Yakuza 6: The Song of Life looks and feels like the next-gen Yakuza that we've been waiting for. Taking the developer's Dragon Engine out for its first drive, this is the sixth (or seventh, if you count the fantastic Yakuza 0) mainline entry in SEGA's crime drama action role-playing game series, and it's bloody brilliant. The much needed lick of paint makes fictional red light district Kamurocho feel more real than ever before. The countless neon lights reflect in pavement puddles, and bustling crowds sweep across the streets looking for their next fix of adult entertainment. It's glorious.

Yakuza's never looked so good, but then the series has been stuck with passable PlayStation 3 era visuals for the last decade. It's not just the environments that are a real step up, though. The character models look great too, particularly during cutscenes – and Yakuza 6 has a lot of cutscenes. As we've come to expect of the property, this is an intensely story-driven experience – the game's never frightened of dropping huge amounts of dialogue when it's trying to get a point across.

And for that reason, some people may be put off before the plot even has a chance to get going. The opening few hours of Yakuza 6 are incredibly slow. The game really, really takes its time as it sets the stage, plopping series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu into a parade of mundane scenarios. It all moves at a glacial pace that's bound to be too much for some players, but the pay-off is ultimately worth it.

Once the story kicks into gear, it's impossible to look away. Like its predecessors, Yakuza 6 delivers an engrossing, superbly acted narrative – a story that puts the efforts of most games to shame. Bolstered by a cast of fantastic characters – both old and brand new – the plot twists, turns, and might as well do backflips. We did see a couple of the twists coming – and we'd hazard a guess that you will as well – but that wasn't enough to ruin such an enrapturing narrative.

The highs of the story are hard to top. As you may already know, Yakuza 6 has been billed as Kiryu's final chapter, and it does its best to pull out all the stops. The conclusion is breathless, with the entire last act setting the bar as far as pure drama goes. It's white-knuckle stuff, and as a whole, the game provides a fitting finale for one of gaming's most underappreciated heroes.

So, what about the gameplay? Well, franchise veterans will know what they're getting into here. You can expect city exploration intersected with street brawls and topped off with mental minigames. It's the standard Yakuza experience through and through, but as with the visuals, everything just feels that much more polished.

Take the combat, for example. At its core, this is still very much the same system that's been in place since day one. Kiryu will regularly have to go toe to toe with groups of thugs and other undesirables, dodging, blocking, and whacking his way to victory. Brutal heat moves still punctuate each encounter, with Kiryu dealing out massive damage via cinematic special attacks.

The difference this time around is that everything feels smoother. Animations have been improved across the board so that transitioning from one combo into the next feels more fluid. Attacks in general have a better weight to them, and that's helped by the fact that the game makes use of often over-the-top ragdoll physics. Kiryu's also been given access to a suite of moves that help deal with crowds, giving you more options when taking on whole gangs of delinquents.

For our money this is the most refined combat system in Yakuza's history, and that shows in the game's many boss fights. In past titles, some bosses could come perilously close to being cheap and frustrating, but here, it feels like Kiryu's on equal footing thanks to more effective evasive techniques and a parry mechanic that's a lot easier to utilise. Combat's not necessarily less difficult, but it is better balanced.

However, despite all of the improvements that the new engine brings to the table, it's hard to shake the feeling that Yakuza 6 had to be shrunk down at some stage during development – at least to an extent. For instance, Kamurocho itself is smaller in terms of scale. The top portion of the map that we've been exploring for years has been taped off, and mainstay activities like the fantastic underground fighting arena and bowling are nowhere to be seen. What's more, there aren't as many hilarious side-quests to undertake, and some other optional elements of the game seem stunted, like they had to be put to one side.

Having said that, it still took us a good 40 hours to see out the story and get through some but not all of the side activities. And, ultimately, we were able to forgive any shortcomings while playing purely because the plot had us absolutely glued to our screen.

But is the plot capable of gripping newcomers in the same way? Unfortunately, probably not. While Yakuza 6 does introduce a boatload of completely new characters, the emotional impact of Kiryu's last hurrah will be dampened if you're only just joining the party. The game does a fine job of telling its own separate story, but you'll need to have played at least one or two of the older games to get the most out of the experience. In other words, get Yakuza 0 played if you haven't already.

One other thing to note is that if you're coming straight off the back of Yakuza 0 or Yakuza: Kiwami, the shift to Yakuza 6 may be a tad jarring. This latest entry runs at 30 frames per second rather than a silky smooth 60, and that frame rate does dip now and then during more hectic gameplay moments, especially on a standard PlayStation 4. PS4 Pro users, meanwhile, get what seems to be a solid 30fps throughout, with only very minor dips to worry about.

Conclusion

Yakuza 6: The Song of Life tells a truly gripping tale – a story that blows most games out of the water. Combine that with a refined combat system and a new engine capable of making the game's world feel more alive than ever, and you've got a stellar Yakuza title. Although the experience does feel a little stunted in places outside of the main plot, this is still a fitting final chapter. Yakuza 6 is a gloriously dramatic send off for one of the greatest characters in modern gaming.