In the space of 13 years, the Yakuza series has turned from a clone underdog into a cult classic, and the latest game is their most anticipated yet. Sam Brooks reviews Yakuza 6.
It’s 2005. I’m wandering in the United Video in Papakura trying to find a game to rent out for the weekend – seven dollars for 48 hours of fun. What a bloody bargain. My eyes scan past dozens and dozens of video games, some with faded covers from how old they are or how much they’ve been handled. My eyes scan past Yakuza, which I’d heard about as being a Japanese-themed Grand Theft Auto clone. I think about it, but I figure that I’ve already played Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and the open world experience is unlikely to get better from there. My eyes keep scanning. Week after week, I scan past Yakuza and don’t consider it.
Cut to 2018 and I’m champing at the bit to play Yakuza 6. In the space of 13 years the series has morphed from an assumed GTA clone to a beloved cult favourite and legitimate commercial hit. Where Grand Theft Auto took a fast turn into gritty and dark, and so did the rest of the damn industry, Yakuza doubled down on being so over-the-top and full of big, soapy heart that when once it fell in line with the clones, it’s now become its own touchstone. Through eight games, including two remakes and a prequel, it’s gone from being an also-ran to a critically acclaimed video game series.
The latest game, Yakuza 6, signals a transitional period for the series – not just because it’s stepping into the big leagues, but because it’s a wrap-up to a story we’ve followed for 13 years now. Set a few years after Yakuza 5, which left famous popstar Haruka Sawamura revealing that her adoptive father is a yakuza, the new game follows series-long protagonist Kazuma Kiryu stepping out of jail after taking the fall for a fellow yakuza. He’s no longer in the game, but after Haruka gets into an accident, he goes about investigating what she’s done with the past few years of her life, and gets drawn into the world of the yakuza one more time, for the last time.
It sounds like heavy stuff, and it is, but the beauty of Yakuza is that it doesn’t treat the story like an Oscar-baity gritty thing – it treats it like the soap opera it is. This isn’t Gone Baby Gone, this is closer to the films of Sion Sono: people get into big fights (the first boss fight takes place in a steam room after fighting through several floors of flunkies), they have big emotions (there’s lot of loud shouting while bursting through doors) and it makes everything feel more true and real as a result. It’s silly as hell, and the game never pretends it’s anything but.
The gameplay goes a long way to keeping it engaging. Whereas other open world games have started to load mechanics upon mechanics upon collectibles upon god knows what else they need to do to artificially extend a game’s length, Yakuza has kept it simple. You wander around two sandbox areas (the familiar urban Tokyo suburb of Kamurocho and the sleepy seaside town of Onomichi) and knock people down. That’s it. There are mini-games, the usual button-press dancing and the little stories helping out the various oddballs that live in the world, but these are always silly distractions from the story, rather than something you need to do to progress through the story.
It’s that simplification that is key to a lot of what makes Yakuza work as a series, and Yakuza 6 is the most streamlined game yet. The open world is much smaller and the story is a lot faster-paced (it’s lucky there’s an encyclopedia because like any good soap opera there’s about a billion characters and it can get very hard to tell who is aligned to whom). It has doubled-down on what works rather than try out new things, like every other open world game seems to do.
Kamurocho and Onimachi feel like real places (probably because they’re based on real places), and it takes a remarkably short time to get used to the streets and for them to feel like home. It’s a huge contrast to the massive size of Assassin’s Creed: Origins for example, where you basically have to rely on fast-travelling to save yourself hours of travelling through a world populated with pretty views, angry animals and empty AI pedestrians. Where other games have turned the open world genre into a race to see how many fast travel points you can collect, Yakuza goes small and actually builds a world that you want to spend time in.
There’s a few things that Yakuza stumbles on. As blissfully simple as it is, the brawling can get dull and sometimes the graphics quality takes a dip, depending on the cutscene, but the most stark stumbling block is the series’ continued and consistent bizarre and regressive approach to women. It’s probably the only mainstream game out there with a mini-game that involves the protagonist talking to cam girls over live chat, with a legitimate reward associated with it. It’s bizarre not because it’s a weird thing to do (you do you, readers) but because it is so vastly out of step with the mostly asexual protagonist that Kiryu is set up to be. It becomes even more difficult when you look at the women in the story. There are approximately two prominent female characters, both of whom are put off to the side. In a game that is rejecting so much of modern gaming’s impulses to try and do everything and be everything, it’s frustrating to see it relegate women to regressive roles, sexual rewards and literal collectibles.
If you can get past that – and the game is worth it despite the issues – then you’ve got a special game, one that is bucking the gritty and grimdark trends that the industry got drunk on for a good ten years, and we’re still suffering the hangover from them. It’s the antithesis to a game like Watch_Dogs or the Assassin’s Creed, which mistake men mumbling and brooding for emotional complexity and intellectual depth, while trying to make compelling and relatable protagonists out of people who murder literally hundreds and who you would absolutely walk away from at a party. Sure, Kiryu is punching a lot of people, probably also literally hundreds of people, but there’s a clear line the series draws between punching people and murdering them in cold blood.
Kiryu is always motivated by something, and it’s never something trite like a dead wife or a dead niece or a dead daughter or just another unfortunate dead woman who has the misfortune of being related in some way to the protagonist; he has a relatable dilemma and we actually want to see him resolve it. It’s not Yakuza‘s only success, but it’s one of the big ones, and it shouldn’t even be considered an achievement. We shouldn’t be surprised to have a protagonist we actually want to see succeed, but in this genre, in this generation, it’s quietly revolutionary.
It’s difficult to tell where the series goes from here exactly – especially as the story of Kiryu comes to a delicate and heartfelt close. Does it try to capitalise on its success and go big, go mainstream? Or does it double-down on the double-downing and go even weirder with its quirks and tropes (there’s an entire subplot here where you have to dress up as a mascot and entertain some kids). I’m hoping badly for the latter, especially as the next game in the series is confirmed as a completely updated remake, but who can say? What we’ve got right now is seven games of a series that, miraculously, only got better. That’s a beautiful thing in itself.
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