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‘Yakuza 6: The Song of Life’ Review: Punch Drunk Love Letters

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Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is a game caught between generations. One of SEGA’s most successful franchises, the Yakuza series has a decade-long tradition of creating a massive, interactive soap opera. It is a series that is deeply embedded in, and extremely proud of, its heritage and culture. This can make it feel dated in a number of ways.

While the Yakuza series is often compared to Grand Theft Auto for being an urban open world, crime-oriented game, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life has a much more thoughtful narrative. It’s also significantly less expansive than its American counterpart.

Playing Yakuza 6 is more akin to binge watching a soap opera than marathoning a game. Strap in for a ton of cutscenes, punctuated by bouts of over-the-top hand-to-hand combat. As the final entry into Kiryu’s saga, The Song of Life is the most touching and thoughtful, while still being full of the humor, betrayal, mystery, and dramatic plot escalation that make the series stand out.

Kiryu is on a journey to solve the hit-and-run that has put his adoptive daughter in a coma. Oh, and he needs to find the father of her baby that he only just found out about… because he’s been in jail. Remember what I said about it being a soap opera?

Despite this being the sixth and final entry in Kiryu’s saga, The Song of Life is one of the most accessible. Kiryu’s story takes him to new locations where he meets new characters, so there’s less of a focus on the events of the previous games.

For longtime Yakuza fans that means your favorite returning characters, like the entertainingly insane Goro Majima, are limited to shorter guest appearances. However, Yakuza 6 has some of the funniest side story missions of any of the games. All in all, though, it’s a touching final chapter on the saga, and a fitting sendoff for one of gaming’s more entertaining protagonists.

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Looking For a Fight

SEGA is definitely sending Kiryu off in style, too. The bustling district of Kamurocho — the setting for every Yakuza game — looks better than ever. The entire gameplay experience is completely seamless now, without the loading screens to start battles or enter shops. Street fights with yakuza members, the Chinese and Korean mafias, or just roaming groups of “menacing men” happen instantaneously, amid the now much more crowded streets of Tokyo.

This seamless, much more lively and bustling version of Kamurocho seems to come at the cost of variety. The fighting system is easy to grasp and you can pull off some fun and flashy moves with ease. But after just a few hours, the bouts begin to bore. There’s only one fighting style, unlike previous games which allowed you to switch stances. After learning the few basic combos, every fight happens pretty much exactly the same way. Sure, you can spend EXP to purchase and use a variety of additional attack combos and takedowns, but there’s no real strategic reason to since all the fights are simple enough to be beaten with basic combos.

Where the new fighting system shines is in the cinematic special moves. Kiryu can use his environment to take down bad dudes in a whole slew of flashy, over-the-top ways. Using a bicycle to slam body slam a yakuza henchman gives an excellent cartoon feeling to what is otherwise a brutal act of public street violence.

Fights don’t stay in the street either. Your brawls can spill into shops, restaurants, and bars, where a whole slew of new weapons and take down interactions await. Finding new ways to turn every object around you into a weapon turns Kamurocho into a newer kind of playground than it has been in previous games.

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City Full of Distractions

The Yakuza games are known for their cornucopia of minigames, and The Song of Life is full of them… just not as many as long-time fans would expect. Kamurocho is full of things to do, but fewer distractions sprinkle the map than in previous games. Classics like bowling, RC cars, and pool are noticeably absent.

Kiryu can momentarily forget about his deadly important mission to spend hours, even days, putzing around Tokyo’s red light district. He can improve his stats at the gym, or batting cages. Earn EXP and regain health by eating at dozens of restaurants. Flirt with cabaret club hostesses. He can even get nostalgic by playing old arcade games at Club SEGA.

There are a couple new minigames that stick out as being straight up bad additions to the game, like the Cat Café. While we want to love a whole side plot dedicated to befriending felines for a cat café, this entire section of the game is a drawn out fetch quest with no actual game elements.

But worse is Live Chat, a bizarre and off-putting minigame where Kiryu flirts with cam girls in order to get them to take their clothes off. It’s out of character for someone who is presented as the world’s most chivalrous man in practically every scene. Plus, it’s 2018, SEGA come on… you took out bowling and pool for this?

It’s great that there’s a lot to do. The minigames and side quests are much needed distractions because otherwise Yakuza 6 begins to feel very repetitive. Nowhere is this feeling stronger than when Kiryu heads to the quiet seaport town of Onomichi, a new location for the game.

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Onomichi is where the story really gets legs, but the gameplay pacing takes a dive. Here, Kiryu meets many of the key players, friend and foe alike. But the town is small, devoid of any minigames, and features only a handful of side quests. As you spend a good six hours or so unable to leave the town, The Song of Life starts to drag.

The game eventually opens back up and allows you to go back and forth between the towns, but the player has to get their momentum back. It’s frustrating when open world, free exploration games cage a player in for hours on end.

Is ‘The Song of Life’ Good?

I wish I could say Kiryu’s sendoff was the best Yakuza game of the bunch, but last year’s Yakuza 0 still stands out. Yakuza 6 succeeds, though, despite its shortcomings. It’s definitely the best looking, most technically impressive Yakuza game. And The Song of Life is its most heart warming (and heart wrenching!) story.

When it comes to actually playing the game, Yakuza 6 is a bit more bland, a bit sparser with content, and frankly a bit dated with its problematic choices.

‘Yakuza 6: The Song of Life’ Review: Punch Drunk Love Letters

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