The End of an Era - Yakuza 6: The Song of Life (REVIEW)
written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
All legends have to come to an end, even for the larger-than-life protagonist of the Yakuza series Kazuma Kiryu. Spanning six main entries and a prequel/origin story in Yakuza 0, the one constant of the series has always been Kiryu. This entry is touted as Kazuma Kiryu's swan song, one hope I had walking in to this was that The Song of Life would be a fitting end... but before we get into that, let's carry on with the review.
Just when he thought he was out, they pull him back in... basically, the story of his life. Directly following the events of Yakuza 5, Kiryu faces another stint in prison. After spending three years behind bars, Kiryu returns home to find out that his ward Haruka has disappeared. Clues point to the one city he never likes to go back to... but can't seem to stay away from... Kamurocho. There he discovers that the entire Yakuza world is in complete disarray with his former Tojo Alliance losing much of their influence in Kamurocho with both the Triads and the Korean Mafia setting up roots in the city. To make matters worse, Kiryu discovers that Haruka is in a coma following a tragic traffic accident and to further complicate everything... Kiryu discovers that she has a 1 year old son named Haruto.
The search for answers leads Kiryu to Onomichi in Hiroshima where he discovers that Haruka's ties to this city may be deeper than he expected and that the Yomei Alliance, a Yakuza organization that operates solely in Hiroshima, hides a decades old secret.
Yakuza 6: The Song of Life melds much of what established the series with innovations made in recent titles. For fans who played Yakuza 0 and Yakuza Kiwami, the four combat styles are replaced instead with a well balanced single fighting style. Instead of plugging points into one of four different styles you now only have to manage one. While I liked the diversity of combat styles used in Yakuza 0 and Kiwami I found myself using one or two styles regularly. It makes sense with this being the sixth game in the main series for Kiryu to use his signature fighting style proficiently. Combat is largely unchanged, if you've played a Yakuza title before this should feel very familiar. Attacks are divided into light and heavy strikes, executing simple to input combos and mixing in heat actions will make up the bulk of your tactics. Blocking and dodging attacks will also make up the difference between beating a pack of thugs down or getting your ass handed to you.
The old adage of “if it ain't broke don't fix it” applies all too well here. Yakuza's combat system has always felt superb, it doesn't need to be widely different everytime when it works so well. My one complaint was how locking on to an enemy doesn't really do a hard-lock and there is no system in place to switch which enemy you are locked on to. This isn't a problem through most of the game but when there are times you're facing down very large groups of enemies this can get a bit frustrating.
Character progression is tied to earning XP from every action you do in game. You earn points in five different categories, these points in turn can be used to level-up Kiryu's base stats or unlock new skills. Combat, advancing the main story, eating at restaurants, singing karaoke by yourself, or chatting up a hostess at a Cabaret Club all contribute to your XP pool. No two actions are created equal though, combat for example only contributes to three of the five main XP types with eating at a restaurant contributing nominal amounts in most of them. Building up “your” Kiryu is going to take more than just beating up thugs, advancing the story and seeking out Side Story missions (on top of random activities) will be key to fully upgrading Kiryu.
Outside the the main narrative, both Kamurocho and Onomichi are full of activities outside of Kiryu's gangster paradise. Much of the activities from previous games return from playing an arcade perfect port of Virtua Fighter in Club SEGA to singing karaoke in a rhythm mini-game complete with some ridiculous cutscenes. A side story involving taking down a huge gang in Kamurocho round out the side distractions. Clan Battles are large scale RTS style battles similar to tower defense style mobile games. You deploy troops that automatically attack the enemy, winning a clan battle depends on taking down the enemy before the timer expires. This proved to be a decent distraction, but one I didn't invest too much in to. Personally, I missed some of the other side missions from previous titles. In Yakuza 0 Kiryu can become a lucrative real estate developer while Majima can run his own Cabaret Club, previous titles also had Kiryu engaging in street racing among other random activities. I just found the Clan Battles such a boring distraction and one I found myself engaging in once or twice (one of which was mandatory) before writing off the game mode all together and just continuing the story.
Visuals were fantastic, Kamurocho and Onomichi aren't the most densely packed open worlds... nor are they the largest. But what it lacks in size it makes up for in how lived in they felt. Obviously Kamurocho is multiple times more packed than the sleepy town of Onomichi, but both towns were full of character, making just running around town feel so very good. Yakuza 6 experienced a serious graphical upgrade, while still retaining the hyper-realistic look of previous titles, the upgrades were very noticeable. Where it does get a little jarring are moments when they look back on previous events, interspersed cutscenes taken directly from PS3 era games (while still looking great) end up looking very potato next to the impressive PS4 visuals. One complaint I had was the game's optimization, at least on these early patches. Not everyone has a PS4 Pro (myself included) and from what I understand, Yakuza 6 runs and looks buttery smooth on the PS4 Pro. On standard PS4s though, more often than not I experienced drastic screen tearing and frame-rate drops when running around town. I know the PS4 is capable of showing off great games, even on standard consoles. The current God of War and Horizon Zero Dawn are games that look fantastic on the PS4 Pro but still are very well optimized to run on standard consoles. I will get a PS4 Pro eventually, but until then I just want my console gaming experience to work.
Kiryu's final outing is full of feelings and is very much his story. While previous titles incorporated more playable characters, for Kazuma Kiryu's swan song I'm glad they kept the story to just him. Much like the first game in the series, this final outing is an extremely personal story. That's not to say that the supporting cast is smaller, in fact the supporting cast is much larger than I expected with some of my favorite Japanese actors playing important roles. The voice cast is stellar with Takaya Kuroda and Rie Kugimiya reprising their roles as Kazuma Kiryu and Haruka Sawamura respectively. Joining series mainstays are the likes of Beat Takeshi (Battle Royale, The Blind Swordsman), Tatsuya Fujiwara (Battle Royale, Death Note), Shun Oguri (Gintama, Lupin the 3rd), Yoko Maki (The Grudge), and Hiroyuki Miyasako (Ultraman Zero: The Revenge of Belial) all lending their voice and likeness to their resepctive characters. While the series has used actual actors before to play their respective roles, this entry felt more star studded than previous titles.
All in all... Yakuza 6 felt like a good closing story for our mainstay hero. I don't know what SEGA has in story for Kazuma Kiryu going forward, but with this final chapter I would say that I am okay with letting the dragon sleep. All legends must come to an end sometime, and despite a few technical hiccups, this game rarely pulled me out of my enjoyment of it. Yakuza 6 is definitely a must-play for fans of the series. Solid adventures are hard to come by in gaming these days, I'm just glad that this final chapter was worthy of the history that preceded it.
4 OUT OF 5
A fitting swan song for our hero