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Yakuza 6: Song of Life Makes a Great First Yakuza Game

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Bright lights, big kitties.

Amidst all of 2017’s monumental, landmark video game releases, I’ll always remember it as the year I fell head over heels for the Yakuza series. In spite of all the new releases that pushed this console generation’s hardware to its limits, when it came down to picking my personal Game of the Year, I was torn between two PlayStation 3 games that got current-gen releases: Yakuza 0 and Yakuza Kiwami. Both are incredible games in their own right, but as remastered last-gen ports of a series that’s never quite blown up in the West, a lot of people slept on them.

This year, we’re getting Yakuza 6: Song of Life. It’s the first proper Yakuza game of this console generation, built from the ground up on a brand-new engine. After some hands-on time, I couldn’t be more excited. If you’re a fan of Yakuza already, you’re probably rolling your eyes going, “Well, duh,” but if you’re casually interested, read on, and allow me to explain why this is a game that should be on your radar.

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About a year ago, my grasp of the Yakuza series is that it was kind of like a Japanese Grand Theft Auto, except you can’t steal cars. That assessment is way off, as fervent commenters are probably already pointing out. The Yakuza and GTA franchises both strike an odd balance between mature storylines in criminal underworlds and wholesome family-friendly mini-games, but the similarities stop there.

The main storylines in Yakuza games are dense, mature, and operatic, with themes of revenge, atonement, betrayal, and family; exactly the sort of the thing the word “Yakuza” conjures up. But in the margins of these heavy story beats are dozens of “substories” – bizarre sidequests that add much-needed levity and humor. The Yakuzas manage to strike a delicate balance between being genuinely badass and utterly ridiculous, and that’s where their charm lies.

The series leans heavily on narrative, which can be incredibly daunting to newcomers. What the Hell is going on? Who is anyone? Well, the important thing to know is that you play as Kiryu Kazuma. He’s a former Yakuza who can’t seem to stay out of trouble. He’s incredibly strong, with a reputation for kicking ass, but he has a softer side, too. He’s a tough guy with a heart of gold. Yes, that does sound corny, but it's hard not to like the guy.

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Yakuza 6 picks up several years after the events of Yakuza 5 (which, full disclosure, I didn’t play) and while it’ll give you a recap, this is the first proper Yakuza game on PS4, so it’s been developed with newcomers in mind. I’m reminded a lot of jumping into The Witcher 3, feeling like I missed something in the first two games, but gradually learning not to get too hung up on it.

Tonally, Yakuza 6 feels more grounded than the most recent series entries. It's always been cinematic, but the new cutscenes have a mature weight to them that was mostly absent in Zero and Kiwami. There’s still no shortage of goofiness and over-the-top action, but when Yakuza 6 wants to be serious, it doesn’t screw around.

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The typical moment-to-moment gameplay of a Yakuza game is like this: you make your way to the next very serious story mission objective, but along the way, you encounter a stranger in some sort of distress, or trying to coax you into doing something decidedly silly-sounding. Before you know it, the incredibly urgent and very serious story mission has been back-burnered, and you’re completely enthralled by this secondary objective. Along the way, you probably beat up like, 20 dudes, and duck into a restaurant to order everything on the menu. Yakuza is at its best when you take the scenic route, and let yourself get distracted. This also makes it a horrible game to preview under a time constraint.

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Players will explore Kamurocho, the fictionalized red light district neighborhood of Tokyo that the Yakuza series calls home. The new engine means that there are no load times when entering or exiting buildings, and the transition into combat is a lot smoother. Best of all, a showdown with a group of menacing street thugs can now be taken inside a local business, toppling shelves of merchandise. The combat system has been simplified a bit since previous games, but still retains the enjoyable beat-em-up feel with loads of new moves to unlock.

Later in the game, Kiryu will pay a visit to Onomichi, a quiet seaside town in the Hiroshima prefecture, which offers a placid alternative to the hustle and bustle of the big city. Based on my time demoing the game, it’s unclear what Kiryu’s objective is in this quaint fishing village, but if nothing else, there are plenty of activities and dudes to beat up in the streets.

As has become customary in Yakuza, the sixth offers up a heap of new minigames. In addition to overhauled versions of familiar activities like darts, karaoke, batting cages, the entirety of Puyo-Puyo and Virtua Fighter Final Showdown are playable in arcades, including two-player modes accessible from the main menu. Kiryu will also dramatically don a wetsuit and go deep-sea spearfishing, which plays an awful lot like House of the Dead. But, like…with fish.

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There’s even a rhythm game based on (get this) polite conversation. Basically, players have to follow a discussion between NPCs, and quickly pick an appropriate comment when it’s Kiryu’s turn to chime in. It’s like an absurd cross between karaoke, WarioWare and Mass Effect’s dialogue options. A man was telling his drinking buddies how much he misses his ex-wife, and when the conversation came to me, I unsympathetically blurted out “HEY, DO YOU GUYS HAVE NEW YEAR’S PLANS?”...which was deemed a “bad answer.”

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Though I didn’t see it in person, I’m told Yakuza 6 has a robust minigame in which Kiryu must manage a cat cafe. No, not human girls dressed up like cats. One of those cafes where people go and play with cats. Regular, actual felines. Previous games have tasked players with managing nightclubs and playing the real estate market, but now it’s cats. If you want something that encapsulates the charm of the Yakuza series, that about sums it up: you play as a hardened ex-mobster who beats dudes to a pulp, but who also remembers to feed his kitties.

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Clearly, SEGA wants people to give Yakuza 6 a shot, since a free demo will be available on February 27th. Thankfully, progress made in the demo will carry over to the full game, so there’s really no reason not to check it out. While I can’t vouch for the full experience of Yakuza 6 quite yet, it seems like a noticeable upgrade from the previous Yakuza games in just about every area, from visual fidelity to quality-of-life tweaks. In spite of the daunting number in the title, it should make a solid jumping-on point for anyone who’s curious about the series.

Max Scoville is a host and producer at IGN, you can find him on Twitter @MaxScoville or in the streets of Kamurocho, wailing on goons with a parking cone.