In March of 2018, PlayStation 4 owners in the West finally got the chance to play Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, the long-awaited conclusion to the Kazuma Kiryu saga. At the time, CG’s own Lane Martin gave the game a 9.5 out of 10, calling it a “masterclass in marrying serious drama and excellent pacing with absolute insanity.” Of course, if you’re a seasoned Yakuza/Ryu Ga Gotoku fan like both Lane and I are, you already know that that description applies to just about every mainline entry in the series.
It was a different time for the franchise, and arguably a different era. Sega’s popular action-adventure/crime-melodrama series was still intrinsically linked to the PlayStation platform and was considered by many to be a “hard exclusive” for Sony consoles, even though it had never been officially referred to as such; Sony just so happened to be the one console platform holder who took interest in supporting the original title on PlayStation 2 back in its infancy, leading to a long and ultimately fruitful relationship, hence the connection. Later that same year however, the immensely popular prequel Yakuza 0 was announced for and ported to PC, an event that formed the first cracks in the Yakuza PlayStation-exclusive dam. Fast-forward to the present in 2021, where the dam has long burst wide open and entirety of the mainline Yakuza games are now available on PC and Xbox, with this week’s release of Yakuza 6 on said platforms as well as Xbox Game Pass being the master stroke. As a Yakuza die-hard who already owns almost every game in the series on PlayStation but mains Xbox Series X as his console of choice, I couldn’t be happier about this outcome.
Ok, I lied. Maybe I could be a little happier. Just a smidge.
Here’s the thing. What we have here is the same great game that my esteemed colleague reviewed in 2017. Same story, same solid fight mechanics, same baby-raising shenanigans, same testosterone-fueled cutscenes featuring the stoic Kiryu staring down a new rogues gallery of enemies as only the Dragon of Dojima can. Powered by the Dragon Engine (the same engine that Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio used to create the remaster Yakuza: Kiwami 2 as well as the latest game in the series, Yakuza: Like A Dragon), Yakuza 6 is an absolute looker; never have the fictional streets of Kamurocho looked grittier, and thanks to the game engine’s improved rag-doll physics, it’s never felt more visceral or interactive either. Most fights that occur in the game are instantaneous and can start up almost anywhere, even inside convenience stores, and Kiryu can start laying into an enemy with his fists and feet (or vice-versa) well before the fight title card has faded from the screen. Transitions between major cutscenes and fights are near-seamless as well.
But just like how Kiryu’s crows-feet and slightly greying hair now occasionally betray his rugged good looks, this particular version of the Dragon Engine is also showing its age, displaying many of the same performance issues that were present in the PS4 version of the game. Right from the opening cutscene in Kiyomi’s bar, intermittent frame-drops reared their ugly heads, and when exploring Kamurocho and Onomichi early on in my playthrough, random freezes were more common than they should have been, especially during fights, sometimes even resulting in full-on freezes or crashes that required a reset of the game in order to resolve them. These issues did not appear to be consistently tied to particular scenes, areas or moments – they just occur at random. I’ve since reached out to Sega and was informed by their PR department that production team is aware of these bugs, and a patch to correct them indeed incoming, so hopefully these technical issues won’t be a problem for long.
Performance issues aside, the 30fps framerate of Yakuza 6 also bears brief discussion on its own because of its impact on gameplay. Yakuza: Kiwami 2 and Yakuza 6 are the two standout exceptions in the entire franchise that run at only 30fps on the Xbox Series consoles, which can make the transition rather jarring from a gameplay standpoint for anyone who previously played any of the other five titles (such as the recently released Yakuza: Like A Dragon which offers both a 1440p/60 Performance Mode and 4K/60 Quality Mode on Xbox Series X, or The Yakuza Remastered Collection, which runs at 60fps on all Xbox platforms). Conversely, Yakuza 6 offers no graphics options whatsoever, and the less than stable 30fps performance on Xbox Series X translates increased input latency, which I personally found to be somewhat at odds to the game’s free-flowing nature of combat and the increasingly context-sensitive specificity of Heat Actions (i.e. special moves and finishers). To elaborate, while the pre-Dragon Engine Yakuza games Yakuza 3-5, Yakuza 0 and Yakuza: Kiwami were more rigid and required more Virtua Fighter-style precision to properly execute combos and other complex moves, groups of enemies tended to lay off a bit more, giving the player a little more time to plan and set up effective attacks and finishers, and the controls responded predictably enough that one could count on the desired move to be executed when performed properly. Yakuza 6 on the other hand is much more of a street brawler and its enemies are far more relentless, requiring faster inputs on the part of the player.
Don’t get me wrong here, I welcome the change and the additional challenge. I’ve owned and played many a Yakuza game and by now I’ve grown quite accustomed to how each game changes up the formula a little in how certain moves are performed, but with Yakuza 6, despite my enjoyment I often felt like I was constantly thrashing around and running about just to keep enemies off me and carve out a moment to breathe. Furthermore, with the increased number of context-sensitive Heat Actions and Extreme Heat Actions on offer that take advantage of the surrounding environment, I would frequently find myself setting up a special attack only to see it squandered towards a completely different one simply because I happened to be standing next to an ally, a lamppost, a flight of stairs or another random object. So for example, instead of pulling off a swing move capable of clearing out multiple enemies by tossing another enemy into them, Kiryu might instead perform a flashy tag-team move with his buddy Nagumo to take out a single thug, which might be cool to watch but still leaves me with a depleted Heat meter and a throng of additional enemies to deal with. This isn’t to say that this issue doesn’t arise in any of the other games, but overall, Yakuza 6 just feels a tad less responsive and more “floaty” due to its framerate than the majority of other Yakuza games on Xbox, which might lead you to perform attacks you didn’t intend to in the heat of battle.
Anyway, much like Kiryu caving in the skulls of his hapless enemies to somehow appeal to their better angels, I hit only because I care. Yakuza 6 does so many things right as the final game in the Kazama Kiryu saga that there’s little else for me to criticize. In fact, one unsung feature of the game that completely shocked me is that the game is completely Japanese voice acted (and I do mean completely). Outside of the thoughts in Kiryu’s head, every line of dialogue is actually spoken, which helps to make the game’s many cutscenes more engaging, including those of the numerous side-missions. Even the latest game in the series, Yakuza: Like A Dragon still makes copious use of generic typewriter-sounding, unvoiced text for it’s “C-grade” cutscenes despite boasting full voice acting in English and Japanese, so it was a pleasant surprise to see more consistent quality across the board with Yakuza 6 in that area. The trade off appears to be a slower speaking pace that makes the B and C-grade cutscenes feel a bit longer than necessary, but I’ll gladly accept that exchange.
So in closing, is Yakuza 6 worth checking out? Absolutely. If you’re a Yakuza fan like myself who’s been waiting years for this game to show up on Xbox, it’s a must-buy (even with its flaws). Naturally it’s also on Xbox Game Pass (which at the risk of sounding like a broken record only costs $1 to join for a month), so if you’re new to the franchise and curious as to what all the fuss is about, there’s no reason for you to sleep on it either. My only recommendation to the latter group is the following: All the mainline Yakuza games (except for Yakuza: Like a Dragon) are now on Xbox Game Pass, so why rush? Do yourself a favour and start with either Yakuza 0 or Yakuza: Kiwami to get your feet wet, and then depending on how much spoilers matter to you, jump straight to Yakuza 6 if you liked what you saw and can’t wait for the ending, or work your way through the other games in chronological order to experience the series as intended. It’s likely that the earliest games in the Yakuza franchise will be the first to leave the service (if ever), so why not save the best for last if you’ve got the time?