Even if you’re unfamiliar with the Yakuza series, you presumably know who the yakuza are. That the nefarious undertakings of the panoptic Japanese crime syndicate are heavily involved in this franchise goes without saying. That you’ll spend at least as much time singing karaoke and playing softball may come as more of a surprise.
Series veterans will fall straight into the familiar, demented rhythm of the series, but unlike last year’s super-accessible Yakuza 0, newcomers are likely to be perplexed by the idiosyncracies of this bizarre cult series.
It follows Kazuma Kiryu, a yakuza who first appeared in the franchise at its inception in 2005. By this point, his story is too lengthy to synopsize. He is often referred to as “old man” despite looking pretty spry. Suffice to say he is handy with his fists – and feet and traffic cones – but has a heart of gold. You may wish to thank me for being so brief, Yakuza 6 will not grant you the same favour.
The introduction takes nearly 30 minutes. That is not a typo. I made a sandwich (turkey and emmental, not bad) and ate it before the cutscenes were even halfway done. Sega is at pains to explain that Kiryu does not want to be a bad guy. He runs an orphanage and has been a single-father figure to his deceased love’s daughter, Haruka, while trying to escape his past. He even voluntarily does three years in jail as penance, time which may have been more interesting than the opening section of this game.
Yakuza eventually reverts to its usual sandbox-style city brawler, a 3D version of the 90s classic Streets of Rage, packed with detail and oddly elaborate sidequests, such as managing a baseball team.
Despite being ostensibly open-ended, Yakuza 6’s world can feel frustratingly constrained. It’s a big city, but so many streets are arbitrarily shut off that it often feels fairly linear. As you mooch about, you are beset by thugs of varying aptitude, depending on their gang affiliation, which is at least fleeting fun. You can also needlessly beat the merry hell out of groups of – and I quote here – “menacing men”, which is a fairly draconian way of interacting with otherwise law-abiding citizens.
Sadly, the combat isn’t especially engaging. We’re several years into the era of freeflow fighting systems, such as those found in Batman Arkham Knight, typified by control and fluidity. The combat here feels like guileless button mashing by comparison.
Pitched squarely at existing fans, Yakuza 6 banks on you having already forged lasting, meaningful relationships with its characters and world. If you’re here mostly for the fighting and B-movie hijinks, there are better options.