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Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, PS4 Review

Every now and then I get an honest to god surprise from a Video Game. I don’t mean by way of story twists or gameplay u-turns, but in how much a game will surpass my preconceived expectations and deliver me a unique and intelligent experience.

Yakuza 6: The Song of Life has come out of nowhere to sit on my, albeit very early list for Game of the Year 2018.

So after that broad sweeping and somewhat gushy statement, I better go about explaining why this VERY Japanese Brawler/RPG has endeared itself to me so deeply.

Before I do that, I will set the scene for you, so you understand what the Yakuza series is, and why it’s important. The Yakuza games have been around since the PS2, the first title dropping in 2006. Counting all the sequels, remakes and spin-offs, there is over 15 titles from this game world!! Not many I.Ps outside of maybe Final Fantasy can boast that sort of popularity or longevity. Yakuza is a title made for the Japanese market and Western fans have only seen a select few of these titles get Western localisation and releases, so for many gamers, Yakuza has probably flown under the radar……and up until recently I was one of them.

I reviewed the PS4 remake of Yakuza 1, Yakuza Kiwami last year and enjoyed it, even Richard enjoyed the narrative of Yakuza Zer0. before that, surprising considering his aversion to narrative heavy games. My interest was already fuelled in the game world and the main protagonist Kazuma Kiryu. Now, we are talking about Yakuza 6 -“How the hell do I get up to speed on such a massive series!?” I hear you ask. But don’t fret dear reader, as the developer Sega have been very careful to make the important canon easy to catch up on.

Essentially, the opening of the game sets the scene just enough to peak your interest as to who the characters involved are. Then it slows right down to paint the picture of who Kiryu is, what he’s done, who he cares about and what he values in life.

Long story short, he is an ex-Yakuza Boss, who has done prison time and is now wanting the quiet life with the ones he cares for. This plan gets turned upside down and he is dragged back into the world of the Yakuza. Kiryu has to to become part Detective, part surrogate parent to a baby, all whilst trying to helps the ones he loves. All said and done, on the surface the story is pretty straight forward, but the insight into Japanese culture and the string of strong characters around Kiryu pushed me to appreciate what games that don’t come from a big Western developer can offer. Its criminal undertones aside, I adored the glimpses of “Japan” offered up by this title.

The game has three main components. Brawler combat with combos and specials move sets. Open world exploration with side quests and mini games. And importantly a deep narrative with extensive cut-scenes and subtle character arcs.

The combat is presented in two veins. Either random groups of street thugs or rival gangs members that need a damn good ass kicking. Or  enemies linked to the story and as you progress across a mission enemy groups need dispatching, leading  to a ‘Final Boss’ type character, who has to be beaten to progress the story. Combat is a mix of punch and kick combos, blocks and dodges. Brutal finishers unlock as a ‘Heat’ meter fills and these are unlocked or improved through skill trees.

Combat is a breeze to master and enemies put up a solid(ish) fight,  I didn’t lose many battles. I would love to say my chain of wins was due of my deep level of skill and discipline, but alas no. The combat is just kinda easy, especially once I had leveled up. That said, for fighter fans, difficulty settings can be changed to up the challenge. I was here for the story, so wasn’t fussed.

The Open World is an absolute star. Like any other urban-setting game, it has streets, shops and pedestrians, but Yakuza is set in the cities of Tokyo and Hiroshima. With all the lights, sounds and eateries one would expect. But it’s not all just window dressing. Hostess bars can be visited, mini games and arcades are on every block and corner stores sell items to buff or heal Kiryu. Food generally plays a huge role in how Kiryu levels-up and recovers health.

Experience points are obviously gained through combat and quests, but also through having regular meals……..yep, you heard me. Between missions or moving to the next quest marker, Kiryu needs to stop in at the many restaurants to order a meal and eat it. Different meals give XP to the 5 main traits, which are then used to level-up. You can’t just gorge on food either as Kiryus stomach has a max capacity and once he is full, he has to wait to digest before he can eat again. The meals are all authentic looking Japanese cuisine and makes me wish we had a VR ‘smell immersion’ technology available.

To really appreciate a foreign country, to get a sense of place, you have to know the people. Yakuza 6 has put its characters and story in pride of place. Kiryu as a protagonist is quiet and sullen, but his motivations and sense of honor is really endearing. The cast around him, particularly the friends he makes mid-game in Hiroshima are colorful, funny and …….well, very Japanese, but I loved it though.

The foreign humor, the sense of respect and the oddity to some of their circumstances, where all fascinating. Unfortunately there is no English dialogue, it is all in Japanese with English subtitles, which will switch a lot of gamers off.  That said, whoever Sega got to do the translation did a stunning job, with English slang terms and abbreviations used liberally to make conversations read more ‘real’.

One event in particular that struck me, was a young Yakuza who expressed a deep, yet goofy, love for a female character. As the story progressed it was revealed that she was a divorcee and had a child. This young Yakuza was heart-broken as a result, outright dismissing his hopes of a relationship with her. To me, as a Westerner, I thought that he was being weird and overreacting. But the cast around him, Kiryu and the lady herself, all accepted that he was right to be so upset. Little glimpses into Japanese culture like this, the good, bad and different permeate the game.

The game runs smooth as silk on the PS4. There are no loading screens when entering shops or buildings, and when I did strike a load screen with the now obligatory “This Is: Explanation” type splash screen, the game was loaded up and ready, before I could even read it. The presentation of Tokyos streets is beautiful, with sunny days and neon rich nights. Some textures fall a bit flat and pedestrian models do repeat on occasion.

Audio is not as strong as the visuals with footsteps sounding a bit ‘canned’ and place holder crowd noise pumping through headphones even when there are only 4 people on the street with Kiryu. Mini games and side quests are every where, as well as a Yakuza Clan building game and a Baseball team manager mini-game which I dabbled with, but didn’t get into. The main story and characters always dragged me back on-task.

Subtleties throughout the game, point out that the Yakuza gangs have changed, technology has changed, honor and tradition are under threat. Everything in this game alludes to how Kiryu is now old, and that he has moved on in life since his escapades from earlier in the series.

As a player, I wasn’t doing robberies, beating up civilians for cash or enforcing Yakuza law, because Kiryu has chosen a new life, to focus on what’s important- friends, relationships and the ones he loves.

Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is mature and smart, just like its long standing protagonist.