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Yakuza 6 review: an entry point to one of gaming’s most interesting franchises

A Yakuza newcomer finds magic in the story of Yakuza 6

Yakuza 6 - Kazuma Kiryu with a bloodied face Sega
Jeffrey Parkin (he/him) has been writing video game guides for Polygon for almost seven years. He has learned to love just about every genre of game that exists.

Before playing Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, I was vaguely aware of the series and assumed I knew the general premise: You’re a crime guy, you do crime things, you get really good at crime things, the end. (Obviously, I hadn’t given it much thought.)

I was more or less right about the “crime guy” part, but I was wrong about pretty much everything else. I discovered a unique blend of storytelling, lovable characters and unexpectedly rich combat kept together in a package that felt like The Sopranos by way of Tokyo.

Yakuza 6 is welcoming to new players. Right from the main menu, you get concise synopses of the previous games (there’s no recap of Yakuza 0). A literal walk down memory lane introduces important people from protagonist Kiryu’s life. Load screen interstitials and flashbacks fill in other gaps in the backstory, and the cutscenes piece together anything else you’ve missed. I never felt lost or confused. Relationships are clear and familiar, which immediately drew me into the game as if I were an old friend.

Yakuza 6 - Kiryu in red shirt and gray slacks holding a bag
I’m sure this reunion will go exactly as planned.

You play as Kazuma Kiryu, a former member of the yakuza Tojo Clan who’s fresh out of prison. An exhausting introductory cutscene establishes how he got here, while setting up the events to follow. After his three-year stint in jail, Kiryu just wants to see his adopted daughter. Things don’t go as planned.

The story is akin to a fully realized drama that plays out like a TV miniseries, exploring themes like family, parenthood, aging and family legacies. Yakuza 6 is not a fast-paced game. At times, it feels dominated by cutscenes. If you’re focused on the story, you will spend hours not pushing any buttons. There aren’t dialogue options and there aren’t quick-time events — it’s just watching. As a result, there’s a strange, almost hypnotic flow to Yakuza 6. And yet, the game never feels heavy-handed, because its developers have held the drama and cutscenes together with a mountain of lighthearted diversions.

Yakuza 6 - Kiryu doing karaoke
There’s always time for karaoke.

The copious activities are spattered across the game’s two locations, Kamurocho and Onomichi. The cities give a dense, colorful sense of place to the game and its story, but the stores can feel empty, and the neighborhoods a bit small, compared to other open-world games. While it’s not the main point of the game — have I mentioned how much I loved the storytelling? — having such a restricted open world made the exploration phases feel less immersive than the story.

Kiryu can (and does) solve any problem with punching (and sometimes kicking). Fighting fixes everything from kidnappings to cyber fraud to street crime. You do a lot of punching.

Yakuza 6 - Kiryu standing on a city street
But not a Starbucks in sight.

These activities are captured in minigames and sub-missions. The sheer number of minigames is impressive, encompassing everything from darts to classic Sega arcade games to karaoke to managing a baseball team. They’re fun distractions, but they’re largely just empty calories. You don’t miss out on anything story-related if you skip them. (There are two notable exceptions, though: Fishing in Onomichi is a great way to make money, and befriending strays for the cat cafe is a joy, because c’mon.)

Sub-story missions can earn you more experience than minigames, which is good to have if you want to upgrade faster. These missions range from silly (in both the good and bad senses of the word) to heartfelt. Some missions are fun, but just as many are tedious, and they rarely contribute directly to the main story. Their range of quality makes them frustrating: You can never tell what you’re getting into when you stumble into them. You might get a genuinely entertaining and funny quest — like portraying Ono Michio-kun — or you might spend 10 minutes chasing a drone down what feels like every alley in the city. By the halfway point of the game, I wanted to skip most of the side missions I encountered.

Yakuza 6 - Kiryu as Ono Michio-kun
Nice to michi!

Even with my criticisms of the admittedly optional and inconsequential aspects of the game, Yakuza 6 succeeds because its core story is so compelling. Every seemingly disconnected part serves a purpose: Without fights, it’d just be a movie; without cutscenes, it’d just be a series of contextless fights; without exploration, it’d be an on-rails punching simulator. All of those unexpected pieces and the (oh-so-long) cutscenes interact to make an equal parts story- and punching-driven game that is heart-wrenching. This is so much more than that game about a crime guy that I had expected. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go befriend some more cats.

Yakuza 6 was reviewed using a final “retail” PS4 download code provided by Sega. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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