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The Yakuza, the Dragon and the port town.

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    Yakuza 6: The Song of Life

    Rating: 4.0 – Great

    The Yakuza, the Dragon and the port town.

    Yakuza 6 is quite a paradoxical entry. It is the last chapter of Kiryu’s story, set in universe where the criminal underworld of Kamurocho is up for grabs due to the aftermath of the Yakuza 5 events and the latest chronological title of a series that has progressively introduced more bombastic narratives. But it does not present itself as a massive climax, sometimes by necessity, being the first game that utilises the unfamiliar development territory of the Dragon engine, and other times by choice, mainly in its themes and tone.

    The plot kicks into gear by Kiryu’s decision to distance himself from the previous conflict by doing 3 years of prison time, cutting ties with his Yakuza past so Haruka, a daughter-like figure to Kiryu, and the orphanage kids he looks after can live a quiet life together without being dragged into his problems. Of course, nothing goes according to plan and by the time Kiryu gets out of prison, Haruka has left, found herself as the target of a hit-and-run, had a baby, Haruto, and so Kiryu goes back and forth between Kamurocho and Onomichi, a small town in Hiroshima where she was last sighted, to piece together what happened during the time he was away.

    And here is where the first signs of the climax’s subversion appear. This is very much a narrative about the simple, low ranking and headstrong yakuza family Kiryu meets in Onomichi and his quest to find closure. It does not try to tie every thread of the Yakuza universe together and several major figures of the past games are given side roles or have no screen time at all. That is reflected by the areas as the bustling city of Kamurocho provides generally poor narrative beats while the quaint and less activity-filled small town of Onomichi takes the leading role. The game does much better when it’s focusing on the personal struggles and relationships of your Onomichi friends, the Hirose family, and the more subdued writing that Kiryu enjoys this time around helps reinforce them. The story feels naked when it’s showing the Tojo’s part in the proceedings, one major character aside. Haruka is little more that a plot device, a reason for the struggle to exist.

    What this lack of grandeur does provide is room for the narrative "punches" to hit harder. Now that crazy things with major consequences don’t happen every other chapter, the times where the pacing spikes up are more pronounced. Kiryu is generally more restrained and less gung-ho when he goes about his business. So, when the Dragon of Dojima gets angry, there is tangable tension in the air. This approach also flatters the somber tone several sequences employ. Aided by the development team’s racked up experience in cinematography and writing, cutscenes walk the pacing tightrope with grace, conveying emotions without bombarding the player with exposition. The last point in particular is an area where the series has gotten progressively better and it shows in 6. Kiryu’s relationship with the Hirose family is given a carefully developed story arc that mirrors the wider themes of Yakuza 6. The game’s attempt to examine family bonds is better felt when Kiryu is fighting with or against the Hirose boys and the plot threads that involve them than the occasional monologue about what Haruka means to him or the baby minigames with Haruto. It would not be a stretch to say that Yakuza 6 feels closer to a self-contained and well-handled side story than a grand epilogue.

    While the decrease in scope could be interpeted as a choice, the stripped down combat system and the reduced side activities are certainly a result of developing a game in a new engine while trying to meet a deadline. Nothing major was done to fill the gap of the style system. There’re less heat actions and less variety in enemy designs. Your main approches are the 4 branches of rush combos that either end with a double finisher or a finisher into a grab, 2 counter moves in the form of parry and tiger drop, normal grabs and a decent variety of triangle attacks like running kicks and post-dodge moves. You are now limited to environmental objects if you want to use a weapon as there’s no way to equip arms manually. The equipable armor effects have absolutely no variety and you can no longer grab fallen enemies. For the first time in several titles, I found myself trying to squeeze variety out of every action instead of being bombarded with options. Kicking objects towards the enemy, shaking up the combo timing with charged hits and aiming your throws at other goons for crowd control are all tools with which to play around but you’ve pretty much explored most of normal combat’s depth much sooner that usual. Especially if you consider that the contextual heat actions, a signature feaure of the Yakuza games, are fewer and less imaginative. To round out this awkward attempt at fitting the new systems into the the new engine, the game has a segmented EXP progression system that should, in theory, allow for freedom in character progression but is marred by unbalanced EXP requirements that lead to bottlenecks as you’re bound to rack up stat points quite unevenly.

    Not all is disappointing though as the game has a few new tricks up its sleeve. Yakuza 6 introduces the Extreme Heat system. You can enter a powered up stage that makes you less vulnerable to staggering by using the heat you have accumulated as a timer. In this state, you hit hard, your rush combo changes into a barrage of punches, you can carry larger objects like motorcycles, more heat actions open up and your finishers gain a heat action-like property where you can mash the button as it connects for extra damage. A welcome, if a bit underutilised, addition. Moreover, combat arena limits are no more. You can start the fight in Tenkaichi street and end it outside the Millenium Tower. That means that your combat tools get more opportunities to be used, despite being fewer. Run up a high place and do a diving lariat heat move. Grab the enemy, drag them up a bridge and throw them down to the train tracks. Due to the very welcome removal of loading screens, you can now take the fight inside stores and restoraunts and take advantage of the interactibles. The shopkeepers might not love it as much though. Lastly, Yakuza now resides in the world of video game physics. Getting an enemy to bounce off the pavement after a heat move and ragdoll off to space is quite novel. This also means that your throw may be interrupted by the enemy’s foot touching a pole so it might not be a net positive. In general, the animations are more fluid and the individual hits have a nice weight to them, whether it is the punch feedback, a block actually stopping the attacker in his tracks or the Tiger Drop sending people flying. These changes fare better when it comes to one-on-one fights with bosses in particular reaping the benefits while crowd fights end up playing out somewhat clunkily.

    The aformentioned lack of loading screens has a bigger effect outside of combat. The dozen second barrier between you and your favourite meal has been eradicated. It’s a nice quality of life feature that makes Kamurocho and Onomichi seem coherent and alive. The extra detail that comes with the new engine fits Yakuza’s tendency to pay attention to every detail like a glove. Onomichi in particular looks amazing during dusk and nighttime as the shadows give character to every little corner. Yakuza 6 also adds verticality to the maps in the form of rooftops and multiple floors. This is more of a gimmick than a substantial addition but has some nice synergy with the new time-killer feature, Troublr. It is basically a replacement for the random events that used to happen around Kamurocho wrapped in a more fleshed out system. It will lead you around town, beating up bullies, putting out fires and delivering some noodles. Where the non-combat gameplay does take a hit is the diminished number of minigames and the like. I was especially saddened to learn there is no arena in this incarnation of Kamurocho. To balance this out, the new additions are pretty top notch. These include a rail-shooter in the form of spearfishing, Puyo-Puyo and Virtua Figher 5 arcade machines, a decently in-depth baseball simulation and some dumb fun "sexy" video chat sessions. I would pick the bar conversations as a standout as they are full of clever lines and situations. To top it all off, the major narrative tie-in minigame is a weird real time strategy gang war where you lead the Kiryu Clan, which consists of side characters and random goons, against the forces of JUSTIS and six charismatic weirdos. It customisable and controllable enough to be a nice time sink and includes some of the staple nonsensical character interactions the series in known for.

    Where Yakuza 6 rivals the best of the series is the sub-stories. As usual, Kiryu is put into the weirdest of scenarios, most of which he faces with an adorable bewildered demeanor. You might find youself figuring out where these little stories are heading beforehand if you have experienced the past Yakuza games but 6 finds ways to overcome the already absurd baseline the series has set in this regard. Yakuza regulars will also notice some call backs to old sub-stories that have the common sense to not constantly hammer the references into your head. They act like a treat for the people that know of them while standing just fine on their own. At the risk of repeating myself, I found the Onomichi hosts the standout ones, callbacks or not.

    As for the remaining aspects of the title, they showcase that Yakuza 6 is very much a game that found itself on an unfortunate transition. The new tech allows for some beautiful character models and scenery but it is getting increasingly jarring when highly detailed faces move little more than their lips and eyebrows during most in-game scenes. Regrettably, the performance took a big hit as the framerate was cut in half with Yakuza 6 generally managing to hold on to 30fps. What did not miss a beat however is the soundtrack. Mirroring the rest of the game’s aspects, it is not as flamboyant as in the previous entries but the pieces are tailored to fit every situation Yakuza 6 throws at your face. Special mention goes to the tension building-tracks and the latter boss themes that elevate the build-up and fights effectively. Pacing the sountrack to follow mid-fight transitions will never get old.

    Yakuza 6 resides in a strange place where the narrative baggage that come with ending a decade old saga were not coupled with the most polished or nuanced systems and mechanics due to inexperience with the new egnine and all the concessions that come with it. Fortunately, it manages to sidestep the issue by framing its story in a subdued atmosphere without compromising the exploration of its themes. It is unable to mask its combat related problems but it at least gives the player some new tools to play around, even if they actively have to seek them out. Kiryu left the stage not with a bang but it certainly was’t a whimper either.

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