The Yakuza series has been a well-known name for many years already, but took a giant leap onto the Regular Joe Gamer's radar with the release of Yakuza Kiwami and Yakuza 0 last year. Both games did a great job of introducing new players to the crazy world the series' main protagonist - Kazuma Kiryu - lives in, while at the same time giving existing fans a taste of what the series can do with the extra power the PlayStation 4 offers. Now it's time to see if Yakuza 6: The Song of Life can live up to or even transcend previous entries in the series, as opposed to polishing an already acclaimed piece.
With Yakuza 0 being a prequel to the entire series and Kiwami being a remake of the original game, Yakuza 6's jump to a modern setting might sound scary, but that's not as big of a problem as you might think. Sure, you might not recognise a few of the characters or understand some of the references, but The Song of Life's narrative does a great job of catching us up with an encyclopedia and a few flashback sequences. The story is even understandable and enjoyable without any of this context, although much of that is due to how the game starts.
After learning what happened after Yakuza 5's ending, we see the police charging Kiryu for all the crimes he has done to get the life he wants. Wanting a fresh start, Kiryu accepts the charges, and spends three years in jail. Upon his release in 2016, we learn that Haruka, Kiryu's adoptive daughter, is in a coma after being knocked over in a hit and run incident and that she has a newborn son. Kiryu then takes it upon himself to investigate what happened to Haruka and find out who the baby's father is, not knowing that this will lead him right back to the yakuza and into trouble.
The good news for newcomers is that things have changed drastically over the three years, as families have new leaders, old friends have found new ways of living their lives, and new conflicts have surfaced. This leads to us meeting a whole heap of new characters and we're therefore pretty much starting afresh. Knowing the series will definitely help and enhance the experience, but we're sure that everyone and anyone will get a lot of enjoyment from playing it through.
One of the reasons for this is that Yakuza 6 is just as weird, fun, and over-the-top as its predecessors. Seeing how Kiryu struggles to understand modern technology and has trouble coping with his role as a grandfather is hilarious at times, especially with everything now being animated and fully voice acted, getting rid of the sterile sequences filled with text to make the world feel more alive and improve the pacing.
That's not the say that the story and its pacing are perfect, however, as the Yakuza games have always been fond of lengthy cutscenes, and Yakuza 6 is no different. Seeing them in motion definitely helps, but not being able to interact with something as often as this can be frustrating at times. Watching a fairly lengthy cutscene, playing maybe just thirty seconds, and then watching another lengthy cutscene just kills the pace, and it happens on several occasions.
Fortunately, this isn't as bad after getting a few chapters in, and we're unleashed upon the craziness of this world. Being able to explore areas like Hiroshima and Tokyo in the modern setting is very enjoyable, mostly due to how open the world is. Want to take a break from the story? Then why not go eat something to gain some experience and a temporary buff, look around for some of the fascinating side missions, take on one of the shorter trouble missions, look for collectibles, fight a few of the wandering goons, or participate in one of the many, many mini-games? All of these option are available from very early on. The different areas might not be as big as you'd expect, because it seems like Sega has decided to go for density instead. Most streets and areas have something to see or do in them. This makes the world feel more alive in our opinion, so we're glad the developers chose that approach.
The side missions and mini-games are without a doubt our favourite part of Yakuza 6, as they often fuse the best parts of the game: the humour and engaging mechanics. We've questioned an AI on our phone to figure out what its intentions are, spear-hunted giant squids, fought a bunch of dudes while wearing a dorky mascot costume, gone to the gym, played baseball, defeated opposing gangs in the tower-defence-like Clan Creator mode, and so much more. This game is chock-full of content and gives you a lot of bang for your buck.
A second opinionYakuza 6: The Song of Life is finally set to see the light of day here in the West, and in terms of technical quality and the overall flow of the game, it really is the most modern Yakuza to date. On the other hand, the gameplay hasn't been updated at the same pace as the graphics and storytelling.
Story in Yakuza 6 builds on top of everything that has happened before. There's a lot of text here to plough through at the start, and maybe one long video clip would have been a better choice. Sega manages to tell the story just fine without the player having a prior knowledge of previous events, however, but still be prepared to feel like an outsider at times if you haven't played the previous games in the series.
In previous Yakuza games the developers used several different methods to tell their stories, but in 6 they decided to do it in a unified manner, which is a great improvement as every time the story advances we are given a fully voiced cutscene. We felt better connected to the world and story as a result, and it helps that the path forward is always clear. You can still explore and seek out other things to do, like side missions and other activities, and you are encouraged to do just that, but if you wish, you can just follow the main story and that's fine too.
In terms of story, it's a personal quest for Kiryu, but this is only the starting point. Soon there is a mixture of Japanese, Chinese and South Korean organized crime syndicates fighting for power and influence in a Tokyo's fictional section of Kamurocho. Now, the influence of the Yakuza has even spread to Hiroshima as well. The events that unfold are as epic as they have always been, with every action dictated by some sort of samurai code.
Aside from following the main story, there are - as usual - lots of other things to do. Best of the bunch are the side missions, all of which have their own short stories to tell. Beyond those, there are plenty of distractions, ranging from playing baseball, singing karaoke in a bar, or maybe taking part in a live chat. Here you can see real chat ladies performing in short videos, and you are tasked to perform right button presses when asked to do so. It's very simple stuff, and actually pretty creepy.
The actual bread-and-butter gameplay is the same as it always has been. Experience points are rewarded for doing almost anything, and you may then assign them as you wish via Kiryu's cell phone. It's a great system and a big improvement compared to previous Yakuza games. The playable map is small, but it's dense and packed with things to do.
The environments take advantage of the PS4's hardware. While the map isn't huge, there are shorter loading times between areas, you can seamlessly enter a lot more buildings than before, and everything is packed with details. We didn't notice any bugs or frame-rate drops, so Yakuza 6 is a well-polished game.
Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is the modernisation of the series that we've been waiting for for years. In terms of gameplay, it's still lacking that special something that would see it considered a really modern third-person action game. Still, the developers have clearly understood the need to improve the series, and we hope to see this trend continue in the future. 8/10