REVIEW: “Yakuza 6” is binge-worthy gaming

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  • PlayStation 4 / rated M / $59.99 / release date April 17, 2018
  • PURCHASE LINK: PlayStation Store
  • FINAL: You NEED this game. 5 out of 5 stars

The “Yakuza” series has been one of gaming’s most inspired bait-and-switch stories for over a decade. The stern face of series hero Kazuma Kiryu on the box – coupled with a few gritty action movie-style trailers – tells you that this game is about the criminal underworld of Japan. Then the game kicks off with a vicious combat tutorial and rolls out a cast of angry, powerful and deceptive mob bosses… followed by your realization that if you want, you can walk Kiryu away from the dark storyline and just go sing karaoke or play old Sega arcade games for hours.

That balance of clenched-jaw action and goofy time-killing absurdity stays strong in “Yakuza 6: The Song of Life,” the latest adventure of frequently exasperated former made man Kazuma Kiryu. As an ex-yakuza (essentially the Japanese Mafia), Kiryu would prefer to escape his past, but there’s always some reason that he gets drawn back into the criminal scene. In “Song of Life,” that reason is family.

Haruka, the young woman Kiryu has raised since she was nine years old, is struck by a car and left comatose. A surprise is discovered at the hit-and-run scene: her baby son, Haruto, protected in her arms. Unsure if Haruka will ever wake up, Kiryu embarks on a quest to locate Haruto’s father, while staying a step ahead of the city’s burgeoning war between the Tojo Clan (Kiryu’s old yakuza outfit) and the Chinese Saio Triad.

Naturally, things spiral out of control, revealing a binge-worthy tale of double-crosses and emotional twists. Note that “Yakuza 6: The Song of Life” is fully voiced in Japanese, with English subtitles, so be prepared for a lot of reading during the game’s lengthy scenes if you do not understand Japanese.

This being the sixth game in the saga (technically it’s the seventh; a “zero” prequel game was released last year), it is fair to worry about how accessible “Song of Life” is to new players. While text synopses of previous games are provided – let’s be honest, you’re not going to read them – the characters themselves will recap anything you may have missed if it’s important to current events. This is only a concern during the game’s opening moments, since “Song of Life” grows into its own shortly thereafter. If you’ve played other “Yakuza” games you’ll be treated to plenty of callbacks and references, but if you’re brand new, you’re not going to feel totally lost.

“Song of Life” is an open world game where you can largely explore however you like, with key events that propel the storyline forward in chapters not unlike a TV drama. The game’s two environments – urban Kamurocho and seaside Onomichi – are not fantastically huge but they are packed with things to do and see (including many more interior locations when compared to previous installments.) Kamurocho at night is particularly impressive, bringing to life a stunning landscape of city grime and neon lights.

In both locales, Kiryu must regularly fend off rivals using a bombastic combat system that emphasizes overdone knockout moves. As you roll through the game, you can upgrade Kiryu’s attack suite with new abilities. It’s a simple system of grabs, punches and kicks, but you can plus it up with weapon attacks and environmental beatdowns.

The game always tells you where to go next to pick up the storyline, but it’s easy to lose yourself just roaming the two cities looking for mini-games and side stories. The virtual Japan of “Yakuza” is both authentic and bizarre, dialing modern obsessions like pop idols, online influencers and hometown mascots up to satirical extremes. No matter how dark the game gets, there’s always a chance for Kiryu to get talked into doing something ridiculous. The whiplash effect as you bounce from fluffy fun to intense crime drama is the series’ core charm.

Not that the game doesn’t have missteps. There’s often a slightly sleazy element in “Yakuza” games, usually revolving around transphobic “jokes” or Kiryu’s ongoing struggles in the dating scene. In “Song of Life,” there’s an optional side game about online chat rooms that actually uses real (staged) video clips of women stripping down to bathing suits for a webcam audience. It’s a very modern inclusion, to be sure.

Perhaps to balance that, there’s an ongoing mission where Kiryu must locate and rescue stray cats for a local cat café! Kazuma Kiryu is truly a multidimensional man: fighting the mob to save his family, collecting kittens for a coffee house… and thirsty for camgirls.

Video games franchises like “Grand Theft Auto” and “Saint’s Row” have balanced on that intersection of serious vs. silly (and sexy) to varying degrees. However, “Yakuza” is able to maintain an earnestness all its own. There’s hours of play time here, inside a compelling and contemporary world.

“Yakuza 6: The Song of Life” is available exclusively for PlayStation 4. This review is based on product supplied by the publisher. Images courtesy Sega of America.

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