Anyone picking up a copy of Yakuza Kiwami, the remake of the series' PS2 debut, also receives a code to download the demo of the forthcoming Yakuza 6. As the first entry in the series designed from the ground up for PlayStation 4, we were eager to see what Ryu ga Gotoku Studio could bring to the table. Keeping in mind that this is still an early pre-release demo, there is a lot to like here but there are some issues we hope to see addressed before the game is released.
The first thing that becomes apparent is the massive overhaul in lighting, effects, and animation. Yakuza 6 is a huge leap forward in this regard from previous games in the series and really helps sell the experience in a way that prior titles in the series never could. This is evident from the moment you press the start button and the camera smoothly moves through the environment with a cinematic flair, before panning down a familiar alley to find an aged Kiryu facing off against the Chinese mafia. It seems a man going by the name 'Chan' is targeting Kiryu and this demo focuses primarily on chasing him down. From following one of his underlings known as the 'Scarred Man' to tracking down his lady friend at a local burger joint, it's a linear affair but it sets the stage nicely for a much larger tale to come.
One key improvement made to the experience is the way in which transitions are handled - the game now seamlessly weaves between gameplay, cut-scenes, and building interiors with nary a load screen in sight. It helps create a more believable world that feels less segregated - being able to see the outside streets from the windows of the building you've entered makes the game just that much more immersive.
Lighting and materials quality are also improved greatly this time around. While it hasn't been officially confirmed yet by the developer, Yakuza 6 does appear to utilise a physically-based pipeline with textures and materials that exude realism. Characters also enjoy sub-surface scattering, enabling a more realistic portrayal of skin (sorely missed in Yakuza Kiwami), while cube-maps and screen-space reflections further enhance the rainy streets of Kamurocho.
The animation system also sees a boost in fidelity. Character animations now blend smoothly together while general movement feels much weightier than before. As players run around the city, Kiryu naturally moves his hands to avoid colliding with NPCs, while his combat moves exhibit more 'oomph' this time around. The previous games always had a slightly stiff feeling without proper animation blending and layering and that's exactly what Yakuza 6 is attempting to solve.
Animation is further accentuated by a new physics system. Objects placed around the environment now collide and react more realistically with the player's actions. Toss an enemy into filing cabinets and watch as papers flutter through the air. The mix of higher quality animation and a more robust physics engine really gives the combat an extra kick that works really well here.
One other thing that really stood out in this demo is the implementation of surround sound. Rear channels are put to active use and help build a tapestry of sound around the player. Walking through Japanese clubs or lounges and hearing the activity bubble around you in 7.1 adds a lot to the experience here.
However, there are a few issues with the demo that did leave us disappointed. Coming off of the pristine 1080p60 featured in Kiwami, Yakuza 6 feels less refined in terms of image quality and performance. The frame-rate is lowered to 30fps instead of 60 and in this demo at least, 30fps isn't even maintained in many cases. A number of the game's battle sequences average around 25fps while lesser drops are encountered during exploration and cut-scenes.
It would appear that many of these issues are tied to the physics interactions made possible in the new engine. As enemies collide with the scenery and objects go flying every which way, the performance really starts to bog down. Of course, this is still an early build so we're hopeful that these dips could be ironed out for release - but it is disappointing that 30fps is likely to remain the target frame-rate bearing in mind the Kiwami experience.
Beyond that, the resolution drops to 900p (for this early demo at least) while indirect specular lighting operates at an even lower resolution, not unlike Rise of the Tomb Raider. Taken together, we're left with a game that looks much less clean than Yakuza Kiwami - the game with which the demo is included. Clearly these were sacrifices necessary for the development team in order to reach its objectives but at the same time, it does feel a little regressive coming from higher resolutions and faster frame-rates.
Still, despite these concerns, we can't deny that the demo leaves a strong impression. Despite running for ten years, the series has not seen dramatic progress from a technical perspective. Yakuza 6 represents only the second major overhaul in the series and so far, the development team seems to be on the right track. Aside from the technical issues, Yakuza 6 manages to address every gameplay concern we've had with the series. Fully seamless worlds and battles which never steal away control before or after the fight combine with eye catching visuals and a high level of immersion. We'll be keeping an eye on the game when it launches in Japan later this year.