Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Yakuza 6: The Song of Life PS4 Review

Does The Dragon of Dojima's Swan Song Strike The Right Notes?

Description: Screenshot of a close-up of of the back of Kiryu Kazama. He is shirtless,
showing off a muscular back adorned with an elaborately detailed dragon tattoo.
The Yakuza series has followed the life of Kiryu Kazama, a legendary yakuza who rose through the ranks of Japanese organized crime, only to try to leave it behind while trying to balance conflicted loyalties, family ties, and doing what's right. Billed as the first all-new Yakuza game for the PS4 and as the close to a chapter of a series lead, there's a lot riding on this PS4 game's shoulders. Yakuza 6 has to improve on the presentation of the series as a whole, bring a starring character's arc to a close, but not be so daunting that it alienates newcomers to the series. Does it succeed? Find out after the jump.

After limping along on passable last-generation graphics and frustrating load times, the Yakuza series gets a much-needed upgrade in its all-new "Dragon Engine". Ever character, every sidequest, and every bit of interaction is fully voiced. The environments look amazing, from the neon-streaked red-light district of Kamurocho to the sleepy harbor town of Onomichi. Crowded streets throng with people without any noticeable slowdown. Entering stores and buildings happens with near zero load-time, even on a regular PS4. Fights break out in the same environment you walk around in, and there are dozens of breakable and throwable objects to use in battle. The character models look amazing, and the cut-scenes even more so.

Those same cut-scenes are Yakuza 6's first roadblock in the beginning. While the Yakuza series has never been one to shy away from dramatic visuals or character dialogue, the beginning of the game gets very dialogue-heavy. Speaking as a long-time fan of the Yakuza series, Yakuza 6 takes its sweet time setting up the story. Newcomers to the series may be frustrated by the slow pace to start. Once the main story gets going, however, the drama and the personal stakes keep adding up. An engrossing story is enhanced by a cast of colorful characters both new and old (of particular note is veteran actor and director Beat Takeshi's role as the head of the small Hirose Yakuza clan). The finale of Yakuza 6 is a nail-biting, white-knuckled drama that will leave you both teary-eyed and amazed-- a fitting send off  for this chapter of the series.

There are other mainstays of the Yakuza series experience that will be familiar to series fans while delighting newcomers. Kiryu will regularly encounter wandering groups of thugs looking to take him out. The fighting experience has been greatly smoothed, if a little slimmed down. While Yakuza 6 lacks the larger variety of fighting styles from other games, combat feels polished and fluid. Attacks feel like they have real weight to them, and Kiryu has several techniques for taking down groups of enemies. Finishing moves are wild and over the top, but don't feel gratuitous. Combat can spill out from the streets into stores, and if you need to run to save your skin, you can use the environment to you advantage to escape. Thanks to this focused revamp of the combat system, boss battles will be difficult in parts, but they never feel cheap or unfair.

Another part of the Yakuza series experience on full display in Yakuza 6 are the bevy of mini-games. You can do everything from play classic retro Sega games to the complete versions of 2-player games like Virtua Fighter 5 and Puyo-Puyo. Other activities you can engage in:  go spear-fishing, or flirt with cabaret club girls (or see Kiryu get introduced the wonders of video chat if you like simulating typing via the hunt and peck method), try some home run derbies in the batting cages, karaoke, darts, or the all-new "Kiryu Clan" mini game.

The Kiryu Clan mini game has Kiryu lending his experience running a yakuza clan to a group of upstarts fighting back against the organization JUSTIS: an anti-gang group that has now become as corrupt as the gangs they once fought. Did I mention that the JUSTIS leaders are almost all members of New Japan Pro Wrestling? Yeah, it's a wacky premise, especially for what ends up being a sort of pared-down RTS mini-game with punches and explosions. Sadly, while the combat is smooth and the mini-game story echoes the main themes of the game in a novel way, the strategy ends up being pretty shallow, and the battles become very repetitive near the end.

If arcade games, karaoke singing, flirting, fishing, baseball sims, or RTS games don't float your boat, you can always partake in dozens of side quests in the neon jungle of Kamurocho or the sleepy rural town of Onomichi. Here, Kiryu can gain experience, money, items and techniques by doing a wide variety of tasks, from helping out those in need, making a wannabe Youtuber come to his senses, collect cats for a new cat cafe, and in my favorite... get roped into an increasingly wacky set of circumstances by stepping into the foam costume of Ono-Michio-kun, the unofficial mascot of Onomichi, pictured below.

Both the side quests and main story engage in the series' trademark balance of high drama with goofy comedy, and the localization team does a wonderful job of balancing both. Yakuza 6 is by turns intensely serious and laugh out loud hilarious, while making sure keeping references accessible even across different cultural contexts-- no easy feat when you have a game steeped in aspects of Japanese culture.

Unfortunately, while the focus on wrapping up Kiryu and his family's story does mean that Yakua 6 is more tightly focused, it also means that this focus makes parts of the game feel pared down. Onomichu is a small harbor town, but it feels almost too small; aside from visiting locations to drive the story and two area-exclusive mini-games, there's not much to do once you've cleared out the side quests. While you won't travel all over Japan like previous games in the series, even the bustling city of series mainstay Kamurcho feels smaller because there are swathes of the city permanently blocked off in Yakuza 6 with the hand-wavey explanation of "ongoing construction".

All in all, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life tells a truly engaging story that explores themes of loyalty, chosen family, the Chinese diaspora in Japan, friends, the bonds of promises made and the intrigue in powerful crime families. When you combine that with  a polished combat system and graphic upgrades that make the game locations feel alive, Yakuza 6 is a welcome addition to the Playstation 4 library.

This review is based on a digital download of the full game, provided to the reviewer by SEGA.

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