his previous adventures. Kiryu may be gone, but with a new engine and flashy new combat, the Yakuza series is nowhere close to going away.