Each time Kiryu Kazuma comes back to Kamurocho, it seems as though the city’s grown denser, taller, and brighter in his absence. The district flourishes, even in those phases of his life where he himself is in limbo, removed from it all. Enough landmarks remain to get his bearings, but turn enough corners, and he’s bound to see a bowling alley where once there was a shrine.
I knew the sights just as well as he did, and when I walked him up to the rooftop of the bar that serves as his ad hoc home base, weaving between the clutter of air conditioning units, it was me craning my neck like a tourist to gawk at how much it had all changed.
Yakuza is a series that revels in its throughlines, parallels, and iterations. Its creators love to tip their hats towards the things that resonate from the past, tingeing them with fresh nuance in the process. Kiryu has gone from son to patriarch, from punk to paragon, and every point along the way now presents itself as an opportunity to reflect. What does it mean a parent when the only parent you knew was actually a monster? What does it mean to be a brother when your brother betrayed you? These are games that repeat themselves in a lot of different ways, but typically to great effect. That’s why this bittersweet homecoming evokes the feelings that it does, just like the ones that came before it. The city changes, the world moves on, and Kiryu… Kiryu’s tired. But at least he’s home.
Yakuza 6: The Song of Life picks up where Yakuza 5 left off (albeit after a helpful recap for newer players). Kiryu Kazuma has found himself imprisoned yet again, but he hopes that this time he’ll finally be able to wipe the slate clean and emerge into civilian life. He’s locked away for three years, and in that time his teenage ward Haruka vanishes. When she turns up again, it’s as the victim of a hit and run a mere handful of blocks away from where a newly-released Kiryu was searching for her, as ever on the too-familiar streets of Kamurocho. Shocking her guardian, Haruka has a baby with her—a baby tellingly named Haruto. In order to keep Haruto from disappearing into an apathetic government childcare system while Haruka is in a coma, Kiryu takes the infant with him to investigate the past few years of her life.
Last year, Yakuza Zero and Yakuza Kiwami gave us the beginning of Kiryu’s story, which puts every aspect of Yakuza 6 (intended to be its end) into sharper relief. He’s not a young man anymore, and his ambitions have tamed considerably. Strands of silver are making their way into his famously thick, dark hair. He takes every stair like an old wound is acting up, and while he once loped down streets at a brisk pace he now ambles, shaking out his joints and rolling his shoulder every so often. Time is catching up with the Dragon of Dojima, and even he can’t shrug off its effects entirely.
That isn’t to say that Kiryu’s talents are on the decline—far from it. But it isn’t his skill in combat or his large pool of criminal connections that makes Kiryu so likable a character. It’s his way with people, and in Yakuza 6, it’s specifically the ease with which he handles caring for a baby.
Early in his investigation, Kiryu arrives in Onomichi, the seaside city where Haruka had been living, with a travel bag on one arm and a bright-eyed baby in the other. If he’s struggled to adapt to taking care of Haruto, it’s happened (mostly) off-camera. It’s not meant to be the focus of that relationship. So by the time we see Kiryu in action he’s ably changing diapers, intuitively sensing things he can do to cheer him up when he gets fussy, and when he does eventually misunderstand one of Haruto’s needs it’s only because he’s trying to address a different one at the same time. It’s not just that any discomfort caring for Haruto isn’t played up for laughs, it’s that it’s rarely played in the first place.
By the same token, the fact that Kiryu is comfortable and loving with Haruto doesn’t come off as a joke either. He’s not really painted as the tough guy who’s gone soft, the grown man doing silly things for a kid at the expense of his once-inviolate pride. After all, Kiryu’s always been pretty soft, and his pride has always come second.
The video game dad is a trope of his own at this point, gruff and bearded and fiercely protective of his progeny, but so few of these characters engage in the kind of parenting that resembles day-to-day reality. You don’t often get the scene spent roaming around a small town where everything closes at dusk, banging on shuttered storefronts in a desperate search for milk. Nor do you often get the scene where a brotherhood of criminals sits around discussing business while one of them nonchalantly bounces an infant on his knee. There is a degree of uncanniness to it, sure, but for the most part it’s treated as the most mundane, natural, unremarkable thing in the world. Babies need caring for, and everyone is held to the same standard of responsibility for that care.
The Yakuza series is unapologetically obsessed with the idea of family, whether bound by blood, circumstance, or oath, and that’s not just a matter of conceptual lip-service. “Family” in Yakuza is not just about giving strong characters external vulnerabilities—things to protect, to snarl over, to scold for their own damn good. “Caring” is not just a weakness waiting to be exploited. It’s a way of life, and the only characters who are beyond redemption are the ones who reject that altogether. This is as much a part of what makes the series unique and affecting as its bombastic fights and winding intrigues, and Yakuza 6 only doubles down.
It also goes out of it’s way to help keep newer players in the loop. Zero may still be the best jumping-on point anyone Yakuza-curious could hope for, but Yakuza 6 is filled with backstory and information that puts every relationship and callback into context. It even has a dream-sequence early on where Kiryu can walk up to the various important figures in his life and reflect on his feelings about them. Players aren’t just given point-form summaries of the roles these people have played in previous games; instead the explanations feel much more personal, much more intimate. It’s very clear from this scene that Kiryu himself cares about these people deeply, and it’s more likely that new players would come to feel the same after that moment than they would after poking through a codex. For the kind of story Yakuza 6 wants to tell, bare facts scattered on a timeline just wouldn’t be enough.
That story, as in past games, is delivered across a mix of crime-drama main missions and countless side activities and optional tasks. And excusing Yakuza 6’s minigames (more on those later), the series’ familiar combination of exploration and combat carries you from one plot beat to the next.
Players who are familiar with the series will be pretty accustomed to how Yakuza 6 plays. The bulk of Kiryu’s time is spent doing one of two things; either running around town eating delicious food and solving everyone’s problems, or getting accosted by gangsters and ruffians in the streets. Combat involves a mix of light attacks and heavy finishers, with blocking, dodging and grappling moves to help players respond to the different kinds of enemies they face. Attack combos can now end with double finishing moves rather than just the one, which feels like a satisfying if subtle change to the rhythm of the game’s frequent brawls. The same can be said for Extreme Heat Mode, which lets Kiryu opt to spend his accumulated Heat in a rapid flurry of attacks instead of just the singular, brutal power moves that have become series staples. Along with experience categories and a series of new ways to invest your points, Yakuza 6 changes things up just enough, but still doesn’t stray too far from the standard.
As you might expect given the fact that it was built using a new engine, the game is more visually impressive than either Kiwami or Zero (both of which ran on an engine originally designed for the PS3). But graphics aside, the most welcome change this new engine brings is the elimination of loading when entering or exiting buildings. This allows for some multi-floor commercial properties that feel a little more true to the densely-packed district Kamurocho represents than the sea of first-floor businesses used previously. Restaurants sit nested in indoor walkways, while nondescript offices are sandwiched between coffee shops, internet cafes and hostess clubs. The city feels more whole, and makes the contrasting small-town simplicity of Onomichi even more effective.
There are still some elements of the game that fell short of my expectations though, technologically and otherwise. While its cinematic moments are as impressively directed as ever, lesser cutscenes can often feel extremely rigid. Kiryu and another character will often stand in frame, their bodies frozen in place, their jaws wagging just enough to indicate a conversation. Previous games have relied heavily on a library of animations that were used and reused in these kinds of scenes, which made them pretty conspicuous (not to mention cheesy). But seeing some of the woodenness in Yakuza 6 has made me re-evaluate that position.
Then there are the side activities. A massive part of the series’ appeal are the activities and minigames placed around each game’s world. Many of these—like first person spearfishing, a sexy chat site, a cat cafe, and a crime-fighting app—are novel at first, but rely too much on repetition to leave a lasting impression. (Granted, its very funny to watch Kiryu try to seduce an adult video star by typing “BOOOOOOBS” at her, but even that does get a bit old). These games mostly exist to add a slightly sim-y element to virtual city streets, making Kamurocho and Onomichi feel dense and active. But the best mini-games do more than that, leveraging the series’ trademark sense of personality and characterization to bring you closer to Kiryu and the people in his life.
In Onomichi, managing the local baseball team may seem like an unglamorous way to pass some time, but it unlocks access to a local bar where Kiryu’s only goal is to fit in with and befriend the regulars. He has to win them over with darts, drinks, and karaoke, but also by being a good listener and conversationalist.
Those social skills come into play in Kamurocho as well, where Kiryu can chat with hostesses using a row of topic cards, getting combos to keep the conversation flowing smoothly. Among the hostesses are a wrestler, an aspiring idol, and an ardent cosplayer with a thing for Sephiroth, and it’s genuinely extremely pleasant to get to know them. Plot-critical female characters in this series are often treated like pawns more than people, so the sincerity of the interactions you can have in the cabaret clubs is refreshing. And they bring me back around to why I enjoy Yakuza in general.
The most traditional wisdom about the most traditional power fantasies is that when players embody a character who can punch every single obstacle into the ground, they can feel empowered in a way that real life seldom allows. But Yakuza 6 is a little different. It’s still a game full of violence, and Kiryu Kazuma is still a powerful character, but the allure of playing him isn’t purely about embodying someone with that kind of power at their disposal.
Neither is it purely about reshaping the world with his fists. As one companion eventually underscores, the Dragon of Dojima has become a nearly mythical force of justice, empathy, and integrity. He’s not even a killer. Killing, the game actively reminds us, would be the real end of the Dragon’s story. Kiryu can’t just punch his way to a better life for those he loves, because that isn’t what he represents. That isn’t the way to create world where his work is done. So Kiryu’s violence is actually limited, as is the effect that violence can have. Even as the game continues to deliver the same high-intensity boss fights the series is known for, his violence ultimately has a far smaller role in reshaping his world than his compassion.
And so much of the appeal of playing Kiryu for me comes down to seeing him wield a kind of emotional power instead. Even more than embodying him, it’s satisfying on its own to witness a person like him existing in a world (and in a game) like this one. Skirting back and forth across the border between where violence is and isn’t a valid solution, Yakuza 6 delivers this message extremely well. The homecoming is as hard as it’s ever been, but Kiryu is better equipped than ever to finally set things right.
(Correction: A previous version of this review stated that the dream sequence was only available in the localized version, but it also existed in the original Japanese release.)