Yakuza 6 The Song of Life

Yakuza 6 was conceived and sold as the end of the Kazuma Kiryu story. And it is that; it is supposed to be the last time we see the Dragon of Dojima in a starring role in the series and it really does close out his story. I have some spoilery thoughts about how it does that which will be at the end of this post, but it is an ending. The Song of Life is a strange game for the send of the series iconic hero, as it removes him from nearly every character he has built up a relationship with over the course of the series.

Before I dig into the story, a few words about the gameplay, which is solid. I first experienced this new Yakuza engine with Kiwami 2, and this feels much the same way. The game is a little more fluid than it was before, moving more seamlessly into and out of fights with roving bands of thugs that accost Kiryu in the streets.

One thing that is absolutely disappointing with Yakuza 6 is how little the series usual cast has to do. Yes, it stars Kiryu and nearly every game in the series has introduced a full new cast to spend time with. But the series has built up quite the stable of regulars and most of them are MIA for the bulk of the game. If you played Yakuza 0 and love Majima, this is not the game for you. I don’t know that he even speaks a line. The same goes for Saejima, a co-protagonist of Yakuza 4 and 5. He appears briefly at the end and does nothing. Daigo Dojima is absent as well. Haruka Sawamura, who is vital to the plot of the game, is barely there outside of some bookend scenes. Kiryu’s detective friend Date makes the occasional appearance, and Akiyama at least gets to show up occasionally, but they are tertiary here, at best. Maybe it’s just me, but I expected a game that is saying farewell to its hero to let him interact a little more with all of the allies he’s built up over the course of the previous six games.

Still, the game fills in with some really good new characters. I have long been a defender of Yakuza 3, and one of the things I loved about it was Kiryu meeting a yakuza family that initially knew nothing about him, only to win the group over just by being awesome. Yakuza 6 does the same thing, and I think does it a little better. Instead of a family of just three, this one is a little larger and feels a little more fully formed. Plus, they are led by Beat Takeshi. Kiryu shows up in Onomichi looking for clues about what happened to Haruka. AMong the first people he encounters is the abrasive Nagumo. Soon, he meets, and fights, all four of the underlings of the Hirose family; Nagumo, Matsunaga, Tagashira and Yuta. Nagumo and Yuta quickly become close allies. It follows a familiar set up, with first they fight Kiryu, then they grow to respect him, then almost worship him. By the time you get to the end and a former foe is agreeing to go on what is essentially a suicide mission with Kiryu, it all feels just perfect. Which is what makes the ending such a downer.

Here is my big problem with the ending: it is not the ending to the game that preceded it. It is a perfectly understandable ending, and fits with Kiryu’s characters, but it flies in the face of the lessons he supposedly learned during the preceding 40 or so hours of game. It is also clumsy and occasionally aggravating. I am going to have to really spoil things to explicate this, so consider yourself warned. Yakuza 6 ends with the apparent death of Kiryu. This is a fine ending, though a little disappointing given the perpetrator. Still, Kazuma Kiryu shot down while protecting his Haruka is a perfect way for him to go out. After 20 minutes or so of ending, the other shoe drops. Kiryu is not dead. He survived the gunshots. Instead, he took a deal from the government to cover up certain revelations during the last act of the game and has to disappear forever. So he does, leaving his family behind. And that is where the game loses me. Kiryu deciding or discovering that his family is safer without him around and then leaving to keep them safe is a very Kiryu thing to do. But the game just spent it whole story showing why that is a bad idea. Again, the relationships between fathers and children is the heart of the game. And the game shows a multitude of ways in which they work and they don’t, and one big thing, outlined by Kiryu in a letter to Daigo at the end, is that a father needs to be there for his family. The game opens with Kiryu, in order to be with Haruka and the kids from the orphanage, going to jail for his Yakuza past. The idea is that he’ll serve his time and be allowed to be with them as himself. When this attempt to deflect attention fails and people are paying attention to Haruka, she leaves the orphanage as well, because the girl with the adopted yakuza dad draws too much negative attention. She doesn’t tell Kiryu this, so when he gets out and find her gone he sets off looking for her, and finds her in a coma, the victim of a hit and run, and mother of a small child. The father of that child is revealed to be a low level yakuza member, though like Kiryu a good guy.

Along with several other plot threads, the clear message here, to me at least, is that Kiryu going to jail to protect Haruka didn’t work. He wanted her out of the yakuza or yakuza adjacent life, but she ended up in it anyway. Again, the most important thing about being a father, according to Kiryu, is being there for your kids. He shows this by not being there for his kids. If the lesson of the game was that Kiryu’s yakuza past will always catch up to him and the only way to keep Haruka safe is to leave her, then okay. She’s grown by this point anyway. But the game teaches the exact opposite lesson, that bad things are coming no matter what and he needs to be there. Plus, Haruka takes over the orphanage with her (ex?) yakuza beau, so everything is right back where it started. The whole thing just didn’t work for me. That missed note at the end kind of soured me on what was otherwise an excellent game.

I’ll still play Yakuza games going forward, and am interested to see who will take over has the protagonist. Will it focus on Saejima and Majima? Akiyama? Those are good options who have been playable in the past, but they are all also kind of old. Maybe Yuta will take over, but if so, why get rid of Kiryu. I know the next game set in Kamurocho is this summer’s Judgment, which is about a detective. I’m not sure if any Yakuza characters show up.

Yakuza 0

After being one of the best video game series around for the last half decade or so, Yakuza finally got its big break with Yakuza 0, the first game to really explode in much deserved popularity. I have to assume this is mostly down to timing and platform, with Yakuza 0 being the first on the PS4 and access to it’s easy sharing functions, because while Yakuza 0 is a ton of fun ii primarily does the same things as the previous two games in the series. There is no great leap forward in presentation or play to explain this entry’s popularity. There is that it is a prequel, with the implied lack of series baggage. Knowing the series plot history has never been a true hurdle to playing this series; each game tends to knock down all of the dominoes it sets up leaving a clear playing field with the new status quo for the next one. But thinking you have 3 or 4 games worth of story to catch up on can definitely be a perceived hurdle.

The biggest change, gameplay wise, is going from having a handful of playable characters who each have different fighting styles to having just two playable characters who each have several fighting styles. In Yakuza 4 and 5, the game split the story up between 4 different characters who each fought in different ways. (Yakuza 5 also had playable Haruka, who didn’t fight except with dance.) Across the two games you had the familiar Kazuma Kiryu with his balanced style, the hulking Saejima who is slow but powerful, Akiyama with his quick kicks, Tanimura with his counter based style, and Shineda the former baseball player who incorporated his baseball skills into a fighting style. Those are condensed onto Yakuza 0’s two protagonists, Kiryu and new playable character and series mainstay Goro Majima. Kiryu has his own fighting style along with Brawler, a heavy style somewhat reminiscent of Saejima and Rush, a speedy style similar to Akiyama. Majima has his own unique style and a baseball influenced not unlike Shineda. It allows the game to simplify the story while not losing any complexity in the battle system.

The other change is the game’s time setting. Yakuza 0 is set during Japan’s 80’s bubble economy, so money plays a big part in this game. Money does everything. Gone are experience points from previous games, which have been replaced with money. The big sidequests for both Kiryu and Majima involve business ventures that make money hand over fist. You can also go disco dancing and have disco dance battles. For the most part the game retains everything that makes the series great, but it manages to fill in the edges with period detail to make the setting a big draw.

I am mixed on Yakuza 0’s plot. It is largely in line with the rest of the series, which means lots of fights and double crosses alongside long conversations about the nature of masculinity and honor. My problems come from the fact that young Kiryu doesn’t quite work and that the game focuses on him when this should be more fully Majima’s game. Majima, as he has frequently done as a bit player in the grand Yakuza tapestry, steals the show here. But he doesn’t get quite the opportunity he should have.

Kiryu is the stoic rock at the center of the series and this game, which usually works given the what goes on around him. Here, though, he comes off as slightly bland. Instead of being a quite badass, he comes off as something of a nothing. Part of the problem is that young Kiryu doesn’t work as well as the older version from the rest of the series. Even when we first meet him at the start Yakuza 1 Kiryu is a man entering his prime, ready to take full advantage of his abilities. Here he is young and green, his taciturn approach lacks the world weariness that is a huge part of his character in later games. It would have worked better, I think, to have him be a little more hot-blooded, a bit of trouble maker. Kiryu has never shied from using his fists to solve problems, this tale works better with him growing into the man he would become instead of just people realizing what a badass he is. What does work in Kiryu’s story is how it builds his relationship with Nishiki. That never quite worked in the original Yakuza, because the game didn’t really sell Nishiki as a friend before Kiryu went to jail. This game builds that relationship.

Kiryu’s story is kind of familiar; he is framed for murder and ends up expelled from the Dojima Family as he tries to figure out who framed him, eventually setting him against his former allies.

Majima is easily the more interesting character, and his arc could be more fully formed if he had the same story real estate as Kiryu had. At the start, Majima is disgraced, living out of Kamurocho and working running a cabaret club. He wants nothing more than return to his crew, but has no real avenue to do so. His story really gets going when he gets a way back with an order to commit a hit. Except the target turns out to be not what he expected and Majima ends up trying to protect a young blind girl from just about everybody.

The game kind of tracks Majima’s development into the Mad Dog Majima that we all know and love, but that throughline is kind of muddled. You can see the pieces that are supposed to be tied together to build that story, but they never really gel. I won’t lie about the relationship between Majima and Makoto really worked for me. Makoto, for much of the game, isn’t much of a character, but in the middle part of the game she really starts to be an actor in the goings on. The two of them have a kind of genuine romance like this series has never seen. So when it comes to the end [SPOILERS] and Kiryu is the one who is saving her while Majima is simply after revenge [/SPOILERS] it kind of hurts. Especially the last few scenes, where the two of them go their separate ways. The problem is that Majima’s threads seem to get a little short shrift when compared to Kiryu’s comparatively less engaging plotline.

Yakuza 0 is a very good game. It certainly deserves its success. I don’t know that I would put it above any of the PS3 games (I acknowledge Yakuza 3’s shortcomings while really liking its story), but there isn’t a lot of difference in quality between them. I am pumped to get the the other 3 Yakuza games I have on the PS4.

Yakuza 5

I don’t think I’ve written about my love for the Yakuza series much. And I do love it, though it is unlike other games I tend to enjoy or write about here. I have been a fan of the series ever since I picked up the original game way back in 2008 or so. I was initially put off, having read bad reviews, likely from that rag Game Informer, but as the second game was nearing release, I picked up the first game used and has a blast with it. It felt like the distant descendant of River City Ransom, with an RPG’s attention paid to the story. While I wasn’t able to find a copy of the sequel, I did nab Yakuza 3 & 4 when I got a PS3. I only finished the fourth game a little more than a year ago, just before Yakuza 5 finally hit. I purchased and downloaded it right away, but put off playing it for a while since I had just spent so much time with Yakuza 4. I’m glad I did, because Yakuza 5 is probably the best game in the series and it deserves to be played fresh.

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Like its predecessor, Yakuza 5 splits the game into chapters, each with a different protagonist. Each of these chapters could be their own game, though those games would be a little short. It starts with Kazuma Kiryu, the series longtime protagonist, while Shun Akiyama and Taiga Saejima make return appearances. While there is no sign of Tanimura, Yakuza 4’s fourth protagonist, he is replaced by Tatsuo Shinada. Also, for the first time in the series Kazuma’s adopted niece/daughter/ward Haruka Sawamura is playable. Each of these chapters has its own setting, storyline, and tone. Yes, they eventually connect, but they also stand on their own right up until their conclusions. Kiryu’s chapter is a very much a traditional Yakuza game, with a city to explore and lots of thugs to fight. Saejima’s chapter features another prison break for him, as well as an extended stay in the mountains. The third chapter is a curve ball, starring Haruka as she gets her start as a pop star. All of the fighting is replaced with dance battles and rhythm game musical numbers. At least, they are until the president of her talent agency turns up dead and in debt to genial lender Akiyama. From there the two split the chapter as they try to win a singing competition and get to the bottom of a murder mystery. The last chapter is back to Yakuza business as usual, but this time with a character completely unfamiliar with the criminal underworld. While their stories are separate, they all lead to the same place, with one mastermind behind the whole thing.

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The most amazing thing about Yakuza 5 is how varied the gameplay is and how satisfying everything it. I have long criticized a lot of open world games, like GTA, for offering the player thousands of things to do, except none of them are fun. While not everything available to player to do in Yakuza 5 is fun or remotely worth doing, the bulk of the central modes are enjoyable. Kiryu starts the game with a job as a taxi driver, and his racing and driving missions are surprisingly fun. That same goes for Haruka’s rhythm games and Shinada’s adventures in the batting cages. The standout is the hunting minigame with Saejima. There you take to the snowy mountains with just a gun and a small pack to hunt bears, as well as host of other woodland creatures. All of these things are different from the main brawling gameplay, but all of them are also worthwhile in their own right. The pool minigame isn’t half bad either, nor is the golf, though you can safely avoid the slot machines.

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The Yakuza series doesn’t seem like the sort of thing I would like. It is a very violent game. Overtly, obscenely, unnecessarily violent. But that violence tends to stop short of killing. This is not a murder simulator. The dudes you pummel in the streets might not realistically survive the beatings they get put through, but the game dutifully shows them alive, if aching, after every fight. That goes a long way for me. Even though this is a game about criminals, taking a life is not something even they take lightly. It is a game that strikes a tone similar to Metal Gear Solid. That series can ponder the nature of loyalty while at the same time have Snake track down hidden cartoon monkeys in the forest. This is a game where the protagonists can get caught up in all sorts of silliness, like a man getting into multiple fist fights with a bear, but still features long cutscenes where the characters ruminate on what it means to be a man and how to go about keeping their manly honor.

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The tragedy of the Yakuza series is that Kiryu will always be the star, even though it would likely be better for him if he weren’t. By the third game in the series he has retired to Okinawa to run an orphanage, but in each game since he gets drawn back into the action. In the last game worthy successors were created in Saejima and Akiyama, but fans would revolt if Kiryu weren’t in it. Even in the game world he is such a legend that he is deliberately pulled into the action so a character can prove themselves by beating him (they can’t). The trio of non-Kiryu fighters in this game would be more than enough for the game on their own. Akiyama is a personal favorite of mine, with his lackadaisical approach to life, but his deathly serious take on his job. Shinada’s story is the most disconnected from the rest of the game, but it is also the most satisfying. He is a former professional baseball player who was framed for cheating and banned from the sport. More than a decade later he is prompted to investigate the conspiracy that got him banned for life. He is joined by the apparently unscrupulous loan shark Takasugi. While the normally carefree Shinada is forced to confront some darkness he had ignored, Takasugi proves to me much more soft-hearted than he initially appeared. It is an altogether satisfying little story. However enjoyable the other stories may be, the heart of the game is the relationship between Kiryu and Haruka. He gives everything up to let her live her dream, but by the end she realizes that her dream, which began as a way to provide for her surrogate family, will prevent her from being with them.

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Yakuza 5 is a jambalaya of a video game. Everything is thrown into the pot and the flavors meld perfectly. The tone ranges from silly to somber, from awesome to heartbreaking. I have enjoyed each and every game I’ve played in this series, but I don’t think any of them are quite as good as Yakuza 5 is. It is too bad I’ll never get to play the Japan only spin off, but at least we can look forward to Yakuza 0, Yakuza 6 and Yakuza Kiwami over the next year or so. That is almost enough to finally get me to spring for a PS4.

Video Game Archaeology: Dinosaurs for Hire

It’s time for more Video Game Archaeology! This entry’s game is Tom Mason’s Dinosaurs for Hire for the Sega Genesis. Dinosaurs for Hire was developed by Malibu, probably, and published Sega in 1993. I found it, sans case, at Game Zone, a video game store in Joplin, MO. While the cover comes off as more derivative than genuinely interesting, I thought an unknown Ninja Turtles knock-off to be intriguing enough to warrant a 3.99 purchase.
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