Games Review: Yakuza 6: The Song of Life (PS4, 2018): Stay strong

In the last twelve months, I’ve gone from having never played a Yakuza game to having played three of them and what I didn’t expect was for them to grow on me so quickly. This series has always felt very By Japanese People, For Japanese People, there’s so many cultural nods and gestures that don’t translate if you’ve never lived in Japan for a long period. The core, however, is always an artfully constructed crime story and this is what reliably pulls me through.
Yakuza 6 picks up immediately after the conclusion of Yakuza 5. Series hero Kazuma Kiryu is in a bad way, horribly injured after his battle against the Tojo Clan and looking for safe harbour.

At the same time, Kiryu’s ward Haruka Sawamura, now all grown up and a successful J-Pop idol, decides to use a stadium concert to publicly tell her fans about her past, and her connection to Kiryu’s old life as a yakuza. She announces her retirement as an entertainer and leaves the stadium in an uproar, finding Kiryu beaten and broken in the street.

Haruka gets Kiryu to a hospital, where he is confined to a hospital bed. Convalescent and unable to resist, the police seize the opportunity to arrest him peacefully. Kiryu accepts his fate and spends the next three years in prison for his crimes, the net benefit of which is a commuted sentence and his being allowed to live with and care for a house full of orphaned children he has fostered. Haruka returns to the Sunshine Orphanage, the home Kiryu owns in Okinawa, to take care of her adopted siblings in his stead.

Upon his release from prison however, Kiryu discovers Haruka is missing and has been for a while. When the media descended on the house, hungry for the story about a J-Pop idol connected to a violent former mob boss, Haruka fled in an attempt to draw them away from her fellow orphans. She hasn’t been seen or heard from since.

Concerned for safety, Kiryu begins searching for her with the kind of bloody-minded determination he usually reserves for dismantling rival crime families. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t take him long to track her down — Haruka was struck by a car in a hit-and-run incident and is now in hospital herself, on life support and in a deep coma. Further, he discovers that while he was prison Haruka fell pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy she named Haruto. With no information on the identity of the father, Kiryu now faces a fear more primal than any mob boss could ever instill in him — that his own adopted daughter, for reasons beyond her control, may leave an orphan son behind too.

This, quite obviously, cannot be allowed to happen. Powerless to help Haruko heal, Kiryu instead throws into figuring out who is to blame for her plight. Step one: Figure out who the hit-and-run driver was and if it really was an accident. Step two: Punch them regardless. Step three: Find baby Haruto’s father. Step four: Punch him too.

Heaven help anyone — friend or foe — who gets in his way.

I don’t usually spend this long setting up a game’s story in a review, but when it comes to a series like Yakuza, its kind of a must. The Yakuza series has many hallmarks, and chief among them are its dense, interwoven narratives. Were any of these games translated into another medium, they would be lauded as classics of crime fiction.

Its rare I find myself more interested in cutscenes than I am in actually playing the game but it happens quite regularly in this series and Yakuza 6 is no exception. Every cutscene is a small fragment of a larger, tightly wound narrative. Between the excellent writing and fantastic performances from the game’s expansive cast, every scene is riveting. Every time Kiryu finds himself in a room with mafia heavyweights is an tense, electric affair. When they end, you feel a knot in your stomach release and you realise you, like Kiyru, been tensed as if anticipating a punch the whole time.

Actor Takaya Kuroda’s voice performance as Kiryu in particular is wonderful. Kiryu is a stoic character. He isn’t prone to emotional outbursts, he speaks at a volume barely above a mutter and his resting facial expression is a scowl. In the hands of a lesser actor he could be quite boring, a space where a character should be. But Kuroda’s performance does a lot with very little. Small inflections, coupled with lifelike cutscene animations, convey multitudes. You understand that beneath the granite expression lies nothing but turmoil, held in check through the same unshakeable determination that governs Kiryu’s every move. He’s an intimidating storm cloud of a man. Every character Kiryu meets treats him like an unpinned grenade held at arm’s length, all waiting for the explosion that ends their life.

Gameplay-wise, Yakuza 6 doesn’t move too far from its predecessors and for the most part, this is fine. Its arcade-style fighting system still recalls a PS2 era that has faded from memory and remains the game’s weakest link by quite a way — however, the game does let you interact with your environment in surprising ways during a fight. Throw foes into power poles, jam their heads into mailboxes, literally pick up and throw an entire motorbike at them. Every new way to hurt street thugs I discovered was a delight and I never got tired of it. A good way to keep the aging fighting mechanics interesting.

There are also the full compliment of Shenmue-esque  side activities and mini-games to jump into. There’s fully realised versions of Puyo Puyo and Virtua Fighter that are playable at arcades. You can grab a meal out of a vending machine, restaurant or convenience store to keep Kiryu’s health up during fights and more. They all, as is now tradition for this series, represent abrupt departures in tone from the rest of the game, bizarre moments divorced from reality in which Kiryu launches into impassioned karaoke with a friend before reverting to his usual monotone, stony-faced self.

Yakuza 6 is not an experience entered into lightly, these are long games packed with things to do. The story is a methodical slow burn, which may irk some players used to the more Westernised “You’re In The Thick Of It, Let’s Go” school of game design. It builds, as every game in the series does, to a dramatic, over-the-top finale but it is absolutely no hurry to get there. If you’re a time-poor working adult looking for a game you can pick at for months, then I can’t recommend this enough. There are elements of this series, like combat for instance, that are now well-and-truly in need of an overhaul, but the fact remains that there are very few developers making narrative-driven, character-centric adventure games at this level.

Score: 8.5 out of 10
Highlights: Beautifully written; Great characters; Smack a guy with an entire motorbike
Lowlights: Combat still feels stuck in the PS2 era
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Platforms: PlayStation 4
Available: April 17, 2017

Reviewed conducted with pre-release code provided by the publisher.