Review Yakuza 6 Review Yakuza 6: The Song Of Life

Yakuza 6 Review – PS4

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Yakuza 6 review code supplied by the publisher.

When a game has the entirety of one of the very best fighting games of all time in Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown, stuffed within itself as an entirely optional mini-game for kicks you know it isn’t screwing around. As such, this bold statement of intent reflects the extraordinary labour of love that Sega have wrought with Yakuza 6; the final chapter in the ten year odyssey of one of PlayStation’s most under-appreciated mascots, Kazuma Kiryu.

Normally, the final game or entry in a series tends to play things safe in favour of tying up its narrative and functional loose ends, but that couldn’t be further from the truth in the case of Yakuza 6 where all-new characters and locations are introduced alongside a sweeping game engine change which ensures that this latest entry in the series plays like no other before it.

Yakuza 6 Review: The Best In The Series And A Perfect Send Off For Kiryu

The year is 2016 and longtime series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, is now pushing 50 years old. A man whose eyes and leathery visage can wordlessly tell tales of sorrow, regret, sadness and anger, Kiryu has seen his fair share of tragedy and heartache, but yet despite all that, he has come out the other side of it all with Haruka; the daughter of his only love, Yumi, and the center of his world. Like the old gunslinger of the Wild West previously forced to holster his gun and hang up his coat however, Kiryu finds himself pressed into action when he hears that not only has Haruka been left in critical condition after a hit and run incident, but that she also has a child of her own that he knew nothing about.

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The fights in Yakuza 6 are a balletic marriage of barbaric brutality and cinematic flourish.

Driven back into the depths of the criminal underworld that he once swore to leave behind, Kiryu aligns with old and new friends alike to solve the mystery behind Haruka’s accident and the identity of the father of her baby all the while happening upon a plot that threatens the very fabric of Japanese society. Never have the stakes in a Yakuza title been so high, but quite honestly, it’s the themes of family and familial bonds which really sets the stage or the single most compelling narrative the series has ever had.

It’s not just Kiryu that serves as a compelling cornerstone for Yakuza 6’s emotionally resonant narrative either, the supporting cast of Yakuza 6 are an eminently likeable bunch too. Though series regulars such as Majima and Saejima hardly appear in the game and popular face Akiyama pops in and out from time to time, but ultimately (and quite unexpectedly), it’s ostensibly the newcomers that really steal the show.

With the action in Yakuza 6 split between Kiryu’s familiar stomping grounds of Kamurocho, and the gorgeous seaside city of Hiroshima, it’s in the latter location that Kiryu befriends a small and eccentric Yakuza clan (they even have their own amateur league baseball team) lead by Hirose, a mild mannered, affable and goofy elder chap played by Japanese cinema legend Beat Takeshi. After a spirited misunderstanding with the well-meaning, but simple-minded captain of the clan, Nagumo, it isn’t long before Kiryu strikes up friendships with the rest of the group, including a bond with Yuta, the youngest and most volatile member of the group played by Japanese actor Tatsuya Fujiwara (he of Battle Royale and Death Note fame).

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The selection of side activities in Yakuza 6 remains varied and maddeningly compelling. Running your own cat cafe soon proves to be a highlight, in particular.

Of course, beyond the winding coils of Yakuza 6’s labyrinthine narrative and the well written cast of characters, is the trademark tonal yo-yo that the series has employed since the very first Yakuza game arrived on PS2 back in 2005. Deftly balancing the po-faced seriousness of the main story with the absurdist, often comical themes of the side quests, Yakuza 6 once again illustrates how the developer has effortlessly struck that precarious balance between such disparate tones; an admirable feat indeed when you consider what these games could look like in the less practiced hands of a lesser group of creators.

Certainly, many of the side quests in Yakuza 6 force Kazuma Kiryu to evoke a contemporary version of Die Hard’s ever suffering hero John McClane, painting the personality portrait of an old school guy at odds with technology and it’s this dichotomy that results in some of Yakuza 6’s funniest and most heartfelt side quests, such as a Siri style mobile phone assistant gone mad and Kiryu’s first exposure to a racy online chatroom. Beyond the seesawing tone of Yakuza 6’s array of side quests, a fair few of these missions also bring back a number of faces from Kiryu’s past; individuals for whom the passage of time has not often been kind for various reasons, it lifts the heart to see folks that you spoke to in Yakuza 0 and Yakuza Kiwami come back in Yakuza 6 for Kiryu’s final outing.

In addition to the side quests that have for so long been synonymous with the Yakuza experience, Yakuza 6 also doesn’t disappoint in that other, well known staple of the series; the mini-games. Simply put, there is a veritable embarrassment of riches when it comes to the extracurricular activities that you can get stuck into. Here, it is entirely possible to spend all of your time in Yakuza 6’s arcades as they not only now include all those deliciously retro Sega treats seen in previous games such as Outrun, Space Harrier and Super Hang On but also fully fledged versions of Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown and Puyo Puyo, both of which are fully playable in multiplayer, too.

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From playing Out Run in the arcades to singing karaoke, managing a baseball team and playing darts, Yakuza 6 boasts enough minigames to keep you going for hours on end.

For those looking to get their extracurricular kicks from outside the arcade, there are bucketloads of other mini-games to spend your time on too – such as spearfishing, managing a cat cafe, building up a baseball team, working out (and dieting) at a gym, chatting to hostesses at cabaret clubs and much more besides. Fans of New Japan Pro Wrestling will also be enthused to see a wide range of their favorite superstars appear in the game too, as the likes of Kazuchika Okada, Naito, Tanahashi and more all make the cut and are used to add a celebrity appeal to Yakuza 6’s Clan Creator mode – an entertaining RTS style mini-game where you must pit your clan of trained fighters against another group for supremacy of the streets.

And what streets they are. Although the Kamurocho seen in Yakuza 6 is arguably a touch smaller than the sprawling cityscape seen in Yakuza 5, it makes up for it with an additional area in the previously mentioned Hiroshima, which with its sleepy rural community, both feels and looks like it belongs in a Shenmue game, rather than a Yakuza effort where the aesthetic is typically steeped in rainy neon streets and urban grime. Where Kamurocho is concerned, this is Kamurocho but not quite as you remember it – a great deal of the shops you remember have either been refitted or just simply are no longer there, while an abundance of new vendors, restaurants and recreational areas have popped up in places which you couldn’t get to before. Though it’s great to see how the passage of time and march of economic progress has indelibly left its mark on Kamurocho, I cannot help but feel wistful for some of the older areas such as now non-existent Champion District where my old whiskey watering holes, Earth Angel and Shellac, used to be.

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The character models in Yakuza 6 are superbly detailed.

When it comes to changes, there is no greater example of this than the game engine that underpins the broad spectrum of Yakuza 6’s violent and exploratory possibilities. Titled the ‘Dragon Engine’, this new game engine not only brings with it massively detailed character models, cityscapes and new lighting effects, but it also introduces a seamlessness to the whole experience that just wasn’t there previously. Now, Kiryu can walk off the street and into a shop, restaurant or other building without a single loading screen in sight and this sort of freedom extends to the manner in which the fights play out too. No longer hemmed in by a wall of onlookers, scraps started in the street can often sprawl into nearby buildings where additional makeshift weapons (tables, chairs, fire extinguishers and so on) become available for use.

More than just a funky soundbite, the new Dragon Engine which powers Yakuza 6 lends its proceedings a level of detail and physicality that just wasn’t possible in previous series outings. Arguably nowhere is this new level of physicality more visible than in the face-breaking fights that have long been a staple of the Yakuza franchise. Encompassing a brand new physics engine, it’s now fully possible to literally punt somebody across a street, or kick a foe up against a a wall, for example; all of which adds to the violent spectacle that has long been synonymous with the series.

The trade off for this shiny new tech is that, somewhat expectedly, the framerate has taken a hit. Effectively halved from 60 frames per second down to 30 frames per second, though Yakuza 6 isn’t as liquid smooth as its predecessors, all the additional detail and feeling of weight and heft that the Dragon Engine brings makes that trade more than worth it.

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The combat in Yakuza 6 is much more physical than ever before and is arguably the best it has ever been.

Beyond the new technical underpinnings that the Dragon Engine provides to the fistic encounters in Yakuza 6, there are a number of other changes to the manner in which the violent confrontations play out in the game, too. For a start, gone are the multiple fighting styles from previous games, replaced instead by a singular method of putting fist to face which makes sense given Kiryu’s advanced age – after all, nearly half a century of fighting on the streets would have allowed him to hone his numerous styles of combat into one, flowing style, rather than the need to conciously have to switch between each one.

Make no mistake though, everything that you enjoyed about combat in games past is present and accounted for in Yakuza 6. From the devastating looking environmental heat attacks, weapon attacks, tandem attacks and much more besides, the combat in Yakuza 6 feels both familiar and breathtakingly fresh at the same time.

Speaking of combat, the random encounters that have been around since the series inception have changed for the better here, in so far as they just aren’t random anymore because you can see the roaming groups of mobs on the map and decide whether or not to engage them, rather than having them pop up at inopportune moments. It’s a refreshing change and one which shows how the developer is keen to continually improve and optimise the underlying game systems that have been part of the series for over a decade.

Changes to the traditional Yakuza combat also extend to how progression is handled now too. Split up into a number of color coded stat and ability categories, every time you earn experience points, those points can then be used to increase your stats (such as your health, attack damage, heat gauge and more), or, they can be put into purchasing new abilities and skills that can further improve your chances in Yakuza 6’s more difficult battles. Equally, filling your belly with food and drink in Yakuza 6 is more crucial than it ever has been before, since the experience point rewards have been massively increased and can be pushed further by eating secret combinations of dishes that unlock bonus rewards in turn.

Although Yakuza 6 might lack the sizeable scope of the massive, though touch-bloated Yakuza 0, it invariably feels like the most satisfying and polished Yakuza game Sega have produced to date. From the brand new Dragon Engine to the new cast of characters intertwined in a story that proves impossible to not be affected by, Yakuza 6 is easily deserving of being mentioned in the same breath as its much heralded JRPG contemporaries such as Persona 5 and Nier Automata. For so long Kazuma Kiryu has been PlayStation’s unofficial mascot of stoic heroism, and Yakuza 6 stands as not just the pitch perfect send off for him, but it also one of the very best games you can buy right now.

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Score

9.5

The Final Word

A rip-roaring conclusion to Kiryu's tale and the best entry in the Yakuza series to date, Yakuza 6 is a triumph that effortlessly cements its place in the pantheon of all-time JRPG greats.