Shaun Munro reviews Yakuza 6: The Song of Life…
The Yakuza series won itself a whole new Western fanbase last year with the release of the meteorically successful Yakuza 0, and last summer’s remake of the original game, Yakuza Kiwami, cemented the franchise’s newfound popularity in a void still awaiting the next Shenmue game. While this latest instalment is as steadfastly excessive as ever and can be seen as a partial regression in some key areas, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is still a highly enjoyable, streamlined iteration of everything that’s come before.
The game is quite the substantial leap forward in time for those new-ish to the series, serving as a sequel to 2012’s Yakuza 5 (obviously), which nevertheless accommodates the new crowd splendidly too (with in-game videos to get you up to speed if you so wish). What’s most immediately striking about Yakuza 6, though, is that it’s easily the most emotional and sentimental of the three Yakuza titles released in the West over the last 18 months. There’s always been a weird earnestness to these games, that they take their preposterous plots fairly seriously, though never enough to jar, in part because of all those loony sub-stories.
Here, however, there’s a greater-than-ever emphasis on the theme of family, which while often a trite crutch in entertainment, proves surprisingly affecting. Without saying too much, the story spans the towns of Kamurocho and Onomichi, as Kazuma Kiryu investigates the fate of the young woman he’s been protecting since the series’ beginning, Haruka. After Haruka’s left in a coma following a car accident, leaving her infant son Haruto in the slippery care of various questionable figures, Kiryu endeavours to find out the father’s identity and whoever was responsible for the accident. In typical Yakuza fashion, the rabbit-hole goes much deeper than that.
While Yakuza 6‘s story liberally juggles more Japanese names and characters than any non-native will ever be able to keep track of, the core story is actually simpler and tighter than expected. Far from the hyper-complexity of Yakuza 0, for instance, this entry instead ramps the melodrama up to 11 and trains its focus on Kiryu desperately trying to keep his semblance of a family unit from crumbling apart. There are still countless subplots and diversions, of course, but the focus feels much more singular.
Ultimately, the game reaches unexpected emotional highs and delivers one of the looniest final acts of any game this side of the Metal Gear Solid franchise, but it is also as exposition-heavy as ever, sometimes to the point of exhaustion. The pacing, however, is certainly the best of the three recent games, by not forcing the player into laborious busy-work fetch-quests anywhere near as frequently.
Overall Yakuza 6 is decidedly more user-friendly and respectful of players’ time than either 0 or Kiwami. For starters, something as simple as saving your game doesn’t require you to save the damn file twice anymore (which quickly became infuriating during long play-sessions of the prior games).
Elsewhere, the new engine allows players to simply run past random encounters if they’re not feeling like a fight. At the same time, though, if you do fancy some fisticuffs, fights are no more boxed into small areas, and I was legitimately quite shocked the first time a gang of thugs followed me into a convenience store (and the store clerk promptly kicked me out after I finished smashing the bad guys around).
The game’s combat does admittedly feel somewhat scaled-back in some ways from Yakuza 0; no longer do players have four fighting styles to choose from, but just one unified system. Progression and levelling is more open and transparent than before, though, and you can even earn EXP merely from eating; before you know it, you’ll have thousands of points to pour into whatever disciplines you choose.
The fighting is unquestionably simpler and easier than previous; Extreme Heat Mode, for instance, will allow Kiryu to grab a motorcycle virtually out of thin air and annihilate a fleet of bad guys with a comical amount of ease, and it’s even easier than usual to just button-mash your way through the game with a liberal amount of healing items. Staminan and the like are less of a fixture this time, though, with your inventory being strictly limited to 5 items of each type. However, studious checkpointing ensures you’re thrown back mere minutes upon dying, with a full health bar no less (which can be easily abused if you get desperate).
Handily, the infuriating self-heal mechanic employed by bosses in Kiwami has been ditched entirely here, and there’s not a single boss in Yakuza 6 that can’t be beaten in around five minutes or less. Some may sniff at this, but for this player it’s honestly a relief, with the game generally achieving a better balance of story and action than its sometimes tiring predecessors.
There are fights here that see Kiryu battling literally dozens of enemies at once, but they’re usually peppered between glossy cut-scenes, and the sheer bombast of entering Extreme Heat Mode and unleashing your inner Neo makes the power fantasy feel more literally awesome than ever. This is aided by some hilariously over-the-top physics, whereby a well-timed kick will send an assailant flying literally 20 feet into the air.
In addition to the combat, there is of course plenty to explore in the cities of Kamurocho and Onomichi. If the main story takes just shy of 20 hours to plough through, there’s at least double that to tackle in the wealth of ridiculous sub-stories – ranging from body swaps to haunted cemeteries and so much more – not to mention the usual array of mini-games. Some might take umbrage with the webcam stripping mini-game – where Kiryu live-chats with extremely scantily-clad live-action women – as one excess too far, especially with the game’s total lack of dominant female characters. In the very least, though, it’s easily avoided.
It’s also worth mentioning Clan Creator, which is introduced fairly early in the game and allows Kiryu to create his own gang in the hope of toppling the almighty JUSTIS, a powerful rival gang amusingly featuring numerous members of New Japan Pro Wrestling, including Kazuchika Okada, Tetsuya Naito and Toru Yano. These clan battles play out in a semi-RTS style, as you funnel your foot-soldiers into war against the enemy in a simple war of attrition. It didn’t hold my attention for long as it seemed rather shallow, but it’s a kooky enough addition for those who enjoy strategy games and, sensibly, is entirely optional.
Visually, Yakuza 6 is a frequently gorgeous game, scaling back the borderline-hideous pore details visible in characters’ faces in Yakuza 0, but delivering wonderfully detailed facial animations all the same during the game’s cut-scenes. And this being Yakuza, there are naturally tons of cut-scenes, superbly directed for the most part and touting an epic, cinematic tenor able to rival all but the most thunderously-wrought movies.
It’s sure to be a bugbear for many, though, that the game runs at just 30 FPS, half that of the last two games. As such, the combat is noticeably slower at first, but after an hour or two you’ll probably adjust to it just fine. The frame-rate also chugs occasionally during more crowded and action-heavy moments, which is slightly disappointing.
Sound-wise, the game is quite a step up from previous titles, in large part because some heavyweight acting talents have been brought to the table, with Battle Royale‘s Tatsuya Fujiwara and the legendary Takeshi Kitano playing pivotal supporting roles. They clearly aren’t mere stunt casting paycheck roles, with each character proving far more nuanced and involved in the story than expected.
Yakuza 6 is also fully voiced unlike its predecessors, meaning you need no longer wait for silent flavour-text to tick across the screen before skipping it. It’s all voiced aloud and sounds great, but you’re still able to skip it instantly if you so wish. Another neat touch is the game’s use of the typically under-appreciated PS4 controller speaker, which is well-employed here for phone alerts and menu clicks.
There are sure to be passionate debates about where exactly Yakuza 6 lies in the grand pantheon of Sega’s titanic franchise, but with its smash-mouth combat, surprisingly engrossing story and wealth of wacky content, it is nothing if not another towering entry. Frustration-limiting refinements are a major win in its favour, even if the scaled-back combat may leave some underwhelmed. At seven main games and counting, however, the series’ pulse basically feels stronger than ever.
+ Perhaps the series’ most outrageous and emotional story yet.
+ Satisfyingly brutal combat.
+ Gameplay has been streamlined for ease-of-use.
+ Superbly slick graphics.
+ More side-quests than you can shake a stick at.
– Combat may feel too “casual” for hardcore fans.
– 30 FPS is disappointing.
– No substantial evolution of the series’ formula.
Reviewed on PS4.
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more video game rambling.