Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Yakuza 6: Song of Life (PS4) - A retrospective on the series as a whole.

It's baffling to me that I have worked on this blog for as long as I have. As I've told before this blog was started actually as part of a masters course project. Seemed easy enough, start a blog and make a post. I play video games, so why not talk about a game I really liked? That game was Yakuza 4.

Since then it's a pretty winding road for the franchise (originally known as Ryu Ga Gotoku) as a whole. After a lukewarm launch and niche audience, interest in western releases waned for Sega and they basically gave up after the very poorly received zombie offshoot, Yazuka: Dead Souls. Thus began the 3 year fight to try to get Yakuza 5 released to the west. Once that battle was won, they tried again by releasing the prequel game Yakuza 0.

THAT was the game really allowed the tires to dig into the western soil and get some tread going. Now people were at the start of the story, and with the release of the Kiwami games, people are getting to experience the full story now. For those like me, this culminates with today's entry and the newest installment of this long running franchise. I've fallen too far behind to give each game a proper review. So instead while covering this one, I will speak on the franchise as a whole. Be warned: There may be spoilers ahead.

YAKUZA 6: SONG OF LIFE(PS4)



Yakuza 6 picks up mere moments after the ending of Yakuza 5 with longtime protagonist Kazama Kiryu bleeding out and injured in the streets after his last over-the-top battles with the Tojo and Omi when he is found by and finally reunited with Haruka. Haruka after winning a contest to become an idol and had just formed a supergroup with rival group T-Set, had just admitted to a live audience her guardian was former Yakuza, and publicly announced she was quitting the entertainment industry before running out of the Tokyo Dome.

While Kiryu was recovering from his injuries, he was approached by the police about his responsibility to the public damage that was caused with his battles with the Tojo and Omi clans. Instead of fighting back or using connections to get out of jail, he instead opts to do his time, and get out with a clean slate. When he does, he can return to the Sunshine Orphanage with Haruka and live as a family with the children there waiting for him.

But when he finally makes it back, he comes to find out that Haruka has left. She wanted the press and reputation of her ties to Yakuza to not hinder the other children's opportunities. Kiryu returns to Kamurocho to try to pick up her trail, only to find she is comatose from a hit an run accident and that she apparently had a son. With only a trace amount of leads, Kiryu takes the child and heads out to search Kamurocho and Hiroshima to find the alleged father of the baby and to find out who hurt Haruka and why?


As you saw in the last year end wrap up, I showered a little praise on both Yakuza 0 & Yakuza Kiwami for being standards of excellence in gaming. I have played nearly all of them available to me at this point, and outside of Yakuza: Dead Souls (a non-cannon offshoot, mind you) almost all of them rank equally in how they are built. Primarily because despite being a long running series, there really isn't a lot that changes in the core formula of a Yakuza game. It's the main reason most of them haven't gotten full reviews.

When you first look at screens and game play footage, you would assume its in that open world vein that you may expect Grand Theft Auto to fall under. And while to a small extent this is true for a basic framework for missions, this really isn't at all how the Yakuza franchise plays. It's more of a blend of sandbox, beat em up, and rpg if I had to narrow it down. As you walk around town you cant just start creating mayhem (because Kiryu is an honorable criminal?) and start smashing people. In this series combat appeared almost like random battles with thugs coming up with laughably obscure reasons to attack you. In Yakuza 6 this was made a bit more seamless by skipping the dialog to make it feel more natural.


The combat of the Yakuza franchise is really the bread and butter and this is why you play. It's a variant of the standard 3rd person action game and typically sticks to a light attack, heavy attack, grab/weapon, dodge convention. It can lend to button mashing if that is your style of play, but it goes to great pains to show you all the various combos and heat moves you can unlock that really can open up your strategy when you play. It's primary selling point is the heat mechanic: As you deal damage to enemies you raise a heat bar, and once it reaches capacity you would be surrounded by a flame like aura. When in the right situation, you will be prompted with a heavy attack prompt that will go into a brief but visceral animation of your character dispatching an enemy in brutal fashion. These are the heat moves and they are hard to watch at first but oh... so satisfying.

And there are TONS of ways to do these moves and they change by what you are standing by, what character you are using, what weapon you are holding, what stance you are in, if your heat gauge is full to certain levels. Its almost like a puzzle game itself to try to find and perform all of them, and its actually rewarded because the Yakuza games tend to be known for 100% completion excess.

Heat move from Yakuza Kiwami

The fighting styles in this game are also generally the same across the board but there are instances in which it does change where it makes sense. Typically the fighting style changes when you are playing different characters, and that works because naturally each character would fight differently. Seijima, a character from Yakuza 4, is a burly beast of a man so naturally his fighting style are big hulking swings and smashing heavy weapons to Kiryu's straight forward aggressive striking style. Akiyama is known for being suave and deceptive, so he uses a fighting style that employs kicks and tricky moves.

The times where this didn't happen for example are in Yakuza 0 & Kiwami respectively. Which almost make sense where this is the beginning of the timeline. Kiryu and Majima are still cutting their teeth in the yakuza so they actually employ 3 fighting styles you can change between as they develop their signature style. Since they are the only characters in those games, this mechanic works because it allows variance to the game play without forcing the game to take the narrative off the primary characters.

Combat suffered a little bit in Yakuza 6 because with the step up to PS4 hardware caused a step up in graphical display and game performance, and I feel to make time for all the rendering the move set was cut back a bit. It was still fun to do and visceral as ever, but it certainly felt lacking in comparison the rest of the series as a whole. The bottom line though is for skill, quick paced combat with a weighty feel to it? The Yakuza franchise nails it on that front.


Another trait that this series is known for is the straight jacket wearing level of distraction this game provides. See, the focus of these games is the primary narrative which sometimes can be a little bit samey. But in between the major story moments of the game, you get explore the streets of Kamurocho. This is actually a fun little recreation of actual Toyko red light district Kabukicho. And it features all the distractions you might expect from a downtown district of Tokyo: streets filled with restaurants, arcade games, gambling parlors, hostess clubs, night clubs, stores and filled with actual Yakuza members.

In this specific series of games, almost all of these are interactable, like an inception of games. Sega has on more than one occasion put in older games within Yakuza.  So I would stop my progress in the game so I can play Taiko Drum Master, Virtua Fighter, or Out run. Sometimes there are side quests with random NPCs involved with these, but 90% of the time they are thrown in there as just extra bullshit to play with while you do. You might think why would you put in there then if it doesn't mean anything, but I can't tell you how easy it is to sunk into other game instead of moving on. The number of distractions only increased with each installment of the game (Yakuza 5 had so much side shit they could be sold as separate games) before finally dialing back some in Yakuza 6.



As mentioned prior there is a fair amount of side questing to do. A lot of the times this will just involve you having to go to a place and beat somebody up, but a lot of these are a way to introduce some of the mini games. Most of these provide experience bonuses to level your character faster, and some of them will unlock item rewards. None of them are required to actually beat the game but the experience helps as bosses will force you to get more skillful in your fighting.

Although some are really fucking out of place. Most egregiously, and I've talked about this before, is the required hostess club missions in Yakuza 4. In a game where I am suplexing someone onto a bike rail and them smashing his friend with the actual bike, being forced to stop so I can play Pretty Pretty Princess THREE TIMES is incredibly jarring and unnecessary. One time made sense for story context, three times was just ridiculous and excessive. But if you wanted to get the completion, you had to do this with like six girls. No thank you.

I'm not kidding. In the midst of the story of crime, betrayal, and honor you
need to take 3 breaks to make sure your hostess fashion is up to snuff.

Or like in Yakuza Kiwami, I'm being constantly hounded and mugged by Majima, but then suddenly he stops because he feels he needs to be better than me at pocket cart racing. What?! Perhaps this is a way of leading horse to water as it were for getting the player to notice and try these mini games, but honestly in the game that lets you go out and explore what there is it see, I can't image there is much a need to make the player try them. A friend I recently turned on to the series told me she couldn't progress with the story because she was enjoying the side questing too much. So yeah, not a big problem on that front.

From a graphics perspective, the Yakuza franchise made some strides when going from the PS2 to the PS3, and from that point on has remained incredibly consistent on that front. Once they had down their design in Yakuza 3, the character appearance never really changed. They just continued to overhaul and tweak it's visual design to where we are now with Yakuza 6 where all the textures have damn near photo realistic skin imperfections and lifelike glisten to sweat and tears. I found myself on more than one occasion marveling at how good the series has come to look.

Actually, looking at it now Yakuza 1's graphics really laid the foundation well.


There has to be a degree of motion capture as well because the most recent iteration of this game featured a number of NJPW wrestlers and Kiryu had busted out more than one pro wrestling move into his new arsenal on more than on occasion. But more so than that is this is the first time I recognized a character as an actual personality as one of the primary characters in Yakuza 6 was famed Japanese actor Takeshi Kintao who you may know from the new Ghost in the Shell movie, The Blind Swordsman, and probably most famously Battle Royale.

Additionally, the Yakuza games are somewhat of a fun time capsule for this depiction of contemporary Tokyo. with Yakuza 0 it starts off in the 80's where outfits are garish, technology is dated, and clubs had very different visual stylings to them. And as you play through the series you always stay in, or wind up coming back to Kamurocho. Kind of like Nier:Automata you could argue that by reusing the same map it feels cut and paste, but really I always feel nostalgic and familiar with the streets, and enjoying finding what stayed and what changed.

Majima's "Breaker Style" from Yakuza 0

This series soundtrack tends to be fairly complimentary as well. 90% of the time you probably wont even notice the OST as much of it shifts from droning overbearing ambiance for it's dramatic moments, and a hard rock bed during fight sequences. You will notice more iconic sounding theme in the bigger moments of the game where you have long drawn out action sequences, and each game usually has some big main theme that goes down during the fight sequences of the game. Yakuza 4's "for faith" for all 4 final boss sequences is still hands down the best. In each game only a few tracks will truly stand out, but all of these OSTs are ones you can toss on a playlist and get lost in while you do stuff around the house.

But most importantly of all for the Yakuza franchise, is that if there is any one selling point above all else is that this game has some truly exceptional story telling. Throughout the series and primarily in the early stages of the franchise, the narrative is based around Kazama Kiryu and Haruka Sawamura. Despite being in and out with the yakuza, Kiryu is still a pretty predominant figure in it's politics and despite his best efforts seems to constantly drawn into the fold be it power struggles, murders, or turf wars.

Much like the setting the game takes place in, I love the dedication to the development times of the games in correlation to the characters. This isn't as notable with most of the cast but is primarily noticed with Haruka. When you first meet her in Yakuza 1/Kiwami is only 9 years old. By the time you see her in Yakuza 6 she is almost 20. When you look at the development times of the games, she is always aged just as old as you saw her from the last game release over the course of the entire franchise. You basically get to see her grow from child to adult through the series. Resident Evil 6 did this with Sherry Birkin, and that is a chronology continuity I have always appreciated seeing when it comes to storytelling.

Haruka: Age 9 as of Yakuza: Kiwami
Haruka: Age 18 as of Yakuza 5

Yakuza 4 set off as a branching point where we started to deviating from Kiryu as the primary focus, introducing us to a wave of new characters and stories to follow before branching back to our stalwart hero. With new characters allowed to take the stage, we are now starting to see a bigger focus on new fan favorites like Akimaya and Seijima in 4 and 5, and Majima in 0, Dead Souls, and the upcoming Kiwami 2 remake. So while Yakuza 6 marks the end of the Kiryu arc, there is plenty of people who could carry the story if need be. But not Tanimura, that character basically vanished after having a lead role in Yakuza 4.

Ultimately though, this series is crime drama through and through. So despite reasonably stable starting off points for the story (usually a murder), there will be so many twists and turns during the course of the story, that you will never really know what to expect by the end of it and some of it can be pretty ridiculous. Well, that's not entirely true. When talking to a friend, I described what I call my "Shirts off, Shit's Serious" rule. You always know when a fight is important contextually, because MAN do the dudes in Yakuza love to rip their shirts off to show off their bitchin' ink jobs on their back.  When you see guys ripping off their shirts and jackets in one seamless transition, you know things are about to go down in a big way (this is extremely hilarious in 4, where 8 people do it in one segment).


There are a small handful of complaints I can make. Like I mentioned before, fights in these games almost have a very Final Fantasy random battle feel about them, as people stop you on the street to make some ridiculous commentary about why they are going to kick your ass before having a fade transition to the battle sequence. This was worked out in the newer games, but it certainly can affect the pacing in some of the earlier ones. Although I have to admit I loved some of the sillier reasons people would fight me.

If you are a player who is obsessed with 100% completion, best of luck to you because this game fucking counts everything. Fighting styles, scores in arcade games, money won in all casino games, eaten every one of the food items in the 100's of restaurants, dated all the hostesses, and on and on and on. My first play through of  Yakuza 4 I want to say ended with just under 90 hours of game play. By the time I was all said and done with it, the game told me I had just under 25% complete. That is literally insane. Its even harder with some like Yakuza 0 where you have to buy properties to complete that quest, but the game or map doesn't actually tell you which you bought or which you own.

I mean if Akiyama was courting me, I'd have full hearts too.
Dat Mauve blazer. *swoon*
It definitely suffers from the tropes of Japanese story telling sometimes. When watching cut-scenes of conversations they tend to repeat a lot of the same things they said to each other while pausing for effect or making confused sound effects. You will always have some low level shouty grunt losing their shit over the smallest perceived slight, and the antagonists in these series are usually so cartoonishly evil you can basically pick them out the moment you see them for the first time.

Also if you are like me and not starting with the actual beginning of the storyline (I started at 4), the beginnings of all these games are going to be confusing as hell because they will make reference to characters, clans, locations, and events that tie to the previous games. While it is confusing, once you learn the major players specific to the title and what the main plot of the game is, the back story isn't as necessary as you can focus on who you do know. It will all eventually tie together.


And this is somewhat of a personal gripe but if you are going to give a me a karaoke minigame to play, why would you only provide two songs? This is something that is consistent in like every one of these games and I have no idea why. The dual layered blu-ray disc is huge. I'm not saying pull a whole tracklist of DDR in there, but I don't think 5 or 10 total songs is asking a lot. You expect me to play them more than once if I'm doing the hostess club dating, some song options would help that.

It also will throw you to the wolves with some more traditional Japanese gambling too. Most of the games you might recognize from a usual casino, some you might recognize but not know how to play like majong or pachinko. But some of these games can be very, very culturally unique and require a lot of re-reading of the rules to go back to even get a loose idea of how to play it. I've played Majong for like 12 hours and I still don't eff'n understand that game.

Was this good? I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I'M DOING.

Lastly, and my biggest complaint: where the fuck is Yakuza Ishin!? Done in the same mechanics of the traditional series, it is a set period piece where the characters are used in historical japan. Basically the same kind of game only with samurai instead of gangsters and swords instead of fists. I've seen trailers and gameplay and this game looks fucking fun as hell, but because its knee deep in Japanese history they won't localize it because they don't think Americans would understand it. Bitch, we love Kung Fu movies, Anime, and now have a burgeoning K-pop community. How about you let us decide what we do or don't want. Thankfully, with the sudden growing success of the series, the hard no they were giving us about localizing it seems to have changed to a maybe. I have a small hope.

I really don't know what else I can say about this franchise other than its one of the best series I've ever played. None of them are perfect, but I love these characters, I love this universe, I love the music they use, I love the mind numbing amount of distraction, I love the brutally visceral combat, I love the drama, I love the idea of smashing a bicycle over a thugs head before smashing his friend with one of the wheels. I love that you fist fight a fucking bear. I love the Yakuza games.

You can read this review and apply basically everything I've said to any of them. I think they are all great and if slathering this series with praise isn't enough for you to give one a shot, then I don't know what else I can do. With the resurgence this series has been getting, we are getting a Kiwami 2 remake and remasters of the remaining titles on the PS4 so you have no excuse, because they will all be available in one place. Pick any of them, it won't steer you wrong.


Except Yakuza: Dead Souls. Don't pick that one.

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