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Yakuza 6: The Song Of Life Review

by Jelani James
Yakuza 6

We’ve been with him through thick and thin, but now it’s time to say goodbye. Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu’s final adventure, putting an end to a story that began all the way back in 1988.  It’s time to say goodbye.

Kiryu has seen it all over the years and has found himself in situations that most could hardly dream of. Fighting through a building filled with Yakuza just so you could break ties with them? That’s day one. Trying to live life as a taxi driver but the Yakuza world drags you back in? That happened. Getting attacked on the streets for no reason other than that being an option? An everyday occurrence.

In Yakuza 6, however, Kiryu is done with that nonsense. He just wants to live his life in peace with his family.  If only things were so simple.  It’s that very desire of wanting to be with his family that throws Kiryu into his final conflict.

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The year is 2016 and Kiryu has just finished serving a three-year prison sentence for his role in the incidents that occurred at the end of Yakuza 5. Upon his release, he returns to his home in Okinawa and learns that his adoptive daughter, Haruka Sawamura, has gone missing. To begin his search, he heads to Kamurocho only to learn that she’s now in a coma after a hit and run incident, and even has a newborn son, Haruto.

What happened during his three-year absence? Who’s Haruka’s baby daddy? Kiryu — with baby Haruto in tow — heads to Onomichi Jingaicho, Hiroshima to find out.

Unfortunately, this inquiry results in a rather mediocre experience for the player. Yakuza 6 often feels like a game of compromise and a long-time player will be quick to notice that there is a lot missing here.

That isn’t to say Yakuza 6 is a bad, it’s just that in a game which is supposed to be Kiryu’s grand send off, everything feels sort of…tepid.

To start, there’s the battle system which has gotten enhanced thanks to the brand-new Dragon Engine. With it behind the wheel, battles are seamless and incredibly realistic.

Indeed, fights now convey a new level of brutality that has never been witnessed in the Yakuza series. Every gut-busting jab leaves Kiryu’s victim reeling in agony, while each bone-crunching roundhouse will send the target spiraling through the air. Even the surrounding area responds appropriately to everything he does, and the aftermath of each and every battle lingers on for everyone to see.

Each and every battle is a true spectacle to behold — provided everything works the way it should.

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I recall one time when I got into a fight on the street with a group of ruffians. After using a nearby bicycle to dispatch two of them, I hurled one of them into a nearby convenience store, turning what was once a somewhat orderly brawl into a thing of absolute chaos. I must have done several thousands of yen in damages when the battle was over, as everything was in complete disarray. The floors were covered in glass, shelves were destroyed and not even the microwave behind the counter was spared, as there was now a body sticking out of it.

Unfortunately, things don’t often play out so “elegantly.” Though the Dragon Engine brings a heightened sense of realism to Kiryu’s battles, it lacks polish and it winds up negating many of the benefits the new engine brings.

Kiryu often feels feeble, slow and unresponsive. He hits hard, sure, but between his tendency to fall over at the slightest of attacks and being so slow at times that an enemy can actually recover from his own attacks mid-combo, you don’t get to enjoy that extra sense of power often. Similarly, the prompts for many of his Heat Actions (such as stealing weapons from enemies) occasionally don’t show up even if the conditions for activating them have been met, while others (such as stomping on grounded enemies) are gone entirely.

Needless to say, seeing combat turn out this way was a bit disappointing; especially because Kiryu will be doing a lot of it. Drinking at a bar? There’s going to be a fight. Walking down the street? Someone will be sure to mess with him. Visiting a friend? Well, that’s just asking for trouble.

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Fortunately, the quest to find out what happened during his three-year absence won’t be filled with just fighting, there will be plenty of opportunities for him to relax and absorb the world around him.

Yakuza 6, just like every entry before it, does more than just tell the story of its protagonist, it tells the stories of the many people who live alongside him and Kiryu is able to become an active participant in those stories through the series staple: Sub Stories.

Sub Stories are what helps to give Kamurocho and Onomichi an added level of depth that is missing from the cities and towns in most other games. They aren’t just “find X item” or “defeat X enemies,” they tell actual stories that are relevant to both Kiryu’s world and occasionally ours.

For example, an early Sub Story begins with Kiryu becoming enamored with a voice assistant app, but it soon explores (in a comedic light) the theme of A.I. and what happens when it becomes too advanced; while a later one starts with you helping a random stranger, but soon turns into a lengthy sidequest and game mode that touches on subjects such as Color Gangs, Vigilantism and Corruption.

And perhaps the greatest part of many of these Side Stories is that Kiryu won’t have to fight to resolve them.

In my review of Yakuza Kiwami, my greatest criticism lied in the fact that Side Stories typically played out the same way a section in the story would: Kiryu encounters an NPC, there’s some dialogue and then he must go to a specific location where a fight breaks out.

Having Side Stories work in this fashion not only go against the notion of Kiryu generally trying to avoid fighting when possible, but it also made the game stale when consumed in larger quantities. Fights already break out as you cross the street, surely you don’t need Sub Stories which do the same exact thing.

Yakuza 6 avoids that pitfall, allowing Kiryu — and the player — to get a much needed break.

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And if Kiryu wants to shut himself off from the world entirely, then he can do one of the many activities in Kamurocho or Onomichi where any semblance of a story — both main and side — is cast aside.

Amusingly, one of the things I often praise Kamurocho for is its ability to change spiritually, without changing much physically. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for about the Kamurocho of 2016. It has changed considerably and mostly for the worse.

Compared to its iteration in 2013, the Kamurocho in Yakuza 6 is tiny. There is no Underground Mall, Champion District, Purgatory or Kamurocho Hills. Furthermore, some key side activities are gone as well. Among others, there’s no Bowling, Billiards, Casino or Arena.

That said, there is still a good amount hangout spots for Kiryu to lose himself in — there’s just not as many. Bars and Hostess Bars are still common, but many of them have been replaced by cybercafés where he can chat up cam girls. In addition, he can now get his pump on at the gym or relax at the newly-opened cat café (provided he finds the cats first). Beyond that, a few staples which make up the classic Yakuza experience managed to make their way in here. He can play mahjong, throw some darts, sing at a karaoke bar and even hang out at Club Sega which is now the hangout spot thanks to inclusion of Virtua Fighter 5 and Puyo Puyo.

Meanwhile, far removed from the noise and vices of Kamurocho, are the wonders of Onomichi. Nestled between the mountains and sea, Onomichi is a quiet town that offers little in the way of entertainment beyond baseball. Instead, the location offers up its culture as a way to charm locals. Littered around the town’s winding paths are stones engraved with poems and travelling to the  an observatory lies at the northernmost part of the town eventually leads to a shrine where Kiryu can witness a breathtaking view of the scenery below.

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And regardless of what activity you do or where you’re doing it, you’re almost guaranteed to get experience out of it. Unlike in past games, there are five forms of experience points here — Strength, Agility, Spirit, Knowledge and Charm — all of which can be placed into a statistic or skill of your choosing.

It seemed interesting at first, but having experience work in this manner turned out to be a double-edged sword. It’s easy to gain the first three forms of experience by just fighting or working out, but you’ll need to do minigames if you want the latter two in any meaningful amount. This means that you might not be able to play the game the way you’d like. Want Kiryu to gain tons of power and health? Easy, just play the game normally. Want him to become more evasive and generate Heat more easily? Well, you’re going to have to put the story on hold for a bit.

Thankfully, there is one way to circumvent this to a degree: eating. So long as he isn’t full, Kiryu will gain select amounts of experience when he eats and he’ll gain even more if he consumes the right combination.

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Under normal circumstances, a game that allows you to switch between demolishing a convenience store, carefully selecting a meal and learning about a dystopian future where robots rule the planet at the drop of a hat would be considered unfocused. In Yakuza though? Totally normal. This is a prime example of the tonal shifts that the series is known for.

Simply put, Yakuza 6 has a story to tell and it’s a rather serious one, but what allows it to shine is that it doesn’t consistently stay that way. The writers at Sega know how to cut the tension — and even ramp it up — to make the story all the more powerful.

My favorite example of this comes early in the game when Kiryu returns to Kamurocho for the second time. You and your friends are committed to tracking down Haruto’s father, but one of them, overwhelmed by the glitz and glamour of the city, is overcome with the urge to hit up a few hostess bars, while the other is in dire need of a bathroom break after eating too much ice cream. It’s a funny moment and the game offers some time to laugh at how out of place your two friends from the country are, but things turn serious just a few minutes later when Kiryu and Co. witness a man getting the side of his face burned with a grill by his boss.

Sequences like those are what truly makes Yakuza a unique experience. Kiryu could be playing a game of baseball in one scene, then cracking the other team’s skulls with a bat in the next. He could knock around a Yakuza leader in an alley, then have a touching scene between him in Haruto a few moments later. It’s absurd, yet believable and even if many other aspects of the game have shifted or even weakened, thankfully this aspect of the series remained fully intact.

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The Verdict

Yakuza 6 puts an end to Kiryu’s story and I can’t help but feel a little disappointed. Yes, part of it is because we probably won’t see or hear from him again, but it’s mostly because this doesn’t feel like the type of game that you would bid someone farewell with. I expected something grand, but what I got was an experience objectively weaker than both and Kiwami. Kiryu’s saga didn’t go out with a bang, it went out with a whimper.

That said, I still love Yakuza 6 and its still worth taking a look at, but your mileage will vary. If you’re new to the series, then you’ll have little reason not to like it. If you’ve played others, however, it won’t feel like it did Kiryu or his legacy justice. It’s not the perfect send off, but it’s still a pretty good one.

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Yakuza 6: The Song of Life

  • Available On: PlayStation 4
  • Published By: SEGA
  • Developed By: SEGA
  • Genre: Action Adventure
  • US Release Date: April 17th, 2018
  • Reviewed On: PlayStation 4
  • Quote: "Yakuza 6: The Song of Life brings a satisfying end to Kazuma Kiryu's story, but it's not quite the send off I expected. Between its convoluted systems and cut content, it didn't feel like the saga ended with a roar, but with a whimper."
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