Yakuza 6: The Song of Life (PlayStation 4 Preview)

It’s been three years since the events of Yakuza 5—both in real life and within the game. Okay, so, maybe it’s actually closer to two years in real life for everyone in the west, but that’s beside the point. In Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, we’ll be saying farewell to the main and beloved protagonist of the franchise, Kazuma Kiryu. A lot has changed for the now familiar characters and city of the Yakuza series, so it makes sense that we’ll be seeing major changes reflected in the gameplay as well.

Unlike the previous three Yakuza releases—spinoffs and remakes excluded—Yakuza 6: The Song of Life has players placed firmly, and exclusively, into the shoes of Kazuma Kiryu—an ex-yakuza and an orphanage owner that has been released from a three year stint in prison. Rather than feeling rusty after his time behind bars, controlling Kiryu has never felt better. Movements are significantly more fluid in general, but the protagonist is now also able to interact with objects. Players will be able to step over barricades, leap from rooftops, and knock over street signs and bikes. It’s the little things.

It’s not just open-world movement that’s been enhanced either. Interiors no longer require loading times, making the transition from the street to a store or arcade much more smooth. It’s incredible how such a small change can impact the Kamurocho experience so much, making the town both more-immersive and fleshed out. I’ve noted it before, but Kamurocho is very much a character in its own right in these games, and it’s always fascinating to experience the typically yearly changes. Parts of the city are currently under development, but that’s balanced out by the natural expansion provided by Kiryu’s improved mobility. Players can return to the rooftops—old and new—that overlook the city. Landmarks have also been emphasised more strongly. Kamurocho Theatre has been completely modernised, offering a new interior angle for players to be captivated by the improved graphical detail of the Millennium Tower—a landmark that was missing from the more recently released Yakuza 0 set during the bubble of the 80s.There’s lots of details to explore and gawk at like a tourist.

If this all sounds like a travel guide trying to sell a new trip to you, then that’s about right. Kamurocho is a veritable playground with lots of joy to be discovered. The franchise may be known as a crime-thriller with some brutal combat, but it’s equally known for its tonally contrasting mini-games. The selection isn’t as diverse as previous outings, but there’s still a lot to mess around with. The two SEGA Arcades offer a variety of old classic games, as well as Puyo Puyo and Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown. Karaoke remains the highlight, transporting players to an abstract reality of nostalgia or gazing into the sunset towards a bright tomorrow. Not all of the mini-games necessarily come out strong, with the batting cages now resemble Shinada’s mini-game in Yakuza 5. They’re still wonderful distractions, in any case.

Sometimes, losing at any of these minigames can be a little frustrating. They’re a lot less forgiving than modern games, and can make players want to throw their controller at the screen. Instead of that, players can also help clean the neighbourhood a little. Punks like to wander the streets of Kamurocho, and transitioning into combat with them as is as smooth as walking into the local Poppo convenience store. They’ll offer rewards like experience points (now split into five categories for a briefly confusing progression system), money, and items that can be sold or used in different areas of the game.

Combat is as absurdly brutal and visceral as ever. There’s plenty of joy to be found in the new physics engine, letting players bounce their bloodied opponents around an arena like they’re Kiryu’s plaything—and at this stage, they really are. Our protagonist is a legend for a reason, and an absolute force to be reckoned with. Despite that, Kiryu will have the standard combo string variation of light attacks into a heavy attack, with an additional heavy attack landing as a finisher. New skills unlocked through character progression offer a broader versatility—opening up parries, offensive evasions, and a twist to Kiryu’s finishers. Heat actions from the previous games exist, though feel a lot more stripped down. These are cinematic finishers that expend the Heat gauge that builds during battle, but the focus of Yakuza 6’s combat is most definitely set in the real-time part.

Not every element of the game is entirely joyful. After a short investigation in Kamurocho, Kiryu discovers that Haruka now has a son in the worst way possible: on a visit to the hospital where Haruka is being treated after a hit-and-run has left her in critical condition. Fearing that the baby Haruto Sawamura will be lost in Japan’s social service system, Kiryu opts to kidnap the child and search for the missing father, leading players to the title’s main premise and the sleepy, charming town of Onomichi in Hiroshima. He may not have much interest or any more patience left to care about the new, growing conflict blowing up in Kamurocho, but the main adventure is very personal and emotional to the protagonist.

There’s elements of the very first Yakuza title in the story, with Kiryu coming full circle and babysitting Haruka’s child while exploring the mystery surrounding him. There’s an air of nostalgia and melancholy that comes with a title exploring an aging protagonist who desires nothing more than returning to his family. In harmony with this narrative tone, the substories appear to focus on the confusion of the new age and regret. Though that may sound possibly heavy, the humour prevalent in previous titles still returns all the same. As a send-off to such a wonderful, endearing character like Kazuma Kiryu, Yakuza 6 has the potential to deliver and it’ll honestly be exciting to see where this tale goes.

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