Wednesday
Apr182018

QCF: Yakuza 6: The Song of Life

he Yakuza franchise may owe a great deal of its legacy to Shenmue, but it’s done a great deal more on its own, and rightfully escaped the shadow that Yu Suzuki’s classic had once cast over it. Spanning across five epic chapters, a host of non-sequitur spin-offs, and a stellar prequel in its own right, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is the newest title to enter the fold, and was announced to be the final chapter in the RyĆ« ga Gotoku saga.

Although the future of the property seems uncertain, SEGA hasn’t spared any expense with the finale; Kazuma Kiryu’s last hurrah is every bit of the bittersweet epic that it sets itself out to be and then some.

What really makes Song of Life stand out from its predecessors isn’t so much its climactic nature but how graceful it is with the closure it offers to its world. Most franchises aren’t given the privilege of concluding their stories on their own terms, and it’s to that effect that Yakuza 6 makes its most earnest impression felt. Coming full circle, the plot treads some familiar territory as Kiryu is released from prison after the events of Yakuza 5, and looks forward to the idea of starting over again with the people he cherishes most, only to be stopped by an obstacle that he isn’t too familiar with—change. Change is one of the biggest themes in Yakuza 6, and the game takes an effort to point out that a lot has happened since the Fourth Chairman of the Tojo Clan spent some time in the slammer, but unlike the first time that this happened, Kiryu no longer feels like he’s out of touch—he feels disregarded.

Much like Kiwami, the foundation of the game reclaims its single-character foundation, where the world building isn’t entirely structured around the current conflict, so much more than it’s about the titular hero trying to pick up the pieces from events that transpired during his incarceration. The big difference this go-around is that the stakes aren’t on just what Kiryu honors, but what he cares about most—his father/daughter relationship with Haruka. As gripping as the heavier tones in the plot can be though, it does affect the direction of the story at times, with the exposition being a bit too bloated for the pace it’s going at, or clumsily stunted for the sake of suspense. Ultimately, the return to Kiryu being the only playable character isn’t a concession, but rather a brilliant move that triumphantly works for the intimate style of storytelling that it wanted close its curtain on.

In addition to the heavier storytelling, one of the other more notable changes in Kamuracho is the zenith of modern technology. Kiryu’s naiveté with something as simple as text messaging or live chat is a reoccurring element that plays a role in both the gameplay, and the narrative. 

The User interface is formatted entirely around our Sanpaku boy’s Sony smartphone (stay classy PlayStation) with apps that are specifically designated for stat progression, mission objectives, game settings, photos that can be snapped in-game, and even in-game text messages with NPCs. The motif doesn’t just naturally play into the open-world gameplay dynamics of Yakuza, it’s a welcome refreshment. The usual good Samaritan shtick is now complemented with context along the lines of dealing with a sentientphone AI, or recovering a hacked messaging account; it’s just as eccentric as the good deeds that the mobster has completed before, only more relatable, and somewhat more realistic in hindsight.

Aside from the modern aesthetic, Yakuza 6 also features an overhauled combat system that is able to branch off a non-linear skill tree.  Instead of leveling up from one universal pool of experience points that are ubiquitously earned, the new system separates them in five different categories where certain types of points can only be obtained through the completion of specific tasks.

These experience classes are strength, agility, spirit, technique, and charm, each of them factors into needed totals the various upgrades that you can purchase for Kiryu across five different character skills as well. The process may sound like a mess on paper, but in practice, it does an incredible job of liberating the player even more with its open approach to character progression, and a newfound sense of incentive in the wide variety of objectives you can go after. For example, taking down a few thugs will net you 20 points across strength, agility, and spirit, but zero towards technique, and charm. You’ll have to do things like eating different types of food, drinking various beverages, hustling down sub-stories, or participating in the number of recreational activities in order to earn points towards those other sets. Whether you’re into tanky defense, quick-evasive maneuvers, or flashy power plays with your heat gauge, Yakuza 6 gives you plenty of freedom to toy around with how you build your character.

The combat is also completely different in this iteration as well with Yakuza 6 abandoning the martial-arts style loadout from Zero for the more familiar, and seamless input used back in the PS3 entries of the series.  While the complexity of the combat is admittedly more scaled back to what it used to be from the more recent entries, it more than makes up for it with what seems like a frenetically more chaotic version of Yakuza 5, with a bit more cinematic spectacle than we’ve seen from the series before.

Easily the wildest new feature introduced in Yakuza 6 is the Clan Battling; a tactical RPG-lite mode where you’ll point ‘n click your clan soldiers in an overhead map. As you continually play through the current rank of missions, you can level up your clan soldier and lieutenants,  earning the new lieutenants who can attract new classes of soldiers to customize your clan with.

The mode functions in an almost MOBA with its mission-structure, and pacing, as the road to success demands careful resource management with the types of soldiers/lieutenants you deploy, and the strategies available. Any pro-wrestling fan that’s familiar with New Japan Pro Wrestling will certainly get a kick out of this mode as many of its stars are the bosses that you’ll encounter as you work up the ranks to challenge each and every one of them. For as simple of mode as it is, it’s deceptively addictive, and will easily eat up hours of your time in Song of Life, especially when the victories you achieve there can also net you experience for all five categories of experience point pools, and a ton of yen to line your pockets with.

Honestly, SEGA proves that Kiryu could stand toe-to-toe with Kratos any day of the week, as the juxtaposition of character-driven action combat and open-world playground gameplay in Yakuza 6: Song of Life is at its peak, and quite possibly a masterpiece in both design, and execution. It may not be the most ideal starting point for the series with the large emphasis that it puts on narrative, but it’s certainly the series at its best, and should definitely be played any PlayStation 4 owner looking to get lost in an hours-long epic of a game.

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