The final verse
Despite being the first title in the Yakuza franchise to be developed from the ground up on PlayStation 4 architecture, boasting the new and improved Dragon engine, Yakuza 6 isn’t the new start for the series that you would imagine it to be – it is actually a dramatic ending to the series as we know it. And despite all of the added gloss that comes with the jump to being fully next-gen, the game manages to maintain all of its character and madness – perhaps even packing in even more than usual.
Game: Yakuza 6: The Song of Life
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4 (Review code provided)
The Song of Life is the swansong for longtime protagonist Kazuma Kiryu – the Dragon of Dojima. Without giving too much of the story away, Kazuma has returned from paying his dues in prison only to find that his “adopted” daughter Haruka has gone missing and been involved in a tragic accident. He sets out to investigate and finds a lot more trouble than he anticipated – including being unwillingly dragged back into the Yakuza world that he was happy to have left, and discovering a baby that needs his protection. Having been embroiled in epic clan wars and power struggles over the years, this sixth title takes a surprising – and thoroughly refreshing – turn towards a much more personal story.
However if you are new to the series, Sega have done a commendable job recently to make everything far more accessible. Firstly, last year’s Yakuza Zero was a prequel which served as the perfect first stop for anyone who had yet to jump into the world of Yakuza. Then Yakuza Kiwami and the upcoming Kiwami 2 have re-made the first two games in the series, via the new engine. And even here, in the final part of Kiryu’s story, you could easily start from scratch, thanks to the reminisce options in the main menu – allowing you catch up with the most important past events via short digest essays.
With each entry into the series, the Yakuza games have seemingly got more complex and more over-the-top. Indeed, Song of Life is the first game since 2009 to feature only the one playable character, and as such it possesses a far more focused main story than the last three or four instalments. Each title has always felt jam-packed with things to do – be it the main story, side missions or the myriad of distractions scattered throughout – but sometimes that has been a real hinderance that has made each game feel bloated and unnecessarily drawn-out. By streamlining certain aspects, Yakuza 6 feels quicker, sleeker and much more compelling to play.
This is all helped greatly by the fact that the new game engine cuts out around ninety percent of the loading screens from earlier titles. No longer will there be loading screens for entering every single restaurant or shop – we instead get seamless transitions into combat or buildings, even allowing your fights to spill over into nearby convenience stores, if you decide to take it there. It makes each of the two main playable areas feel far more open, allowing quicker and easier exploration.
These two areas are the series regular Kamurocho (Sega’s take on the real-life Kabukicho red light district of Tokyo), and the new small town of Onomichi in Hiroshima. The two different areas provide a stark contrast between small-town and big city life, without ever becoming so large an open world so that one feels overwhelmed by the options of what to do or where to go. These locations each have a strong personality, and both are fascinating to explore. Kamurocho will feel familiar enough to series veterans, but also ever-evolving – with new sights, shops and experiences to uncover as you wander around. And in its own way Onomichi plays a perfect foil to that bustle and excess. A sleepy harbour town, harbouring a dangerous secret.
Without the aforementioned excessive loading times, combat feels more dynamic and immediate – you can be approached by enemies and thrown into battle at the drop of the hat, or choose to pick fights for yourself as you please. The fighting system has been streamlined much like other elements of the game. With only Kazuma to fight as, there is only one fighting style to learn and master – although your skills and attacks are all upgradeable with a fairly comprehensive XP levelling system. New finishing moves and context-specific attacks can be purchased, along with other social skills that will help with the variety of mini-games to take part in around each of the two locations.
A new ultra heat mode is built up through successful attacks and allows you to take advantage of high-powered moves and temporary invulnerability – both of which are highly useful for some of the boss battles or larger multi-opponent brawls that you will come up against as you progress. This can however make some of the supposedly harder fights feel a bit too easy, especially if you are quite invested in completing the many side quests which will help you to accrue XP, and therefore upgrades, much more quickly. There are three different difficulty settings in-game however, and these do really make a difference between just playing through to enjoy the story, or being seriously challenged by some gruelling fights.
I shouldn’t speak about the combat for too long however, as many of the most memorable moments through the history of the franchise have come from the crazy side quests and unique mini-games and distractions. Whereas the main story in Yakuza 6 is a very personal and emotional arc, the side quests always lend a deal of levity to proceedings. None are especially serious – many are laugh-out-loud funny. Whether you are chasing ghost pirates away from a local graveyard, helping a young girl find merchandise from her favourite singer or stopping a budding Youtuber from performing dangerous Jackass-style stunts, they offer short and amusing diversions.
There is also the usual selection of mini-games to occupy your time, such as Mah-Jong, Karaoke and baseball batting cages, but many new additions or tweaks to old favourites have been made to offer even more depth. The Sega gaming arcades not only offer classics such as Outrun and Hang-On, but now include full versions of Virtua Fighter 5 and Puyo Puyo (which can also both be played in multi-player mode with a friend). I was disappointed by the lack of UFO Catcher machines though – as in my own time in Japan I became quite addicted to these, and they have always been in past titles. Thankfully this is a minor inconvenience, far outweighed by the many other new additions.
The almost RTS-like Clan Creator mode sees Kazuma building up his own gang of locals to fight back against an evil group that is taking over the city. You recruit, level up and deploy your troops like a general, taking on waves of increasingly more difficult enemies. A baseball management mode offers a similar take on that favourite past-time, tasking you with building up a terrible local team into a force to be reckoned with. Even the regular Hostess clubs have been given an overhaul, featuring a new card-based conversation system whereby you can try to win the affections of your chosen maiden. Add in a rather risque live chat mini-game, a very arcade-like spear fishing mode and a Cat Cafe which Kiryu is himself responsible for populating with an army of kitties, and there is plenty to keep you occupied aside from the main storyline – if you so wish.
A quick mention should also be made to the improved visual fidelity of the whole experience. Whilst there is a massive gulf between the cookie-cutter NPC faces and the featured main characters, there is a marked improvement in textures all-around. This is illustrated best on the rather large selection of characters who are modelled on real-life actors. Beat Takeshi plays a fairly large supporting role – in his usual understated, yet endearingly eccentric way – along with several other recognisable Japanese actors. One street gang is made up almost entirely of real New Japan Pro Wrestling superstars, including current IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada. These faces are all very detailed and expressive, which when coupled with the more fluid animations and higher-resolution environments, make Yakuza 6 a more authentic virtual trip to Japan than ever before.
It will always be difficult to sell a sequel like this to gamers who have never before dipped their toe into the series. It would be a mistake to be put off by the large number six that you see on the box though people, this is one of the most captivating and content-rich adventures that I have played in quite some time – and can be enjoyed thoroughly even with no prior knowledge of the story. With so many side quests and mini-games, pacing has always been an issue in past Yakuza games, but the absorbing nature of the main plot made The Song of Life feel like it never had time to slow down. By paring away unnecessary additional playable characters, disposing of multiple fighting styles and focusing on a more character-driven story than prior entries, we are left with a far more compelling tale – one in which I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen next. Whilst this may be the last outing for legendary hero Kazuma Kiryu, the future is certainly bright for the Yakuza franchise as a whole.