A Redundant Spinoff Provided the Most Gut-Wrenching Moment In Games This Year
Everything comes full-circle.
From a zombie apocalypse to a samurai drama, Like a Dragon isn’t afraid to get ambitious with its spinoffs. The latest entry, however, feels like it lands in a much more somber, introspective place. After the end of Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, it felt like series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu had the sendoff he deserved. But Like a Dragon Gaiden brought the hero back for another adventure, one that often felt like unnecessary filler. That is, until the end of the game, which brought along the most emotionally harrowing finale of the year. Spoilers up ahead if you’re not caught up.
At the end of Yakuza 6, Kiryu faked his demise, walking into the sunset to protect the children he’s adopted and formed a family with. It was a bittersweet but poignant ending that felt in line with Kiryu’s entire arc across the series. For all intents and purposes, it felt like Kiryu was done and the torch was being passed to Ichiban Kasuga, the hero of Yakuza: Like a Dragon.
That feeling of finality to Kiryu’s story is wiped clean by Gaiden, which creates a new narrative conceit for him to come back. Kiryu now serves a shadowy agency — called the Daidoji — and has to do its bidding to keep his kids safe.
Much of Gaiden functions as a kind of love letter to the series’ past, with multiple characters and plotlines appearing from past games. But it’s hard to shake the feeling anything in Gaiden is necessary. What does it do to add to Kiryu’s character arc, especially when he already had one of the most complex, and complete arcs in all of gaming.
Throughout most of Gaiden, I couldn’t shake this feeling that we were mostly retreading ground for the sake of nostalgia. Kiryu has been the main character in over seven Like a Dragon games. He’s lost countless loved ones and has been through unimaginable trauma. I was admittedly cynical about the role Gaiden played in this epic saga, until the last ten minutes.
As mixed as I felt about Gaiden early on, it easily has the best ending in the entire franchise. Ryu Ga Gotoku ties the game nicely to the previous entry, and more importantly gives Kiryu a chance to display raw, unfiltered emotion. We’ve seen this character grieve and cry before, but never like this.
By a stroke of luck, two of Kiryu’s children discover a hidden camera monitoring his grave, and send him a message saying they knew he was alive. As he watches the adorable video the stoic Kiryu completely breaks down into a mess of tears and sobs. It’s a striking moment that’s given even more gravitas by the incredible performance of Kiryu’s actor, Takaya Kuroda. Kiryu is a man resigned to his end, living out his days only to keep others safe. He has no regard for himself, but in this moment he simply can’t hold the emotion in any longer.
Suddenly my mixed feelings on Gaiden vanished, and the whole picture started to come into focus. Gaiden isn’t just a way to set up Kiryu’s proper ending, it’s a way to give fans catharsis. All the references in Gaiden are there to remind us of how history has shaped Kiryu; how this man has, time and again, been forced to live a life he doesn’t want to. It’s a reminder of how his personality and persona have been painstakingly built across two decades.
There’s an argument to be made that Kiryu might be the greatest video game character ever created, not just because he’s inherently likable, but because of how we’ve been there for every step of his life. We’ve seen him grapple with learning how to use smartphones, break it down in a disco, and figure out how to prepare baby formula. Gaiden is a reminder of Kiryu’s past, as well as an admission of the fact that it’s time to move on.
In a way, it feels like Gaiden is developer RGG Studio using a game to recognize how far the company has come, trying to learn lessons from its past while moving to the future. Kiryu’s final chapter is like a chronicle of his life and personality, all built to pay off with the story of Infinite Wealth, where we’ll see Ichiban Kasuga step into the spotlight.
The ending of Gaiden is an emotional roller coaster that uses its character and actor superbly, but is also intentionally designed to utilize the attachment players have built with Kiryu. I’ve never seen a game display a character’s grief and emotion in such a way.
2023 has been filled with incredible games and moments, but I just can’t get Kiryu’s breakdown out of my head. It feels so raw and realistic, perfectly in line with Gaiden’s solemn tone. But past that it’s a reminder of how we grow old, and how everyone has to move on, sooner or later.