Review: Yakuza 6: The Song of Life (Sony Playstation 4)

Yakuza 6
Genre: Games You Should Be Buying
Developer: SEGA
Publisher: SEGA
Release Date: 4/17/18

I always open up my Yakuza reviews with the admission that I’m a fanboy of the series. I do so because feel that it’s important to acknowledge potential bias, however that blade cuts both ways as I also have expectations of the series with each new game. Especially when it comes to what is the final chapter of the main character, Kazuma Kiryu, and the denouement of aseries that I know and love.

For those who may have never played a Yakuza game you might wonder if Yakuza 6 is a game you can jump into. You can. Personally though I would not recommend this, as the game has a lot of callbacks to the previous Yakuza games and has characters that are developed throughout the series. Oddly many are actually non-factors in the game or are barely there, however their connection at all will be confusing to those who haven’t played through the games. It’s possible to have played Zero and Kiwami on the PS4 and get many of the references and at the very least I recommend playing those first. There are text recaps of all the games include 2, 3, 4 and 5 and while it hits the high points of those games in order to get a basic understanding for the plot of 6, it really doesn’t invest the player emotionally into the characters or cover some of the awesome parts of those games and some significant character deaths from the past are footnotes.

Yakuza 6 picks up right from the end of Yakuza 5. Spoilers for the end of that game follows here because it’s hard to discuss the beginning of a sequel without acknowledging the end of the previous title. Also play that game, you get to fight a bear and race taxi cabs.

Anyways at the end of Yakuza 5 Kazuma Kiryu’s adopted daughter Haruka Sawamura makes her name as an idol and is in the middle of her breakthrough performance. Doing so she realizes that in order to maintain her positive public appearance she’ll have to stay away from and never mention her connection to the man she considers like a father, who has saved her life and sacrificed much for her. During her performance she stops it to announce being raised by a man who had been involved in organized crime and quits abruptly as I guess that’s not considered appropriate. She runs from the concert to the side of a bleeding Kazuma Kiryu who actually helped stop a plot to assassinate her as a way to get back at him.

Yakuza 6 starts with him being rushed to the hospital and recovering. He gets arrested for causing a lot of property damage, which yeah, that happened. He decides to do the honorable thing and just serve his time instead of fighting it so he can return to Haruka and the orphanage he runs as a man who has served his time. While even other characters question the logic of this, it does make sense for the character. Several intro cutscenes later and Kiryu is released for time served and goes back to the orphanage. The orphans are surprised, they thought Haruka would be with him, and he thought she’d be there.

Turns out that like Kiryu’s past connections with the Yakuza, Haruka’s recent Idol fame and scandalous end of her career lead to negative attention being cast on the entire orphanage. Similar to how Kiryu left in 5 to allow the kids to live without the shadow of his past, Haruka left months after Kiryu went to jail. While trying to figure out what happened to her he gets a phone call. Haruka is in Kamurocho, Tokyo, and she’s been hit by a car and is in serious condition.

Even more to the point, she was hit while trying to protect her baby.

What follows is a story of Kiryu trying to figure out if the accident was actually accidental or if it was somehow involved with his past criminal connections and who the father of Haruka’s child is. The questions lead him into a deeper conflict involving the Tojo Clan, of which he was the 4th Chairman of at one point, Chinese Triads, a Korean Mafia group, a different Yakuza group known as the Yomei Alliance, and mysteries both personal and political. Thematically it explores the themes of fathers and sons, and the ties of family both blood related and not.

These games are all heavy on storytelling, and while sure the stories con be soap opera level of convoluted I still think that the Yakuza games manage to be some of the best games out there when it comes to telling a story. Yakuza 6 is no different. Some of the games, such as Yakuza 3, kind of meander during the first half in order to build new characters and try to invest the player emotionally into the situation, or like Yakuza 5 which is so bloated with content that the main plot feels padded out to just extend the length of the game, Yakuza 6 at least feels like it’s constantly moving forward to try to solve the mysteries it presents.

The plot itself could’ve just been a fan service of references to past games and character cameos and that probably would’ve been fine for long time fans. However the game itself is mostly a self contained plot that exists on its own but relies on past events to drive the characters. It is totally possible to play the game alone. I absolutely think a player benefits from the background knowledge of playing the past games still. New characters are introduced and relationships built, and they’re great additions to the series. I give it up to the voice actors, localization team and writers in that some characters I thought were annoying at first became some of my favorite characters by the end.

In general I’d like to throw out some appreciation to the localization team. This is no straight translation as it shouldn’t be, some terms that have multiple meanings depending on context are translated to include that context so that they come off naturally. The characters outside of Tokyo are given an accent in the translation that adds to their characterization. There are mini-games that have a lot of text that’s not just translated but manage to keep the timing of the jokes perfectly, and I can’t imagine it’s an easy job to try and translate something that might be amusing for one culture into not just a different language but a different culture and heritage and still make it work well. The localization team did an amazing job.

That said the plot isn’t without problems. Major characters are absent and while their absences are explained it remains disappointing that they had no role in the final chapter of Kazuma Kiryu’s story, even though it gave a chance for other characters to be developed and shine. After being able to play as Haruka in 5 I thought it kind of sucked that she has almost a non-presence through the game as mostly a victim and a liability. I ended up being very disappointed in how her character was treated given her history in the games. Akiyama continues to be criminally underused. Considering the motivating factor of the plot, a reunion later in the game is mostly anti-climactic when it should’ve been powerful. At one point the game takes an absurdly long time to try and make sense out of the convoluted corner it has painted itself into, like imagine the villain in a James Bond movie taking 30 minutes to explain his masterplan. That happens.

But complaints aside I enjoyed the story a lot, it was a fitting final chapter in Kazuma Kiryu’s saga with the games and managed to include a lot of smart foreshadowing and surprises. I cry like a baby at sad books, movies, and so on but despite playing a lot of video games I think I’ve only had that happen once(that Brothers game man). Yakuza 6 managed to hit me with an emotional punch at the end, part in due to the game deliberately manipulating my emotions well and partly because it’s the end of an era of games that I’ve been playing for more than a decade and love the world and characters within it.

Aside from the main plot there have been some obvious changes made to the game. For one it looks better. Built completely from bottom up on their new Dragon Engine the sixth game in the series is a pretty big jump graphically from previous games. Previously there were scenes that you could advance through with text boxes that were using the in game graphics and better looking cutscenes, not in Yakuza 6. Everything looks great and the cutscenes look as good as anything else in the game, to where you can’t tell if it’s a scene you can advance the text through by hitting a button or a cutscene unless you look for the X button prompt on the screen. Lighting and effects are better. You can tell the different textures of fabric on the characters clothes even. Animations are better too, one thing I noticed with the fights is that enemies will check leg kicks when blocking or push off an attack where as in previous games they’d just have their arms up and you’d see the blocked move effect. For a game that has always been cinematic the upgrades in visuals and animations certainly make it have a more cinematic presentation.

Another bonus of engine is that there are no loading screens between transitioning onto an on street fight or for going into or out of a store or building. As someone who played the PS2 games when there was a loading screen for every street fight it’s a great feeling to play the game as a seamless experience and makes the world feel natural. Audio wise the game is great as well. The voice actors are phenomenal at their parts and the music is perfect. There’s a song unlocked in post-game karaoke that will kick you right in the emotions.

That doesn’t mean sacrifices weren’t made. The game has some aliasing issues though it’s not terribly noticeable, the frame rate isn’t the steady 60fps of Yakuza 0, parts of Kamurocho aren’t available (explained in game as damaged by fire) and most notably fans of past games will notice areas of the game that are not as developed as past titles or are missing completely. This is completely understandable as other games used the same engine and just built on top of an existing framework while this one everything had to be made using the new engine.

Still those players coming from Yakuza 5, or Yakuza Kiwami and Zero, might feel off that the 6th game in the series the combat feels less nuanced and varied than any of those titles. While you played as multiple characters in 5 with their own movesets and styles, and in Zero you played as two different characters who each had multiple fighting styles, and Kiwami where it was just Kiryu with multiple fighting styles, in 6 it’s just Kiryu, and just one basic fighting style. That style doesn’t have the wide range of unlockable Heat moves, context sensitive moves that are brutal. There are still some but not nearly as many, and there’s not a lot of them to unlock, and most you’ll unlock early. There are Dragon orbs now for building up the Heat meter, and now pressing R2 will launch Kiryu into Ultimate Heat Mode where he doesn’t suffer from damage recoil, can use larger weapons and specific moves for that mode. Basically he becomes Saejima when it’s active.

Mostly I found myself not really using Heat moves and occasionally using the Ultimate Heat Mode. Of which there’s some moves in that, like one where you knee a guy in the head, that do a lot of damage and can be spammed making boss battles fairly easy on Normal difficulty. The lack of move variety and unlockable moves meant that by the end of the game the exact same techniques I used at the beginning of the game worked just as well. The fights are still satisfying only there’s not that rewarding feeling of obtaining new techniques to smear enemies with. One nice improvement is with the enemy AI though, they’ll attack together, pick up weapons and use them, etc.

Speaking of weapons, apparently the blacksmith that crafted all the weapons in Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild crafted all the weapons and background objects in Yakuza 6 because they break if you so much as stare at them too hard. The entire weapon crafting and ability to carry and equip them is gone, and all of them have about 3 uses max before they shatter like fiberglass pinatas. That said when my wife played she found a strategy of just picking up a bicycle and swinging it as it would have a range which would hit multiple enemies and do massive damage on them so even three hits would end most battles. After trying out swords, guns, knives, cement blocks, traffic cones, and more I came to the conclusion that she was correct, the bike is by far the most powerful weapon in the game. The sledgehammer is great as well but slower. Running into background objects a few times typically shatters them as well. Oh and this is the first game that the enemies after a battle just up and disappear instead of kneeling before you groaning and begging for forgiveness which I missed.

And just to get it out of the way here’s also what’s gone: bowling, pachinko, gambling games like poker/blackjack/baccarat, UFO catcher in arcades, Purgatory and the Arena, fishing, fighting trainers, pool and more. I mean all of these are still in the past games which I can play and a new engine means some sacrifices however I will say that for over the last decade it’s been a tradition in my house for my wife to fill my inventory up with stuffed animals from the UFO catcher when I’m not around and it was kind of a letdown for something we associate with the series to not be in it. Especially when there are crane games in the baseball cages that you can smash enemies into but can’t play. It also feels like a stark contrast to Yakuza 5 which felt over burdened with side content.

That doesn’t mean there’s not alternative content or sub stories. The Sub Stories are a staple of the Yakuka series. They’re back, though not as plentiful as some of the other titles, and there are no items that will reveal them on the map which means you’ll have to hope to trigger them. There aren’t very many for several chapters even, but eventually they started popping up and they’re as wonderful as ever. There’s no other game where you can be involved in a very serious personal altercation which requires you to run across the map, only to have to stop and fight pirate ghosts all of a sudden. There are some memorable Sub Stories and while there isn’t a large amount of them this game finds a good balance between offering Sub Stories while not having so many that you they overwhelm or continuously delay advancing the main plot. Many in the second city of Onomichi do require the player to advance in some of the secondary mini-games to trigger though so if you don’t see some opening up try to do more in those.

What are those mini-games? While some familiar mini-games are gone, new ones have appeared. There’s the Clan Creator, a mini game that works sort of an RTS game. You get to lead your own clan, and can recruit members into it. They act as officers or other positions within the Clan. You battle other Clans. Depending on who you’ve assigned as officers you’ll have different units available, those units are Brawlers, Strong Bros, Stabby Guys, Gun Men, and WTF Grenade Dudes. Not official designations. You buy units from a bar at the bottom of the screen that’s based on charisma stats and refills over time. Officers cost more and have more health and special abilities that you can activate. You send out waves of these guys against the defensive lines of enemy units like a reverse Tower Defense game.

As a fun bonus the enemy forces you are clashing with are made up of NJPW pro wrestlers which go by their NJPW names; Okada, Naito, TenCozy, Taru Yano, and Tanahashi. This might not mean much to non-wrestling fans but personally seeing Okada literally just making money rain out of the air as just an accepted thing in the world made me cheer.

It’s an interesting and fun diversion that spikes in difficulty later, however if you are ever suffering for money a few rounds of this and you’ll be set. There’s some online options for this I was unable to test out. There’s a completely separate progression system and story for this that is enjoyable especially if you understand NJPW at all.

In addition to running a Clan there’s also a baseball simulator to play through. It’s interesting; you have to recruit players from around the city with their own pre-conditions and some which need you to play through Sub Stories to unlock. With these players you build up your team and assign them different positions and level them up to make them better through playing. Most of the game is simulated though the game gives the player a chance to step into the batter’s shoes sometimes which can swing the game into the player’s favor especially if the bases are loaded. It’s a weird mix of building up a team strategically to simulate a game and yet also direct involvement at important moments. This also features its own plot progression separate from everything else.

There’s a weird bar simulator. As in you play as Kiryu who goes to specific bars and works to build up his reputation as a customer by sharing in conversation with other clients at the bar, playing darts with them, doing karaoke, and more. This leads to simulated conversations with dialogue options which in turn leads to some Sub Stories to earn customer and bartender trust. It’s oddly charming, like the Cheers video game I didn’t know I wanted or needed.

Some of these feed into each other, like some Sub Stories give you officers for the Clan or teammates for baseball, or the bar will give you Sub Stories which do the same, or the baseball or Clan Creator progression will unlock the ability to trigger certain Sub Stories which in turn lead to more team and Clan members. It works really well.

Aside from those additions, instead of fishing we now have spearfishing. This works like a first person light gun game, you have a speargun and you move a cursor over fish and shoot them. Different spearguns have different levels of ammunition before needing to reload and damage they do. Its fun though limited to three different areas.

There’s a cat café! Previews mentioned you get to manage a cat café however that’s not strictly the case. The entirety of this mini-game is feeding stray cats that you might come across until they trust you, and then they get taken to this cat café to hang out in. The cats like some food better than others, so it’s good to walk around with a lot of different cat food. However there’s not much in the way of interacting with the cats aside from choosing the food to give it. There’s not much of a reward for doing it. As a cat guy though I got every single cat in the game because, cats.

There’s online chat in the game. You pay money for credit, then spend it for Kiryu to talk to a cam-girl who if you hit the inputs correctly will be pleased and strip. This is actually super entertaining, mostly because Kiryu is really bad at using computers and they made his hunt-and-peck typing the center of the mini-game and the weird responses of other chat users is hilarious. The women, which aren’t video game animated but it uses real video clips, strip down to bikinis and there’s no nudity. It will however be one of those things that might be difficult to explain to a significant other if they walk in, and it doesn’t really feed back into any type of in game reward or anything else, however I’m still glad they included it for just the sheer greatness of the awkward chat lines within it.

There’s a fitness mini-game that’s, well, there. You work out and then have to figure out what your trainer wants you to eat from different restaurants and is mostly worth it just for the sad Before music/animation, to the After upbeat music/buff animation.

Hostess clubs are back and this time there’s a card system for dialogue options instead of the systems used in previous games which can help make the conversation seem a little more natural.

Karaoke has received a huge improvement and now follows a track for button input that’s easier to follow than previous games. While I’m disappointed there’s no Rouge of Love and would legit pay for an expansion pack of songs, this is a fun diversion.

Darts has changed and is better than the previous joystick throw input of past games.

Mahjong is still in the game and I still don’t understand mahjong.

The batting cage is still in, though it appears more about memorizing patterns than some of the better batting cage mini-games of the past.

Arcade games are still in, including complete arcade versions of Puyo Puyo and Virtua Fighter 5. The latter of which is really impressive to see in action as it loads quickly and then you’re playing an arcade complete version of a game that was released to consoles not that long ago. It’s also a great reminder of how good Virtua Fighter 5 is. All of the classic arcade games from Yakuza Zero are back, Space Harrier, Super Hang-On, OutRun and Fantasy Zone.

Which as you can see means there’s a lot of additional content outside of the story still and all of it contains the charm the series is known for.

On top of all that there’s the usual Premium Adventure mode for finishing up things after the story is done, secret boss fight, and new game plus modes.

Of the Yakuza games I feel it’s on par with Yakuza 5 though for completely different reasons. While part 5 felt bloated with content at the expense of the over-arching plot, 6 feels so plot focused while the fighting system and side content is more limited. Which is fine for the final chapter to be so story focused, however having recently come from Yakuza Zero which had such a great balance between the plot, fighting, and enjoyable side content, it’s hard for Yakuza 6 to feel like a step forward even despite all of the graphical and quality of life improvements.

Aaaaaand wow, I have so many feeling about this game that I’ve lost probably anyone reading this far along into it. Wrapping this up I also want to just say that I encourage people to get Kiwami 2 when it comes out(IT’S COMING OUT!), and play through all of the games even if they need to get a PS3 to do so. I’ve never had a game series that I’ve felt so connected to outside of Super Mario and I want other people to share the feeling of being on an emotional ride with the greatest badass video game character of all time in Kazuma Kiryu. Considering sales of the early games I felt privileged to be able to play any of the games and happy to see it get any kind of recognition.

I also just want to give my thanks to SEGA, the Ryo Ga Gotoku Studios, and everyone involved in the process of developing and writing it, along with those who kept convincing management to somehow keep releasing them overseas, and the localization teams. Regardless of any criticisms as a reviewer I may mention I value the work involved and feel that the series shows how amazing games can be as an artistic narrative medium (and also fun!). It’s been one of my favorite experiences across any form of media and I’m both saddened by the closure of this chapter while also appreciating that I got to experience it at all.

Thank you.

Short Attention Span Summary:
The new engine means some sacrifices and limitations, while also offering new content and seamless cities to play in. The limitations mean it may not stand as the greatest Yakuza title, however it is a fantastic conclusion to the story of Kazuma Kiryu that they started over a decade ago.