I’m somewhat of a Yakuza series apologist. The franchise has always been a bit underappreciated in my view, so I often find myself arguing on its behalf to those who would rather play Grand Theft Auto indefinitely rather than try out this very Japanese alternative. For me, the obsessive attention to detail turns every Yakuza game into a trip to Japan, albeit a version of Japan where you can’t walk down the street without being attacked by goons. Nevertheless, walking through the streets of the fictional Tokyo district of Kamurocho is always a pleasure, and it looks and sounds absolutely breathtaking on PlayStation 4 (Pro) here in the seventh game of the series, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life.
On the other hand, Kamurocho is a place I have visited many, many times before, and the new locale, Onomichi (in Hiroshima) is a small town that is far less developed by comparison (both in size and the scope of activities there). The main character is once again the always stone-faced and usually soft-spoken Kiryu Kazuma, so it’s not unfair to say that things might be a little too familiar this time around. Read a review for any Yakuza game and you will understand for the most part what to expect from Yakuza 6, whether it’s the method of storytelling, the combat, or even the minigames, very little of the game feels like new territory.
The story has its twists and turns, and a quite excellent ending, but getting there requires enduring no small amount of long, drawn out story sequences filled mostly with dull and poorly animated exposition. In countless scenes, the characters will basically stand upright with their mouths moving, but not much else will happen aside from the camera rotating or zooming slowly. Don’t get me wrong; during the main story sequences, the animation and cinematography is quite wonderful! It’s because those scenes are so great that the contrast is so severe with the frequent low budget moments throughout the rest of the game, not only in the main story, but in the vast majority of optional content. This is exasperated by how amazing everything else is otherwise presented. To have a scene with the sights and sounds of the masterfully crafted city in the background ruined by stiff animation during casual dialogue is a real shame.
Still, when the story is good, it’s really good, especially for players who have experienced the series in its entirety. Though the new characters are slow to develop, they end up being easy to care for and root for when the going gets tough. And the way events unfold for returning characters will have series veterans at the edge of their seats. I don’t want to spoil anything here, but I will say that I was impressed with how unapologetically the game addresses taboo subjects.
Of course a game like this is filled with no shortage of conflict, and that conflict is resolved by the same old brawling battle engine the series has been using since the beginning. Kiryu has a pretty powerful skillset from the onset, and additional skills can be unlocked throughout the game by spending no less than 5 different kinds of experience points. Unfortunately, none of that really matters, because all fights can be resolved in one of two ways. If there are a lot of enemies, grab one, and use the new move that swings an enemy around in circles to clear out the surrounding attackers, and then pick them off one by one and repeat as necessary. Otherwise, in one-on-one battles against powerful foes, find the nearest traffic cone and smack them with it. When it breaks, pick up another one and smack them with it. I kid you not. Traffic cones are so common in this game that they became my weapon of choice. In the rare case that a traffic cone is not present, grab any other object and pretend it’s a traffic cone. You might think that is an oversimplification. It isn’t. Almost all fights in the game can be resolved this way. Kiryu’s enemies will learn to fear him and his mighty traffic cone.
If you would rather enemies fear your sword or your gun, you’re out of luck. Yes, if enemies bring them to a fight, they can be disarmed, so there are a couple occasions where Kiryu will wield a sword or a gun, but that’s the extent of it. This is the first game in the series in some time that doesn’t let you own weapons of your own. The crafting system is gone too. Kiryu has exactly two equipment slots for armor or oddities, and as soon as you can afford a decent piece of armor, don’t be surprised if you forget that the equipment screen even exists. It’s that unimportant.
Ultimately, the combat in this game is rarely exciting, as it has not only failed to evolve over the years, but it has actually digressed. The subtleties of combat are thrown away if there are multiple enemies, as Kiryu will be constantly stunned and interrupted, leaving the player with no choice but to grab an enemy and start swinging. And if he encounters a solo enemy that somehow manages to pick a fight outside the vicinity of any evil traffic cones, it boils down to either spamming attacks and healing up occasionally, or actually trying to block, evade and counter. It just feels pointless when so many enemies are programmed to evade the instant you press the attack button. This may sound a bit unfair, but after playing games that use “Batman combat” like Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, it’s just hard to go back to a game where a crowd of 20 guys are all attacking you at once.
When not smacking people with traffic cones or following the main storyline, Kiryu can easily become distracted by various activities around town. Returning minigames include Karaoke, hostess clubs, batting cages, darts, mahjong and classic arcade games (Space Harrier, Out Run, Fantasy Zone, Super Hang-On).
Of those, it is the hostess clubs that have changed the most drastically. Rather than having conversations play out that Kiryu can respond to, this time around Kiryu has to select between a variety of conversation cards, each of which has a certain subject type like love, sexy, or party. The idea is that you can chain similar conversations together to fill the success bar faster. Most of the cards lead to very short chats before moving on to the next, and only a few actually start an interesting dialogue where meaningful decisions can be made. The whole point seems to be to make this part of the game more gamey, but it’s also one part of the game that really doesn’t need to be. The result is that learning about the hostesses becomes even more of a chore than it was before, and the character development is weakened in the process.
New to Yakuza 6 is spearfishing, which plays out kind of like an old arcade track shooter, RIZAP, where Kiryu can work out with one of 6 button timing exercises, and a cat café, which tasks Kiryu with befriending strays by feeding them cat food (much less exciting than it sounds, but I’m always happy to see more cats in games nonetheless). The arcade has also been expanded with Virtual Fighter 5 and Puyo Puyo. Then there are a few other additions worth going into more detail about.
The first is live chat. The Yakuza series has never been shy about fan service, and Yakuza 6 is no exception. Live chat is exactly what it sounds like. Kiryu goes into an online chatroom and tries to get a girl to strip. What makes this remarkable isn’t the blatant taboo, or the half-naked live-action girls… it’s the chat. As Kiryu frantically types (using the face buttons on the controller), there are other people in the chat room responding to the girl as well. I’ve got to say, I laughed out loud several times reading through the chat. It’s realistic in a way that I can only describe as hilarious, and if the subject matter doesn’t offend you, I’d recommend giving this distraction a try, just for the laughs.
Next up is baseball! Kiryu finally gets out of the battling cages and onto a field. The player can scout for new players, and level them up by playing games or training them. They are also responsible for assigning players to different positions, managing fatigue, and controlling substitutions during games. As you can imagine, a game of real-life baseball usually takes a long time, but in this case, most of the game is fast-forwarded through as a simulation… it’s just the clutch moments that put you behind the plate. So a whole game of baseball typically involves maybe 3 or 4 at-bats controlled by the player, and the rest is just simulated, only taking a few minutes from start to finish. Of all the new distractions in Yakuza 6, I found this to be the most fun.
Another new minigame involves going to a bar and trying to fit in amongst the regulars. This ties into other minigames such as darts and karaoke, but mostly revolves around simply having drinks until the friendship meter fills up. Once it reaches a certain threshold, the real minigame takes place, where Kiryu takes part in a conversation with several characters, and has to choose the right responses to keep the chat lively. If all goes well, that will lead into a substory for that friend, and that’s about all there is to it. I enjoyed this aspect of the game, but was a bit disappointed that Kiryu’s responses had to be so polite in order to succeed. Some of the options were quite funny and I thought they would have been quite appropriate for the dialogue, but apparently making jokes is no way to make friends in Yakuza. Still, this was a fun distraction. They didn’t quite achieve the Cheers bar level they were going for, but it was still interesting enough.
Finally there’s the Clan Creator, a minigame in which Kiryu commands a clan of fighters, and leads them to victory over the bad guys. Clan Creator seems like the main minigame in Yakuza 6. You can recruit characters, level them up, assign them to a hierarchy of roles, and even participate in online battles against other players’ clans (asynchronous). It even has its own tab on the awards screen, separate from the rest of the minigames. Unfortunately, the actually game play is kind of like a game of Starcraft simplified to the point that all you have is zerglings. To win at this game, all you have to do is move the cursor around the enemies and press the X button to send one of your recruits into battle, and then repeat until they are all in play. At that point, start summoning their underlings in the same way and just keep spamming those summon buttons. That’s about it. Your recruits do have abilities that can be activated in battle, but who the hell cares in a zerg rush? Just send them all in, and repeat until you’ve cleared all the story levels, if it holds your interest that long.
I’ll be frank: Compared to Yakuza 5 and Yakuza 0, the new minigames in Yakuza 6 are disappointing. They mostly lack depth, and the ones that are the most interesting are over before you know it. I’m not saying there’s any lack of things to do! I’d imagine a completionist run taking 50 or 60 hours. But as a whole, the minigames—both new and returning—fall a bit flat compared to earlier games in the series.
Sadly, Yakuza 6 feels like a step backwards for the series as a whole. Though I was entertained enough by the main story content, and very satisfied with the ending, looking forward, I really hope the next game takes us away from Kamurocho to introduce us to a whole new cast. The series is ready for a completely fresh start! As for Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, I do still recommend it, despite the criticisms above. Even with its weaknesses, it’s worth playing for the story, and is an easy sell to anyone familiar with the series. I’d be less inclined to recommend it to a series newcomer, as Yakuza Kiwami or Yakuza 0 are both better places to start.
Ari completed Yakuza 6: The Song of Life in 37 hours with 175/285 rewards completed. He received a copy of the game for review purposes from Atlus U.S.A., Inc.
+Strong storytelling and character development
+Up to 60 hours of gameplay for completionists
+Live chat is hilarious
-Clan Creator is boring
-The new minigames aren’t that great
-Combat is very simple and spammy
Available on: PlayStation 4
Version Reviewed: PlayStation 4 (Pro)