Yakuza 6: The Song Of Life
They have a saying down in Okinawa, the sleepy southernmost prefecture of Japan where, back in Yakuza 3, Kazuma Kiryu ran an orphanage for a spell. ‘Hara hachi bu’ is an old Confucian teaching that roughly translates as ‘eat until you’re 80 per cent full’. Kiryu may not spend much time at Sunshine Orphanage in Yakuza 6 – it quickly becomes apparent that he’s needed elsewhere – but he certainly has need of that lesson on his latest, and final, journey.
The series’ timeworn health system has finally been overhauled, with the culinary wares on offer at local businesses now filling our hero’s stomach, as well as his health bar. Meals also give XP in multiple categories, to be spent on new moves, stat upgrades and performance buffs in Yakuza 6’ s various minigames and distractions. XP, then, is the game’s most valuable currency. Should Kiryu’s belly be full, he’ll still recover health, though at a far less generous rate than he did in previous games. Crucially, however, a full stomach means no more XP from food until you work off some calories.
There’s your mechanical reason for watching your weight; handily, there’s a narrative one too. Thanks to their habitually calorie-controlled diet, Okinawans have sub-average BMI scores, and a world-beating proportion of citizens over 100 years old. Kiryu isn’t that old – neither the chides of “gramps” from street thugs, nor his frequent references to himself as a “washed-up old yakuza”, ring entirely true – but he’s certainly knocking on a bit. Early on, fresh out of a prison sentence imposed for his misadventures in Yakuza 5, he certainly seems to be feeling his age: he’s unable to sprint for much more than 100 yards before stopping, bent double. A few upgrades later, he’s back at his best, the only reminder of his advancing years being his wrinkles, the dark rings around his eyes, and the constant references to his age, the developers missing no opportunity to remind you this is Kazuma Kiryu’s swan song.
Those unflattering features are powered by a new engine, meaning Kiryu’s final game is the first to be built on technology designed for PS4. That it is hardly a technical showcase should be no surprise when put in the context of its series, but it’s clearly a step up. Accessible buildings can now be entered without a loading pause. New fabric and skin shaders, combined with much improved lighting and animation systems, make a world we’ve come to know by heart, and the people that move within it, feel more alive than ever.
Unfortunately it comes at quite a cost. The first is a framerate that peaks at 30fps and, on the basemodel PS4, frequently plummets below its lowly target. If that alone doesn’t have those coming from the 60fps-enabled Yakuza 0 or Kiwami pining for the good old days, then a world that has markedly less to do certainly will. The northern edge of the city, home in previous games to a bathing spa, the hotel district, a park full of homeless people and at one point an entire underground city, is blocked off for the whole game because of roadworks. Many distractions have been cut, too, and the new additions – a gym, a cam-girl minigame, a cat cafe with no actual cats that asks you to befriend strays with food bought from convenience stores, because this is Yakuza, remember – don’t feel substantial enough to make up the shortfall.
That’s especially true in Onomichi, the Hiroshiman town where Kiryu spends far too much of the game. While bigger than it first appears, it’s no Kamurocho in size, and certainly not in density. It’s a rather naked attempt to push you into the town’s principal distraction, a 100v100 RTS side-mode with street thugs for units that, while bonkers, is nowhere near as compelling as, say, Yakuza 0’ s real-estate and cabaret management games. Ignore that, and Onomichi feels a lonely, empty place indeed.
Combat, too, has lost a little of its lustre. While ostensibly a more involved, more serious system, the loss of recent entries’ multiple battle styles is keenly felt, despite a commendable attempt to combine elements of them all in one place. Enemies are quicker to put up their guard now, and thanks to the new engine, attack in greater numbers. As such it’s rare that you’ll complete a combo without being twonked in the back of the head by an enemy you couldn’t even see. In that context, the new Extreme Heat mode – which sees Kiryu enter a Devil Trigger-style powered-up state for a spell – feels almost like an apology. During it, while you’ll still take damage from enemy attacks, only the heaviest will stagger you.
If all that sounds disappointing, rest assured that, to series fans, absolutely none of it matters. While it takes the customary age to get into its stride, and one twist in particular isn’t so much signposted as almost insultingly obvious, Yakuza 6’ s narrative builds to one of the finest climaxes in the series – perhaps, in fact, the best of the lot. You might think the knowledge that this is Kiryu’s last appearance would take the sting out of the story, but Yakuza Studio handles it with grace, letting the real question – that of just how final Kiryu’s journey is – dangle until the very last. The stakes, as such, seem that much higher, every play to your emotions hitting you like a sucker punch to the gut.
When the dust settles, the series fan is given something that no previous Yakuza game, bound as it has been to an inevitable sequel, has ever offered: closure. The Yakuza series will continue but, with Kiryu out of the picture, it will never be quite the same. Our departing hero might be best off eating until he’s 80 per cent full. But fans will gorge on Yakuza 6. When you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, you won’t want to leave even a crumb.
Yakuza 6’s narrative builds to one of the finest climaxes in the series – perhaps, in fact, the best of the lot