Yakuza 6: The Song of Life review

It might not be the series sendoff fans want, but it's the one we deserve.

It is 1am and I am searching for a cat in a run-down quarter of small-town Hiroshima.

I’ve been looking for this cat for about three days. I’ve met them only once, fed them the wrong type of wet food, and then they scarpered off in apparent disappointment. They haven’t shown up since. I’m beginning to think this is divine punishment for not checking the guide beforehand.

Every other cat in the neighborhood, including the creepy skull-faced one I befriended in a cemetery, has long since been seduced over to my employ, and now lives in what must assuredly be the worst-smelling café in Tokyo’s red-light district. Sometimes, when I visit, one of them will sit on my leg.

As abstracted representations of the yakuza’s deep ties to the Japanese sex trade go, having the player go around adopting stray cats to put them to work as the “star talent” of a feline-scale cabaret club is probably the best capsule summary of the Yakuza games I can offer. This is a series about the radioactive nature of criminality and how it will eventually contaminate everything you love, yet the way it goes about depicting this has always been weirdly sanitized, skirting around the darker edges of its subject matter. Everybody smokes, but no one does, you know, drugs. Murder is an unequivocal moral event horizon, but the story will bend over backwards to make its playable heroes Not Murderers, just to, I don’t know, make it OK to play them or something.

You know that scene in Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun where Nozaki objects to his underage characters breaking the law, so he makes sure the alcohol in a scene is replaced with juice and the cigarettes are made of chocolate? Yakuza isn’t that bad, but sometimes it gets pretty damn close.

Anyway, I love them. But I’m very close to giving this one a negative review, unless I can find that fucking cat.

Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is billed as the sendoff for yakuza-excon-turned-orphanage-caretaker-turned-taxi-driver Kazuma Kiryu, who has served as the central protagonist since the first game. That’s not entirely true: Kiryu will be back this August with the release of Yakuza Kiwami 2, a remake of the second game, and he also shows up as a DLC reskin for Kenshiro in Hokuto ga Gotoku, Ryu ga Gotoku Studio’s upcoming game based on the Fist of the North Star series. But chronologically, at least, Yakuza 6 is Kiryu’s final appearance, and you’re meant to have that knowledge going in. Even the English tagline -- “How far would you go for family?” -- pretty much just lays out what you should expect: However this ends, it’s going to be depressing as hell.

And yet, and yet…

However this ends, it's going to be depressing as hell.

All Yakuza games have a few keyword leitmotifs threaded through their story. Yakuza 0’s words were “money,” “sex,” and “power;” I’m not sure what all of Yakuza 5’s words were but I defy you to get through that game (a task in itself) and not guess that one of them is “dream.” Yakuza 6’s central theme is, true to its tagline, family – chosen as well as biological. Kiryu’s adoptive father-daughter relationship with Haruka Sawamura is the most overt of these dynamics, but as the story progresses, it becomes just one of many. We see children seeking validation from or rebelling against their parents. Rivals becoming brothers. Old men with damned good reasons to hate each other finding ways to bury their old animosity for the sake of their grandchild. It’s all very Shakespearean. If you wanted to be glib, you could say it’s about daddy issues.

Yakuza as a series is a bit unique in that it preceded most of the current “daddification of games” wave. Its first daddening occurred with the original game’s release in 2005 and it’s only leaned harder into dadness in subsequent games. Yakuza 3 spends so much time on this mundane, domestic side of Kiryu that it’s sometimes referred to as Dad Simulator 2010. Where dads in most games seem to come to fatherhood as a way of humanizing an archetype (I’m looking at you, Dad of War), for Kiryu, that’s just kind of been the baseline for about a decade now.

As a result, Yakuza is about fatherhood in a dramatically different way than Kratos, Now With A Son or Bioshoot Man, Now With A Daughter And A Time Clone is about fatherhood. The first Yakuza and its remake, Kiwami, see Kiryu protecting a small child; by Yakuza 5, Kiryu’s been forced out of 16-year-old Haruka’s life for Plot Reasons and seems to have fallen into a depressive midlife crisis about her growing independence. In Yakuza 6, Haruka is 20 years old and a young mother; when Kiryu isn’t overcome with regret for not being there for her during this important life event, he’s looking for the absentee father to direct his fury at.

At times, Yakuza 6 veers toward a creepier – if still sadly common – paternal mentality, like the sidestory where Kiryu’s drinking buddy refers to his teenage daughter getting a boyfriend as being “stolen” from him, or Kiryu and series regular Date bonding over their daughters both hooking up with “some punk.” And yet there are other moments where Kiryu pushes back hard against these attitudes, in ways we might not find so provocative in the West but read pretty differently in Japan. It doesn’t always hit its marks, but my point here is that the series offers us so much diversity in its perspectives on parenthood that they don’t all have to land for the overall message to carry: that all of this makes up what it means to be a parent, even in its contradictions and messiness and pain.

Lest you think I’m reaching here, the game more or less spells all this out in a sort of “thesis statement” in the epilogue. It’s paradoxically one of the most powerful and one of the weakest moments in the story, because if you’re not like me and didn’t just shotgun the entire series in preparation of writing this review you’re just absolutely not going to care about one of the characters it concerns -- but I get where the writers were going with it, at least. It’s trying to synthesize not just Yakuza 6 but an entire decade-long series and what it means to leave a legacy.

“Legacy.” I’m willing to bet that was another of this game’s keywords.

Back to the cat-finding mission.

I read online – because the game’s release was pushed back, but its press embargo wasn’t, meaning all the major sites have had reviews and guides up for a month now – that cats will appear randomly if you wander away from an area and return a few minutes later, so I’ve fallen into a pattern by which I check a cat spot, go play a minigame, and then check back. This method has served me well for every other cat in the game except for this last one. As a result, purely by accident I’ve completed most of Yakuza 6’s major side content, including:

  • Spearfishing
  • Troublr (sort of an evolution on Tanimura’s police scanner from Yakuza 4)
  • The friendly neighborhood karaoke pub
  • Baseball
  • Other baseball
  • Ghost hunting
  • Ghost fighting
  • Tower defense missions starring real-life pro-wrestlers (at last, I can follow my peers’ conversations on Twitter)
  • The regular plethora of silly substories (I’m assuming the Logan Paul callout is a timely coincidence)

There was plenty of other side content I could have done, but didn’t, because it wasn’t conducive to quickly checking back for the presence of cats: mahjong, Puyo Puyo Tetris, Virtua Fighter, professional level darts, simulated live chats with adult performers, simulated strained social interactions with adult performers, and so on and so forth.

In short, as per series custom, Yakuza 6 is overflowing with optional timesinks, and even more of it opens up once you complete the main story and unlock Premium Adventure. I found most of these minigames forgiving in nature: there are few punishments for failure, you get infinite retries, and even some of the more skill-intensive minigames (like the frustratingly opaque new batting system) can be bruteforced with enough grinding and upgraded equipment.

Money is… frankly broken in this game. You get way too much of it considering it doesn’t double as EXP and a metaphor this time (as it did in Yakuza 0) and finding the black market merchants to sell you cheat gear is a trivial task. There’s also just not as much stuff to buy in this game: Kiryu can no longer carry weapons, there’s no crafting, and all inventory items cap at 10 (five, for curatives). There is one substory where you end up burning 50,000 yen (about $500 US) for a plot item you can’t use and you get no compensation for at the completion of the quest, and all that generated from me was a giant shrug and a “so what?” Pocket change. I can make that back in five minutes punching some random dudes.

I should probably talk about the fighting, since most of the game is spent punching things. I know if our other resident Yakuza superfan, Steven Strom, were writing this review, he’d have entire essays to say about the combat and upgrade systems. But mostly I found fighting to be a nuisance: random encounters are frequent, avoiding them is a headache (at least in Onomichi, with its twisty back alley streets), the absence of equippable weapons means you’re usually down to whatever improvised blunt objects you can find in the vicinity, all of which get exactly three hits before breaking… And all of that would be tolerable, except Yakuza 6 doesn’t even have the series’ characteristic silly “heat action” moves, where you get special animations for, say, pouring a boiling tea kettle on someone’s face or rolling them up into a giant snowball. There are precisely two goofy heat actions in this game, one involving chopsticks (which I could never find while fighting, not once), and another involving an enemy faceplanting into a bystander’s breasts (which I never even saw the point in trying to activate, to be honest with you).

I’m not saying that the game is necessarily diminished for paring back heat actions and making money easier to come by. Realistically, these changes both have the effect of making Yakuza 6 more forgiving and accessible, which I’m sure is the intention. I know plenty of fans who adore these games – especially their over-the-top stories – but struggle to play them for any number of reasons. Anything that can make Yakuza 6 a more enjoyable experience for them is something I support. But I do worry that it misses some of the humor that has become the series’ defining feature.

On the other hand, I caught what I’m assuming are the pro-wrestlers’ signature moves in some of their battles, plus all of Kiryu’s fighting companions have special joint heat actions with him where they gang up on an opponent. In the later chapters, where you have a whole party of AI companions helping Kiryu punch his way through mobs of angry dudes, it’s pretty satisfying to grab successive enemies and a different companion swing by for the finishing blow each time. Hey, we’re all participating here! Full marks for everyone.

But open world combat, when it’s just Kiryu versus the endless roving bands of eagle-eyed angry dudes who can somehow spot him with their backs turned from two streets away, is just exhausting. I mean, I just want to run down the street to check whether this cat has turned up, I don’t need to punch the same assholes I’ve been punching for 120 hours every time I walk down the block. In theory there’s an item that reduces the number of combat encounters, but it never seemed to work when I equipped it.

There’s another item that lets you take photographs of UFOs, which only unlocks after you beat the game. It works fine. As does the rainbow bellywarmer that improves Kiryu’s resistance to bullets somehow, and the cheat speargun with 12 rounds called “Ahab’s Revenge.” But what I wouldn’t give for an item that makes cats more likely to appear. There’s already an item in one of the other games called Mew Shoes, although its effect is to aggro more enemies to you. But, look. It was right there.

If you’re going into Yakuza 6 just coming off Yakuza 0 and Kiwami, you’ll need to manage your expectations or brace for disappointment. The story is, on the whole, a lot soberer. Kiryu's voice and demeanor is softer. Series regulars like Goro Majima and Daigo Dojima are all but absent. Most of the story concerns a host of brand new characters, many of whom seem like remixes of characters from past games, to an extent I have to assume is intentional.

There is a running motif in this series, for instance, that any starry-eyed young yakuza who gloms onto Kiryu will end up dead by the end of the game, and well, guess who you immediately meet upon traveling to sleepy small-town Hiroshima? There’s a doddering elderly yakuza clan boss again, but guess what, he’s played by celebrated game designer Beat Takeshi this time, and he’s got that signature creepy-hilarious vibe rolling off him in every scene.

If you’re going into Yakuza 6 just coming off Yakuza 0 and Kiwami, you’ll need to manage your expectations or brace for disappointment. 

There’s the single older woman who inevitably has some complex about motherhood, but it actually goes in a direction I didn’t expect and was??? surprisingly good????? Maybe this series has just trained my expectations so low when it comes to its treatment of women that anything above the bare minimum impresses me, but I honestly can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a game speak so candidly about living through an abusive relationship and then validate the survivor rather than continue laying the blame at her feet.

There’s also a cutscene involving changing baby Haruto’s diaper that is funny on its own but is 10 times more hilarious if you happened to play this one specific substory in Yakuza 4. It’s one of the few moments where I felt like knowledge of the past games was rewarding beyond a substory nod or making something infinitely more depressing. After the feast of constant fanservice that was Yakuza 0 and Kiwami, this can feel like settling for crumbs.

What I’m saying is, if you’re a recent fan of the series (as I am, though I went back and played the others after getting hooked), you need to make peace with this and accept the story on its own terms. When localization lead Scott Strichart says in interviews that Kiryu is seen as more of an avatar for the player in the Japanese version, that comes across much more clearly here than it might have in past games. At the end, yes, the central through-line is still Kiryu and his relationships with his chosen family, but large stretches of this game see Kiryu as more of a vehicle for peering in on the dynamics of the new cast. In the beginning hours, these are interpersonal dramas (a small-town yakuza captain and his childhood puppy crush, say); as the stakes get higher, these conflicts spiral out into absurdity, until suddenly the entire country is on the brink because one dude hates his dad so much.

By contrast, series favorite Majima has exactly two scenes totaling probably less than a minute of screen time (and you can tell the localizers milked every single line for all that it was worth). It’s sort of a buzzkill, after Yakuza 0 turned him into such a star. But you can’t ding a game for not being what it isn’t trying to be. I mean, you can, but it’d make you an asshole.

If anything, the most refreshing aspect of Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is how much it isn’t fanservice. It recycles its past, sure, but the conclusion it reaches is new, which in itself serves as a tidy metaphor for its themes. And it’s a fully satisfying resolution to Kazuma Kiryu’s story, though I’m sure it’s going to break a lot of fans’ hearts.

One of the things I really hate about certain other long-lived series is their tendency toward a Clockwork Universe problem, in which everything works out just so and even seeming coincidences and accidents are carefully planned. Consider the Metal Gear series, that beautiful, awful mess of a masculine-coded soap opera, where we’re asked to believe some vast conspiracy has dictated the course of human events for decades down to what underwear Solid Snake wears on a given day. At some point I just can’t get past it and my interest drops to zero. Conspiracies are fine, but if they eradicate the possibility of human (or machine) error, what’s even the point?

And that is part of what I love about the Yakuza games, which dabble heavily in improbable Xanatos Gambits but never forget that sometimes, shit just happens. Haruka’s car accident in the beginning of Yakuza 6 is not planned, and because it’s not planned, it sets in motion an entire chain of events where Kiryu just successively ruins everyone’s carefully constructed conspiracies. Because that’s what he is, a serial conspiracy ruiner. The character’s entire appeal to a Japanese audience, if you go off some of Strichart’s comments, is his ability to change things: he openly rejects hierarchical thinking and suggests people should disobey their superiors if it means doing what’s right, something that we’re so used to out of Western heroes it’s hard to even imagine how it might sound radical.

I don’t want to spin that out of proportion. I don’t intend to get on a cultural essentialist soapbox about Japanese approaches to open world games versus Western ones. I think all video games, regardless of origin, are by their nature a blending of cultural sensibilities, even if you take marketing and localization out of the picture. But another thing Strichart talks about in the Gamasutra interview I’ve referenced here is the idea of benign virtual tourism; that the Yakuza games, in their loving reproduction of real Japanese neighborhoods, also act as a window on a culture.

Call it power fantasy or empathy game or daddification or whatever you wish; I think they’re all facets of the same essential property of storytelling.

It doesn’t offer us the totality of what that culture is – no entertainment product could be. But if games are good for anything, it’s encouraging us to project ourselves into situations other than our own; compare our responses to those taken by people of a dramatically different set of circumstances. Call it power fantasy or empathy game or daddification or whatever you wish; I think they’re all facets of the same essential property of storytelling to turn certainties into possibilities.

This, again, is made explicit in the conclusion of Yakuza 6, so I don’t think I’m pulling things out of thin air here. The game spends a great deal of its time watching family dynamics unfold, from a mother who is forced to abandon her child because it’s the only way to escape an abusive marriage to a teen girl who leaps through time to save her dad from appearing uncool in front of her. (Look, I told you some of the substories are wild.) Some families resolve happily. Some fall apart tragically. Some are biological. Some are chosen. Some are defined by centuries of tradition. Some are the product of chance and circumstance. All of them are real. (Except maybe the time travel one.)

But back to the cat, which is, after all, the most important part of this story.

I gave up at a certain point and went back to completing Yakuza 6’s main narrative, because I needed to finish it to write this review, and for as much as finishing the cat café substory meant to me personally, I couldn’t really hinge my entire review (if you can still call this a review) on one lost cat. So, I beat the game, got sad a few times, mentally retooled a few fanfic ideas to accommodate the ending, and then dove back in using Premium Adventure Mode, the series’ free-roaming open world mode that unlocks after you finish the story the first time.

The cat I’m missing is a white-and-orange tabby named Kai, who hangs out near the Hirose Family office in southeast Onomichi. I have run over this street so many times in the last few days that if the roads here eroded like the grass in Animal Crossing, I would have worn a noticeable groove into the pavement by now. Not once in all this time has the cat turned up.

I don’t expect anything this time either, which is why I send Kiryu sprinting toward the alley in full view of one of those roving bands of all-knowing, all-seeing enemies. I figure I’ll get a quick glance, get my regular dose of disappointment, and send Kiryu running again, intending to lose this latest pack of thugs down another side street.

But even before I reach the corner, I hear a meow.

Now, as a cat-owner who has been ignoring their own, flesh-and-blood cat for weeks in pursuit of these digital ones, I can confirm the meows in this game are realistic enough to fool the real deal. It’s a nice, clearly-defined meow, one of several distinct cat “voices” used in the game, because the Ryu ga Gotoku Studio team would never lower themselves to recycling the same vocal register for 20 different cats.

I would complain that cats really only meow for the benefit of humans, so a neighborhood stray trying to avoid them has no reason to make sounds in the player’s direction – but I found my own cat under similar circumstances, and she is likewise chronically shy and a form of divine retribution sent to punish me for my misdeeds, so truth in advertising, maybe? I dunno, the models for the cats in this game are also hilariously bad, but it’s nothing compared to the nightmare fuel dog from Yakuza 3, so like a great many other things in this series, you just gotta take it in stride.

In the same moment I hear the meow, an angry red triangle stretches across the screen, indicating an alerted enemy. Five or six street punks start heading in my direction. If they follow me down the alleyway where the cat is, I’ll be cornered, and I have no idea if the cat will still be there after the battle. Prudence suggests I run away and hope the cat is still there when I circle back.

But fuck it, this cat has eluded me for three days. I turn the corner into the alley. Not today, Satan. Not today.

When I reach the cat and open up the menu to select which wet food I want to give them (there are about a dozen varieties of premium wet food in this game and each cat prefers something different, because again, this game’s priorities), the movement on the map freezes. This is good, because it means my attackers can’t interrupt until I am completely done feeding this cat and call the cat café employee to come pick it up, after which the punks can pound Kiryu into the concrete for all I care.

But even if the map animations are suspended while all this is happening, the game keeps spitting out enemy barks at me. Unlike most spoken dialogue in Yakuza games, barks usually don’t get subtitles, but I know enough Japanese to at least get the gist of what they’re yelling: “Don’t try to run away,” “hey, old man,” that sort of thing. They just keep rattling them off, helpless, frozen an perpetual three meters away while I keep feeding this fucking cat.

It’s the best.

Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is about three things: punching in a way that is not quite satisfying, getting depressed in a way that somehow is satisfying, and hoarding cats. I have now accomplished all three of these. It took 4,000 words, but here we are. If any of my writers turned in a draft like this, I’d send it back telling them to cut 2,000 words out of it before I even started line edits. I am drunk with power and also extremely proud of myself for what is essentially an RNG operation deciding to spawn a cat with an appearance rate lower than even the most punishing gatcha game.

The fundamental question I task my writers with answering in their reviews is “Is this worth it?” Not whether it’s worth their money – reducing games to their value under capitalism is grotesque – but whether it’s worth their time. And when it comes to a game like this one, which despite the well-intentioned efforts of its development team to make it accessible to series newcomers really does hinge on story beats a decade in the making, the answer is unfortunately never going to get more precise than: “Well, it depends.”

I love the Yakuza games, especially Yakuza 0, which I still hold up as being the best in the series. I’m a relatively new fan, but I’ve sunk a frankly embarrassing amount of time devouring the games and related media in the last 10 months. Fuck, I know Majima’s weight and birthday now by heart now; I have gone extremely off the deep end into fandom with this series and I’m not ashamed to admit it. The drawback there, however, is that I’m not the best at gauging how well the game actually works if you don’t have that level of investment.

When I got into the Yakuza games last year, I could not stop hating on myself for not checking them out sooner.

That all said, without reservation, yes, you should play all these games. When I got into them last year, I could not stop hating on myself for not checking them out sooner. Start with Yakuza 0 – it’s a fantastic introduction to the series, the story is actually great and not just “great, for a video game,” and the localization is mind-blowingly good. From there, I’d suggest Yakuza Kiwami, which is a remake of the first game, and then the choice is yours, really: you can check out summaries of the games between Kiwami and Yakuza 6 if you like, watch video walkthroughs, or commit yourself to playing them all. If you want to do the last one, I would recommend waiting to play Yakuza 2 till the remake, Kiwami 2, releases this August. From there, Yakuza 3 is… well, it’s gonna be a tough one to shift gears to no matter what, but despite what other writers have suggested I wouldn’t recommend skipping it, because the stuff between Kiryu and the orphanage kids under his care is pretty much essential to understanding his motivations in subsequent games.

Don’t play Yakuza 5, though. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s actually quite excellent, but it’s way longer than any game has any business being and a lot of that length is filler. It does feature Saejima dressed up as Santa Claus and fighting a bear, though.

What I said before, about needing to just accept Yakuza 6 for the story that it is and not the story you wish it were? That’s basically the essence of the Yakuza series as a whole. So much of it falls short of its ideal self. It’s a mess; it contradicts itself. There are huge sections that are just not good by any fair measure, even though I’d argue most of it is still better than what’s typical of video games (a low bar to clear, granted). At some point, you just have to accept it if you want to be there for its moments of brilliance.

It’s like – hell – it’s like family.