Out of all the old school gaming brands, Sega would be the last I thought worth celebrating in 2018.
They gave up consoles, and treat their iconic mascot Sonic like a pinata. The company essentially faded into arcade and mobile obscurity in the west. The praise I have for them however stems from their wonderful work in Japan. Here they still retain a crown of sorts with very culturally significant games. These include the Project DIVA, and Yakuza series. Lucky enthusiasts in the west are able to enjoy these uniquely positioned cultural milestones. They are lovingly translated and subtitled in English, yet lose nothing of the original flavor.
More than just a brawler, the Yakuza legacy has captivated fans since Sega started releasing games on its rivals consoles. Its PlayStation 2 debut was written by a known author of Japanese gangster fiction. As a result it had some truly memorable characters, conflict and carried strong cultural identity. Taking on the role of Kazama Kiryu aka the Dragon of Dojima, players traverse the contemporary streets. Here they engage in a truly epic narrative melodrama. This is sidelined by all kinds of quirky and hilarious pop and sub-cultural encounters. These range from the form of mini-games or bizarrely engaging quests.
The brand remained consistent in its approach to how each Yakuza game was structured. Fans would come to expect the basics that make up the games DNA. They would also look forward to the exciting changes or slight twists to the formula that the next iteration would hold. The series gained prominence again, particularly in the west with the current-generation anniversary releases. Playstation 3 and 4 exclusives beginning with the prequel Yakuza 0, and then Yakuza Kiwami (the first ever game remade) and just announced Kiwami 2, 3, 4 and 5 remasters. So far they have been remakes in every sense of the word. Brand new graphics engine, revised plot, sound and completely reworked and re-voiced audio for every character.
The anniversary project has led the journey back to the present with Yakuza 6 The Song of Life. Jarring for newcomer fans having missed games 2 through 5, as this fresh import was only released in Japan last year. The question then remains, does Kiryu’s latest tale do justice to the legend? More importantly, does it all make sense to the intended fan-base who haven’t experienced the soap opera of the entire tale? Read on.
- Frying a thugs head in the microwave of a convenience store
- Appeasing a fussy cat with the right brand of cat food
- Transitioning from the hustle of Kamurucho Tokyo to the serene and slow-paced harbour town of Onomichi Hiroshima
- Embarrassing your loved ones with the Live Chat strip mini-game
- Creating your very own Cheers inspired social bar life
- Mastering every karaoke song
The story in Yakuza 6 is a slow burn that eventually reveals itself as a firestorm. The personal redemptive aspects quickly mix with the high-concept audacity of a criminal conspiracy theory. Playing the previous games to fully understand the plot is a must. Thankfully the extras on the disc include a catch up on every major player and what has transpired for Kiryu so far. After a long stint in jail (again) Kiryu is a free man, and more importantly ex-Yakuza. He still remains in that same daggy suit however. The game predominantly revolves around the condensed fictional district of Kamurocho. This is a stand-in for Tokyo’s previously notorious red light district Kabukicho. Things have changed in 2016, as Tokyo seeks to clean up its act and reduce the crime in Kabukicho. Things have only gotten more chaotic in Kamurocho though as sub-divisions of Yakuza, the Chinese Triad and the Jingweon Korean mafia all vie for supremacy.
Practically a staple in Yakuza, these sleazy streets offer up a plethora of distraction for Kiryu. While investigating his beloved daughter-figure Haruka’s hit and run, leaving her in a coma. Kiryu must care for her illegitimate baby Haruto. This is a shock to the Dragon as much as it is the player. Kiryu, determined as ever seeks out the father, and the trail leads to the seemingly sleepy locale known as Onomichi. It is there that the story focuses on the little things. Kiryu’s long-winded search leads him to a small-time local Yakuza group he eventually befriends, and more importantly gains the respect of. Without spoiling proceedings, these simple starts and relationships grow naturally over time. It is easy to get drawn into these characters lives and motivations, in only the way a Yakuza game allows.
From the deathly serious to the silly and saccharine, it does not matter what mode the story finds itself in. Kazama Kiryu, and by definition the player are completely invested. Kiryu has grown older, wiser and more patient. The dime store philosophy he dispenses is charming and memorable. Credit to the writers who also manage to develop complete jerks into people you actually care about. There are also villains you will long remember. The twists and turns of this deeply personal tale embroil Kiryu into his most dangerous struggle yet.
Oh to be a fly in that writers room! Putting aside the main story, the side missions Kiryu literally comes across are hilarious in their ingenuity to re-use exhausted material. As a result even the most mundane tasks feel fresh and interesting. Characters that have little screen time are vividly brought to life with quirky personalities and questionable motivations. It is a real joy to see some of these characters pop up again, particularly from previous games. The world building and lore remains stronger than ever. Funnier still a decent chunk of the side content is in fact product placement. There are real-world fast food franchises, beverages, and even a Rizap gym Kiryu can become a member of. These are not cynical cash grabs, these partnerships certainly added to the budget of the game. Thankfully they are presented in such a sincere and innovative way it is hard to condemn them.
Yakuza 6 is the first to be developed for current-gen consoles. The insane level of detail and high fidelity motion capture certainly confirms this. The game looks lush and vibrant on the PS4 and despite frame rate slowdown in busier parts of Kamurocho, the game play is not interrupted. Another huge advantage is in how they have opened the game up. A little bit of immersion goes a long way in Yakuza 6. As Kiryu travels the dense city streets he can also enter alleyways, climb rooftops, and even walk around multi-story buildings. The fact the shop fronts are no longer so inaccessible makes the location as a whole feel alive.
This is bolstered by the lack of load times. Entering into and finishing battles, walking into convenience stores, and starting missions has been polished and improved with no load times. Kiryu turns effortlessly and is never stuck in the environment either. It is however semi-awkward how the enemy mobs must engage Kiryu first. There have been some moments where I followed them for a few seconds, being unable to throw the first punch. It took some time before the game left free-mode and turned into combat. On the other hand there is no restrictive combat zone. Fights can break out in the street and spill into shops and restaurants. Everything is suddenly breakable too. After the fight the shop attendant fearing for his life screams at you to leave! Don’t worry he’ll come around in a few minutes.
The soundtrack is the best yet with some pulsating Electro and melancholic rock. These soundscapes covers tense action, moments of horror and of course the sincere melodrama that peppers most of the game. When a proper fight kicks off, the kick-ass soundtrack will let you know.
The camera never hinders exploration or combat, and the mobile phone based menu is quick and convenient. Cut-scenes transition effortlessly and flow right back into game-play. Overall this is the most technically accomplished Yakuza game yet. Impressively some of the areas in both districts are near-carbon copies of their real life counterparts that inspired them. This hyper-realism is at times astounding.
As usual there is so much to do in Yakuza. There is a plethora of mini-games, side missions and eateries. These await Kiryu in both towns. Although previous reviews have lamented that Onomichi is kind of boring. However, the patient Yakuza player can tease out all sorts of diverse content. This makes the sleepy town as dynamically interesting as the busy city district. Diving, fishing, running a baseball team, getting spooked in the graveyard, creating friends in a bar and so much more await Kiryu in Onomichi. It is also not long before players have access to the clan system. This is a completely addictive component of Yakuza up there with the infamous Cabaret mini-game. It was surprising how much there actually was to do in Onomichi.
Combat has been tightened, and restricted. Gone are the switching move sets and fighting styles. These have instead been replaced with a dynamic heat gauge. This presents a huge amount of destructive options and expanding actions. This may be limited in style but feel more progressive than prior games. The mobile phone is where skill points are used and Kiryu is equipped, both elements quite perplexing in previous games. Here it is presented perfectly, so the player can prioritise their play-style. This allows them to get the edge not only in battle but also in mini-games. It also helps how they eat, what they get from vending machines and more.
Although combat can feel repetitive the moves you learn should be utilised to break up the same take-downs and finishers. As a result the fights feel a lot more interesting that way. There have been many memorable and genuinely tense battles. It is surprising still how they have exploited the limitations of the game-play to present new mechanics. Even many hours into the game I am finding new systems.
On the flip-side avoid combat altogether, take a leisurely stroll through town, pet cats and visit eateries and bars. Get full and drunk and watch what happens. Realize how the subsystems of the game come together and the player find themselves in a comfortable and addictive routine. One which rewards with encounters of all shapes and sizes. Take photos with the perfect Photo Mode. Feel like a genuine tourist as you snap every location and person. Each one reacts differently when the camera is pointed at them. Your finished work of art of course comes with filters. If in selfie mode, different expressions are available to you. All of this adds to the immersion the story conveys, as lessons have been learned from the previous games.
The end may leave you feeling bitter, but Yakuza 6 is a game that cannot be recommended enough; as usual the story is completely compelling and the list of things to do (and master) is great and long. Kiryu is one of the most legendary game protagonists ever. His latest tale continues to capture the singular magic that makes a Yakuza game what it is.
Yakuza 6 highlights Japan as a pop-cultural paradise and might just make you want to book a ticket! Just avoid those roaming gangs…
Yakuza 6 The Song of Life is out now
Disclaimer: all images (except for the technical comparison) were captured/taken on my PS4