With the prologue out of the way, the stage is set: after spending three years in prison on charges of arson and assault, it would seem my daughter has disappeared, while an unsettling three-way turf war begins to unfold. My series allies and near-friends are caught in a myriad of varying circumstances and I’ve returned to the Japanese capital, firmly set on unraveling the mystery behind one premise and unknowingly getting myself caught up in another. My name is Kazuma Kiryu and the first order of business — one that mustn’t be understated and is undoubtedly crucial if one is to better reflect on the time within Yakuza 6 over the past few weeks — is of course to disregard the main story entirely and have my scowling presence pop up in some cheesy music video as the button prompts continue to whizz by. Trying one’s damnedest to 100% the starting roster while I’m at it. After that, I might go for a round of darts and perhaps round it off with my fist lodged in an arcade machine screen upon coming so agonizingly close to beating Out Run.
I take neither pleasure nor pain from admitting that my first two or three hours (I know that doesn’t sound like much in the grander scheme of Yakuza releases, but hey, three hours is still three hours) in the district of Kamurocho in Yakuza 6 was spent casually strolling from one opportune time-waster to the next, rarely leaving until I felt a sense of accomplishment had been met. Hurling four-letter swear words at the batting machines; beating my previous score on Puyo Puyo courtesy of the Sega arcades. Most jarringly interesting of all, seeing the game briefly poke its head into the realm of strategy via a card-based conversing with female escorts. The latter of which didn’t just stop at some novel distraction away from the story-based quests and objectives, but gradually evolved (contorting could be a more fitting description) into something I found myself considering my next, successive moves over. Do I buy that ridiculously expensive ¥100,000 champagne or not? Hmmmmm, this is a toughie.
Of all the things the Yakuza series has excelled on — be it the gameplay, visual presentation or just the excessive nature of its wacky frontier — not to mention how much care is put on the delivery of its story, Sega’s long-running crime-thriller has often more than happily flew the flag for mini-game distractions to the point it’s basically waving it point-blank in our faces. Naturally, mini-games have always been just that though, haven’t they? A detour away from the trajectory of the main plot or linearly-progressing focal points. And yet, where some games have often found a way to incorporate its gameplay mechanics or at least provide contextual sense to why these games may in fact be prospering in such a world, Yakuza 6, as always, scoffs at the idea of context yet still finds a way to get away with it.
And I don’t mean “get away with it” in a kind of self-admittedly, hypocritical fashion. As we all know, Yakuza has rarely shied away from being a little silly at points. Often embracing the ridiculous and the absurd to the point where a Yakuza entry without any of that would in fact seem alien. Yet Sega once more go out of their way to devote a considerable amount of care and appreciation to something like the Batting fields, the Internet Cafes or even the new Clan Creator, without ever adding detriment to the core gameplay experience. Even after spending another hour trying to beat the final few challenge levels in baseball or ticking off everything there is to eat in but another handful of restaurants (making sure not to go over the digestion limit so as to still nab that bonus XP), once I was ready to proceed with the next pivotal plot point, not for a second did I feel disconnected or otherwise lost with what was going on.
As if I’d returned to a TV series months after I had last watched the previous episode yet still knew exactly what was going on. Part of this is of course down to the game’s great writing, likeable characters (old and new) and the carefully-orchestrated delivery of it all. But I think a large credit is owed to how much is invested in Yakuza 6’s mini-games (let alone the world as this grand, collective process) to feel like entirely separate experiences in their own right. Clan Creator could easily be the kind of novel, strategy RPG you find pop up on the mobile storefront or perhaps even on a platform like Steam. Its progression, though primarily revolving around the same mission-based principles, is still easy to get lost in and spend one’s time simply beefing up members to their maximum levels. And while the “classics” conglomerate of Yakuza mini-games does essentially simplify itself to mere repackaged retro offerings, it takes nothing away from how entertaining these, in some cases, two-decade old games remain. Out Run, as stated, is an annoyingly addictive case of “alright, one more go…I mean it this time!”.
It’s hard not to feel a little perplexed that even after so many iterations in the series Yakuza would still want to go to such lengths to offer players an abundance of content to invest in. Running the risk, it should be argued, of becoming too persistent in its need to purely add “more” for the mere sake of it. Rather than ensuring the overall experience is memorable through-and-through. The game does still imbue this with a degree of progression and worth by rewarding you with XP just for taking part in some of its more eccentric moments (seeing Kiryu star in a Karaoke-based, atypically Japanese music video never fails to be both jarring and entertaining at the same time) but I wouldn’t blame anyone for perceiving this as taking perhaps a bit too much of the game’s space. Particularly when it’s trying to portray a gritty and often unsettling tale of crime, loyalty and consequence.
But can’t it also be argued that a game, no matter its intended tone — story-reliant or not — can still find a way to balance itself out with off-kilter humor now and again? Maybe go as far as to strike an even split between comedy and drama — neither one hindering the other from blooming. Metal Gear Solid 3 and Mother 3 immediately come to mind when I think of games that do a great job at having it both ways. On managing to provide us with an intriguing slew of characters caught up in bizarre scenarios and yet still deliver a stand-alone tale that remaining compelling — managing to go the whole way in delivering a punch to the gut come its climax or grand revelation. The former maybe even providing additional self-aware goofs outside of the core content — all of which optional and without narrative purpose, but there to be viewed nonetheless.
Yakuza may understandably not offer as much the same space within its main narrative for its deadpan and occasionally slapstick humor to punctuate the tale it’s trying to tell. Yet while it may seem strange for an ex-Yakuza, ex-convict to go casually wandering off during a heated moment — if you want to get picky about it — the series’ longevity owes a lot to how varied and unpredictable the circumstances of each iteration can possibly be when taking the main story aside. Sure these activities could be seen as laborious by some, there purely to offer another long list of fulfillments to meet and goals to achieve. The difference here is that the type of mini-games you’ll find in a Yakuza game are handled with such care and concise attention-to-detail that it’s clear the folks at Sega aren’t merely padding content so as to create the illusion of variety. Rather, what you’ll find is an in-house studio and group of individuals who want to entertain you as much offer an alternative to the primary structure of melee-focused combat.
Whether benefactors such as comedy take a higher precedent than the gameplay mechanics underpinning them, it can vary; Yakuza 6 is host to all manner of weird and wonderful moments and while you may get out of it only what you put in, you can’t ignore the fact that Sega have put a respectable amount of effort into the presentation of each of these little tucked-away microcosms. You may want to master every single offering, you may never touch a single one on your journey. Mini-games will always be the figurative side-dish, regardless of your appetite.
So long as it doesn’t hinder the experience, all is well. Established fans may concede Yakuza 6’s compilation is more streamlined in its burst of distracting pleasures, but that’s not a bad thing; it only tempts you further to revisit those you hadn’t quite conquered or in fact lead you into venturing down another street or alleyway to see what a particular icon or location name may house. It’s a bizarre jostling act, though when has a Yakuza game — mini-games or not — ever been anything but?