Family binds us together. The ones we choose to call brother or sister don’t have to necessarily share our surname, though, and can instead just be the people we surround ourselves with. These relationships can be pushed to the point of dissolution or end unceremoniously at times; conversely they can strengthen and flourish after bust-ups. Yakuza 6: The Song of Life presents every possible permutation of what a family can be, and how they can react in desperate times, and then it has you singing karaoke with a giant orange on your head.
Yakuza 6 is the end of Kazuma Kiryu’s 12 year journey here in the west, so you know it’s going to pull on your heartstrings one moment and make you chuckle the next, because that’s just what the Yakuza series does. Last year’s exceptional prequel showcased this to many new fans, and reaffirmed it to those who have been banging the drum for over a decade. Kiryu’s swansong naturally straddles that same fine line between melodrama and absurdity and, while not as emphatic in its delivery as 2017’s effort, few others do it with as much aplomb.
After spending some time in prison for past transgressions Kiryu is ready to settle into a quiet life caring for the kids at his and surrogate daughter Haruka Sawamura’s orphanage: Morning Glory. Naturally enough things don’t pan out exactly as the fourth chairman of the Tojo Clan might’ve envisioned, and he finds himself wrapped up in some unsavoury business that stretches from the bustling Kamurocho, Tokyo, to the quaint fishing village of Onomichi, Hiroshima. As is standard, the story contains plenty of evil men with furrowed brows and unassumingly toned bodies to beat up, and others that will charm you with the help of some endearing writing. New characters like Nagumo and the Hirose family are welcome additions, and there’s plenty of opportunity to flesh them out further in future entries to the series. There’s no question that Kazuma Kiryu is taking centre stage in The Song of Life, as this is the first Yakuza with a single protagonist in some time, but his send-off definitely feels a little lacking due to reduced roles from series stalwarts. This is meant to be the last time Kiryu can really explore his already established relationships, so tying a bow on some of those would have been a nice way to end his story. Still, the narrative is mostly compelling enough to keep you driving forward.
While some of Yakuza 6’s substories have sweet conclusions, they often act as a breather from the super serious main story through their madness. Roughing up a YouTuber who’s looking for that perfect viral video, or trying to uninstall a Siri-like app from your phone is great fun and, because all side missions are voiced now, feel more integral to the game than they ever have before. The only issue is that there aren’t enough of them, and more could’ve pushed the boat out when it comes to the lunacy; some veer heavily into repetition as well. You’ll stumble across a lot of them just by running around both locations, which does encourage exploration, but I would’ve sacrificed fully-voiced substories in favour of more that saw you put a giant orange on your head.
As well as returning mini-games like karaoke and hostess conversations, a few new ones have been added to the mix. There’s an on-rails light gun-like spearfishing game that’s surprisingly satisfying and can earn you an extra couple of Yen, a new gym that doles out EXP when you lift the heavy bits and bobs correctly, and a fleshed-out baseball mini-game where you manage a local team. You’re able to give stray kittens a home in a cat café after gaining their friendship through food, and chat to some of the Snack New Gaudi pub’s clientele in an effort to solve their problems. And that’s all before I’ve mentioned the random Troublr missions that alert you to a quick little distraction in your vicinity like a bathroom without any toilet paper, or an ill civilian on the footpath in need of a pick-me-up.
A decent number of side quests are tied to Yakuza 6’s diversions, so I found myself mining them for content. That’s not a bad thing as the majority of them are pretty moreish: I don’t know an awful lot about the strategy of America’s favourite pastime, but batting is a bit of craic and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna turn my back on the Setouchi Warriors. One of the mini-games feels a little out of place, though: Live Chat. Live Chat is an online adult chat room where a woman will take her clothes off if you succeed in pressing the right buttons in the allotted time. It’s just a bit jarring, really. Kiryu is quite a virtuous man for the most part, and he turns into a little schoolboy at the first sight of a bra. It teeters between something bawdy and something sordid, yet essentially feels a little troublesome.
The most involved of all the optional content is the Clan Creator. You must take down a new gang called JUSTIS (led by Kazuchika Okada and five other Japanese pro wrestlers) by ordering a group of recruits around a number of small maps in both Kamurocho and Onomichi. It’s an elementary RTS that won’t test you that much early on, really, and instead will see you throwing strategy out the window in favour of trying to figure out where your men are in a sea of chaos. It gets a tad more focussed as it progresses and more characters with special abilities are added to your clan, but if you’re not a fan of New Japan Pro Wrestling I don’t know if there’s enough here to keep you for the entirety of its narrative.
Onomichi is a picturesque setting on the waterfront, with a more relaxed vibe than the busy, loud and dangerous Kamurocho. A decent bit of the familiar city’s more northerly areas have been cut off for seemingly no reason, though, with construction workers planted at impassible points. Both locations, however, flaunt the new engine’s ability to let you meander the streets freely. You don’t have to sit through a loading screen every single time you walk in and out of a building anymore. This small touch changes how you interact with your environment in Yakuza 6, and can inspire you to try that burger place you keep passing, or pop into the arcade for a few rounds of Virtua Fighter 5. There’s no time penalty for being inquisitive now.
There’s also no punishment for getting in a random battle when you’re busy any more.As strange as this may sound, one of the best things about The Song of Life’s fights is that you can get out of them. If, for example, you’re on your way to a mission objective and you happen upon a group of gentlemen who are hankering for a fight, you can run away from them and they’ll eventually lose interest, allowing you to continue on with your journey. These encounters are also more inviting this time around, because once the fight is over you don’t have to wait around too long for the game to catch up and give back control of Kiryu.
The combat itself has been stripped down, too, with one battle style favoured over switching between multiple options mid-battle. The aim was obviously to take the best bits from the brawler, rush and beast styles seen in Yakuza 0, but the lack of variety can undoubtedly be felt. There are pros and cons to most of the changes made to the combat, honestly: the new Extreme Heat Mode turns your Kiryu into a machine that can unleash on an enemy, but there are fewer easily executed heat actions to employ. It’s unequivocally smoother, though, and because roaming is easier, a fight can start off on the street and end up in a convenience store, instead of being confined to a rather cramped space. Yakuza 6 is still a really fun brawler. It mightn’t look all that pretty at times, but it’s the slickest its ever been.
Technically, some of the screen tearing is atrocious enough to warrant a mention. It’s most notable in Kamurocho, and isn’t restricted to one area of the district. I came across it in some of the blander areas, like the stairwell up to the cat cafe, as well as some of the louder, neon-flavoured outside bits. Likewise, the frame rate drops, while intermittent, are noticeable, too. I get that The Song of Life is using the new Dragon Engine, and that allows for some of the terrific upgrades, but it clearly has it’s teething issues that will need to be ironed out for the future.
The Song of Life is a modern Yakuza game. It’s fully-voiced, allows you to save whenever you want, and lets you freely roam about the place. It does a great job of establishing a number of new characters and a new location, too; it’s the sleekest Yakuza there’s been. But this is Kazuma Kiryu’s last hurrah, and doesn’t quite reach the heights many would expect from the Dragon of Dojima farewell because of a few snags in certain areas. Still, that bit where you put the orange on your head. Glorious.
Available on: PlayStation 4
Release Date: April 17, 2018