Review: Yakuza 6: The Song of Life

Kiryu’s Curtain Call

It’s safe to say that people like me here at Gamer Escape have taken a shine to the flood of Yakuza remakes and new releases as of late. It has a knack of mixing competent brawler gameplay, sandbox elements by way of free roaming, a lot of distractions to sink your teeth into, and some pretty fantastic storytelling throughout that adds a dash of ridiculousness to it.

Until the release of 0 and Kiwami, I was largely unaware of the series as a whole. Save for the smattering of people who recommended it as an alternative to its spiritual cousin Shenmue, it remained a distant blip on my radar. Obviously, I consider myself to be a fan of the series, but it’s hard to believe that the story of Kazuma Kiryu started back in 2005 and has remained consistent in quality throughout the years.

With the release of Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, we see Kiryu’s long-running story come to a close. While it’s been announced that the franchise will continue with a new protagonist in a yet-to-be-fully-divulged title, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to let the original protagonist go without giving him a proper sendoff.

Developed and published by Sega, Yakuza 6 is set to release on April 17th, 2018. A review code was provided by Sega for its exclusive release on PlayStation 4 and will have two editions. The Essence of Art Edition will set you back $59.99, and the After Hours Premium Edition will be priced at $89.99.

Bright City/Serene Harbors

In what seems to be the norm for these titles, it’s not necessary at all to have played any of the previous titles. The game does give you the opportunity to review text summaries of past games (save for 0) from the Memories section of the main menu if you desire to catch up. There are also flashbacks to 5 as they relate to the plot of 6 as well as an early sequence that lets you get familiar with certain characters from the series. However, the entire game largely retains its focus on Kiryu. This sadly means that certain fan favorites like Goro Majima are reduced to what’s basically a cameo, which I found pretty disappointing. Nevertheless, the plot presented here is on par with what you’d expect from the franchise.

After the events of 5, Kiryu licks his wounds and returns to Sunshine Orphanage with the now-teenage Haruka Sawamura. He ends up getting pulled into jail once again to let Haruka enjoy a quiet life in his three year absence. However, she decides to flee from the orphanage back to Kamurocho amidst immense outcry on social media from her previous actions. Upon Kiryu’s release, he discovers what happens and sets out to find Haruka and confront her in said city. However, he stumbles upon caring for a mysterious one-year-old child after a pretty rash turn of events. This sets off a search for answers that spans not only the bustling streets of Kamurocho, but the small oceanside town of Onimichi as well. In what seems to be the norm, the yakuza underworld heats up yet again and Kiryu is thrust into that drama headfirst despite being a civilian.

The story of 6 is about everything you’d expect from this franchise by now. Plenty of twists and turns, legitimately dramatic moments, and the usual over-the-top melodrama from the main cast here and there. While it may sound pretty rote by now, that doesn’t change the fact that the story as a whole is still rather enjoyable. This does extend to the series-norm substories despite their wild variations in tone, though they aren’t as plentiful as they are in past titles. It’s quite amusing to watch Kiryu adjust to the creature comforts of 2016, be it dealing with a fancy smartphone or getting frisky with camgirls. Especially since he is in his mid-to-late forties at this point, it’s always amusing to see him get into situations that force him to adjust.

There are main plot elements that I am definitely not a fan of, sure. But that’s not to say what’s presented here isn’t entertaining. Due to the dense nature of the plot and the pattern that the series follows, you will find yourself watching the plot unfold in lengthy cutscenes pretty frequently. Seeing the in-game contrast of city and rural yakuza life is actually nice, especially when you’re used to the intense power struggle you’ve seen in previous titles.  The deluge of cutscenes may turn off some players, but you can usually skip them if your aim is just to punch some dudes in the face.

Dragon’s Not Done Yet

One thing that you’ll notice right away is the brand new Dragon Engine that’s being used here (and eventually in Kiwami 2). You’ll find that you will be (for the most part) seamlessly transitioning from fighting to moving between spaces. The fighting here has been simplified to one style, and is pretty basic in comparison to other titles. This is especially evident if you’ve played using the multiple fighting styles of 0 and Kiwami. While this is kind of a letdown, the fighting here is still pretty competent.

Heat actions are still here and still entertaining while continuing to maintain a bit of repetition fatigue.  Extreme Heat Actions are now accessible via a manual activation, and let you unleash some serious fury on your foes be they random street punks or boss characters that you encounter on your journey. For some reason, you do have the option to traverse the streets in first-person view. It’s a nice, but largely unnecessary addition due to the third-person perspective the series is traditionally known for.

Looking at the game from a sound and music perspective, it’s safe to say that what was done here is just fine. The game is fully voice acted, and only offers a Japanese dub. Serious scenes are delivered appropriately, and sometimes lurks into tense crime drama territory, though certain scenes where Kiryu and the aforementioned toddler interact with each other and other characters did make me raise my eyebrows a couple of times. Absurd scenes are always a treat, and the delivery here is about as hammy as one comes to expect from this series. Music is also serviceable, and it doesn’t tend to get in the way too often. No tracks stuck out to me as especially irritating, and tends to accent tense scenes pretty well.

One thing that was also quite an adjustment was the fact that the game is locked in at 30 frames per second. The tradeoff here is that the Dragon Engine is much more robust in how it handles physics, and the visual fidelity looks a lot nicer than past PS4 Yakuza games. Don’t expect a framerate bump if you’re using a PS4 Pro, though. It’s simply offers a 4K resolution instead of 30 FPS.

The skill system has also changed a bit. Instead of punching the money out of people to use for upgrades or gaining straight up EXP to buff your stats, these have now been separated into individual EXP categories that you’ll gain through different means. Working on the completion list, dining on food (which has its own EXP benefits), or just straight up beating on foes will give you EXP in different categories. Naturally, this is necessary to do to keep pace with the challenges the game puts forth. But so long as you keep on the grind as you play, you won’t have much trouble. You also have to feed Kiryu in order to help maximize what experience points you get in the five seperate EXP categories. Go out and fight, then turn around and stuff your face. Repeat the process to grind accordingly.

I will admit, I was kind of perturbed with how limited you are in traversing the game space early on, but this soon evaporated once I worked on the usual skill expansion, even with acquiring money being somewhat lean this time around. The core gameplay isn’t as robust as I’m used to, but that’s not to say that I didn’t adjust and enjoy myself. Even with the slight downward bump in the normal difficulty, it’s still compelling to play.

Getting Distracted…Often

It should come as no surprise that Yakuza 6 upholds the absolute dearth of side activities to do on top of the main plot of the game. One thing that surprised me right from the get-go is that there are fully playable versions of Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown as well as Puyo Puyo (which uses the assets from Puyo Puyo Tetris), and can be accessed for multiplayer purposes right from the main menu. These games stand well enough on their own, and are just as playable here as they were as standalone titles. Within the main game itself, you’ll also find other Sega arcade classics like Super Hang-OnFantasy Zone, and Space Harrier. These all play as well as they should be for decades-old games, and retain everything people love about them. The game also throws trouble missions at you that you can select from an app on Kiryu’s phone called Troublr. It boils down to selecting the mission, heading to the trouble spot, and proceeding to dispense justice on some poor shmuck’s face. There’s also a baseball minigame. Why not?

Naturally, the substories are still present per the norm of the franchise as yet another side activity. This is usually where Yakuza games get to play with the tone, as mentioned earlier. Sometimes they’re hilariously ridiculous, sometimes they’re really touching, and they aren’t afraid to surprise you every now and then. I don’t want to divulge too much about them, as it’s best to experience it yourself. Rest assured, most of these are more than welcome within the flow of the main game,

One other such distraction is the Clan Creator. What you basically do here is recruit street punks and send them out to battle a rival clan proper. Each clan member you recruit will have different stats and  deployment costs, so it’s important to have a decent amount of situational awareness and proper recruitment strategies if you decide to dive into this mode. I didn’t find the actual gameplay for it to be especially deep, but I can see how someone could get lost in basically catching street punks like Pokemon. It’s a neat side activity if you’re willing to give it a try.

Punching Until the Bitter End

Ultimately, I walked away from Yakuza 6 feeling good about the direction it went in. Like previous releases, it’s densely presented and has a tendency to hook you in pretty quickly with everything it brings to the table. From the serious plotline to the usual avalanche of side activities, I can definitely say that this is one swan song that pulls its weight and is easy to recommend. Not only does it stay true to what people love about these titles, but it’s a goodbye to one of the most compelling protagonists I’ve ever played in a video game. If this is your first trip to Kamurocho, you’re going to enjoy yourself without question.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review copy provided by Sega for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.