Yakuza 6: The Song of Life review

When it comes to the Yakuza series, I’m a bit of a tragic. I love the characters, I love the melodrama, I love the ridiculous sidequests, I love it all. So it comes as no surprise that I love Yakuza 6. While it is pretty much just more of the same old Yakuza that we’ve grown to know and love, there are several quality-of-life improvements that have been made, most of which make the game far more enjoyable. Still, I wouldn’t say it’s my favourite of the series.

If you’ve never played the Yakuza games before, let me give you a quick overview: you play as Kazuma Kiryu, an ex-Yakuza who keeps getting pulled back into the drama. Played from a third-person over-the-shoulder perspective, you walk around various Japanese cities tackling missions, completing sidequests, and playing the odd mini-game. It’s basically an RPG-lite action adventure – as you battle other bad guys, you gain various kinds of experience. This is then used to “learn” new techniques, or to just generally level up your attributes. Thus, over time, you become more powerful, even though the fighting itself doesn’t really evolve in any meaningful way.

And that’s it. In general, the Yakuza games are a bit clunky (because even this latest version is still based on an engine that is now 13 years old), the save system is frustrating, and the mechanics themselves are fiddly – but it’s just so damned charming.

What is it that makes these games so playable? First and foremost – the story. Don’t play Yakuza 6 if you are not prepared to sit through lengthy, unskippable cutscenes. However, you’d be silly to miss out, because the storytelling is sublime – from the writing itself, which is batshit insane (to say the least), through to the camera positioning, the framing, the music, the acting, the characters… Everything works together to create a melodramatic epic, rife with twists and turns.

On top of the story, there’s the environment. If you’ve ever been to Japan, you know how authentic this is. Yakuza 6 is set in both series mainstay Kamurocho (a fictional city in Tokyo, based on the very real Kabukicho) and Onomichi in Hiroshima (a very real place itself), and both of these areas feel very true to their inspiration. I’ve spent some time in Kabukicho, and I can tell you – Kamurocho is different pretty much in name only (well, the shops are different, but the layout is spot on). My wife, who is Japanese, has also been to Onomichi, and while she couldn’t remember specifics, she mentioned that they nailed the seaside shantytown aesthetic. More than that, there are the shops and locations throughout – go to a convenience store and be greeted by the EXACT convenience store experience you’ll have in Tokyo (minus actually being able to taste the food yourself). Head into a restaurant, and not only will the layout be accurate, but the food on offer is spot on. Sublime.

And lastly? The side stories and mini-games. The side stories are crazy, which is an ongoing theme throughout the series. In one, you may need to listen to a young girl tell her tale about time travel. In another, you may need to take a bunch of selfies. It’s silly stuff, but it’s fun, and there’s plenty to keep you busy. The minigames are a mix of the usual – Karaoke, Chat Cafes (now even more risque), Batting Centre, Mahjong; the new – cat cafe, gym, spearfishing, darts, and Clan Creator; as well as the requisite old Sega arcade games at the local Club Sega in Kamurocho (this time including Puyo Puyo, Virtua Fighter 5, Out Run, Supr Hang-on, and Space Harrier). While most of the games are simply silly side attractions with not much replay value, the Arcade games are faithful recreations – in full. In fact, some of these mini-games (Clan Creator, I’m looking at you) are a major time sink themselves.

I don’t really want to go into detail about how each one plays – in reality, that wouldn’t do Yakuza 6 any justice. Yakuza 6 is the sum of all of its parts – some of which are amazing, and some of which are frustrating, but overall it’s a unique experience. For those who are yet to play a Yakuza game and are looking for a story-based action game to sap up their time, I would say stop right here and just go buy it (better yet, maybe start with Yakuza 0). For experienced players? Read on.

Yakuza 6 is the first Yakuza game that was built specifically for the PlayStation 4. That’s not to say that the team created a new game engine, but they certainly made tweaks, and it shows. For the first time, transitioning between locations or into battle is almost seamless, which I found extremely surprising. A first-person perspective has also been added, which doesn’t add much in the way of functionality, but has a serious impact on realism (I spent a good while just walking around in first-person, taking in the sights).

Sega also made some other changes that may not be evident to anyone but the most obsessed – for example, it’s now actually a worthwhile use of your time to go to a restaurant for food. In the past, it was a fun thing to do once or twice, but didn’t really have an impact on the game itself – mostly because you could get stamina drinks virtually anywhere (not to mention the fact you were always flush with cash). Now, cash isn’t as easy to come by until later in the game (if you avoid fighting, that is), and bonus stamina drinks aren’t as freely distributed throughout the game world as in previous titles. In Yakuza 5, for example, I tended to have my pockets overflowing with stamina drinks, so I could easily refill my health at any time I liked. Now, I needed to manage my health – not to mention my inventory. I actually found it a better use of my time to stop by a restaurant to have something to eat rather than stocking up on expensive stamina drinks (the fact you gain experience from eating is a bonus as well).

Next, take a look at the vending machines – yes, they are filled with real Japanese beverages, but the real interesting thing here is that they don’t boost health, but provide other bonuses. In this way, you can grab a drink every time you pass a vending machine and keep your attack high (or whatever you may choose to buff).

These changes don’t seem like much at first blush, and in reality may not even be of use to many players, but the simple fact is that they add substance to an already immersive world. Factor in the use of a cell phone in place of the menu screen, with apps representing different options etc., and Yakuza 6 feels less like a video game world and more like an alternate life.

Well… maybe not so much, but you get my drift.

Of course, it’s not a perfect game. In fact, compared to Yakuza 0 (the last Yakuza game to be released on both PS3 and PS4) – and even Yakuza 5 (which was only released on PS3) – Yakuza 6 feels watered down. Gone are the multiple fighting styles. Gone are the multiple overlapping storylines (Yakuza 0 had players controlling both Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, while Yakuza 5 put players in the shoes of 5 different playable characters). This being the last story in the Kazuma Kiryu epic (who knows – the Yakuza series may live on with a new protagonist), it focuses solely on him, and while there is plenty of content, it doesn’t compare favourably in terms of the overall experience. In addition, the need to keep on top of your saves is annoying, as is the control scheme. In many ways, these issues are relics of the aging game engine, and thus are difficult to change. In other ways, it wouldn’t be a Yakuza game if these were different, but I guess what it comes down to it this: it’s definitely the right time for Kazuma Kiryu to retire now that his story is complete.

Yakuza 6 is an enjoyable romp and has an endearing and suitably complex story, but it’s not my favourite game in the series. Overall, it’s a great experience and a fitting finale for the Kazuma Kiryu storyline, but its pitfalls are glaringly obvious among today’s modern gaming experiences. I still highly recommend this game to old and new players alike, but I think it’s the right time for Sega to move on to something new.

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