Monthly Archives: March 2018

Yakuza 6: The Song of Life: Farewell, Kiryu-san, my old friend

My love of Sega’s Yakuza series has been well-documented on this site. If you haven’t read my last blog post on why I think the series is so great  (and, for goodness sake, why not?), you can find it here but the Yakuza games hold a special place in my heart.

First appearing on the PlayStation 2, the Yakuza games chronicle the life of former (but now disgraced) Yakuza, Kazuma Kiryu. I’ve seen Kiryu grow as a character through the series and while in Yakuza 6, he might be a little older (younger foes constantly refer to him as old man before they inevitably get their arses handed to them on a plate), he might have a little more grey around the temples, but he still carries the presence of a Yakuza  (he was Fourth Chairman, after all), despite insisting to people he is just a civilian.

Yakuza 6 (PlayStation 4 only) focuses on Kiryu returning to Kamurocho after spending time in prison for past crimes, hoping to live out the rest of his days in peace in the orphanage he founded,  with Haruka, the young girl he fostered it’s kind of complicated). On his return, he finds that Haruka is missing and while searching for her in Kamurocho, learns she is in a coma after a hit and run – and she has a new born son. Kiryu return to Onomichi Jingaicho in Hiroshima to find out what happened to Haruka.

While it’s not crucial to have played previous Yakuza games before (there is a good video run down in the main menu that will get you up to date) and Yakuza 6 is probably the most accessible of the series, I feel for a series like this it’s always good to have played at least one other game as you’ll be aware of the backstory and have been introduced to keyl characters such as like Makoto Date, Kiryu’s arch-nemesis Goro Majima, and Kiryu’s once best friend Nishikiyama.

While previous Yakuza games tended to stick to the one location, Kamurocho, Yakuza 6 ventures forth to Onomichi Jingaicho in Hiroshima. Having a new location really adds depth to the game’s narrative, and there’s an interesting dynamic on display as a big city Yakuza gets to grips with how things are in the provinces. Like previous Yakuza games, the towns are jammed pack with restaurants, entertainment venues, convenience stores and bars. As is common throughout Japan, there are lots and lots of vending machines in Yakuza 6, too.

 

Combat has always been an important part of the Yakuza series. In earlier games, Kiryu could mix between four different styles, each one different to the other . Things are slightly different in Yakuza 6 (gone are the variety of fighting styles), but ultimately, combat centres around Kiryu building up his  “heat” meter, which he can then activate (with the R2 button) and unleash a variety of punches and kicks with delivers powerful finishing moves. I thought some of the finishes in Yakuza 0 and Kiwami were over-the-top but in Yakuza 6 they take things to a whole new level.

New to Yakuza 6, is the clan battles, which has Kiryu ordering fighters he has recruited to help fight other street gangs. It’s view from the top-down perspective with Kiryu (you) ordering colleagues who to attack. It has a very strategy game feel to it, with different strength units.

Another thing the series has always been known for is its off-the-wall side missions and Yakuza 6 does not disappoint. To be honest,  they’re the type of quests that you’d only find in a Japanese game. Many of them are just head-scratchingly bonkers but they make you smile and don’t feel out-of-place.

One, for example, sees Kiryu dressing up as Onomichi Jingaicho’s  mascot Ono (which has a head of an orange with a bowl of ramen noodles as a hat) because the normal person who played the mascot just didn’t turn up. Another mission sees him having to stop and sing lullabies to Haruka’s baby son – who he is carrying around with him at times  – while he scours Onomichi Jingaicho after hours in search of baby formula. Speaking of babies, a nice touch is that when Kiryu encounters rivals on the street and it initiates a random fight, if he’s holding the baby, there’s a cut scene showing him handing the infant to a bystander before he launches into the fight. It’s those little details that are reasons why I just can’t get enough of Kazuma Kiryu and the Yakuza games.

There will be some who are put off by the off-the-wall side quests and the countless cut scenes with lines of dialogue that help move the story forward, but for me, that’s all part of what makes the series so great. Visually and technically, Yakuza 6 is  the best of the lot with amazing attention to detail when it comes to facial features of characters and the details of the environments. I also like the fat that (apart from the original Yakuza) the audio is Japanese with English subtitles: It just adds even more atmosphere to the game.

Yakuza 6 is said to be the last game of the series featuring Kazuma Kiryu, w hich will be a shame, but what is also a shame is that the Yakuza series isn’t as popular as it should be in the West: It’s a series that deserves more attention from gamers thanks to its deep narrative and strong character development. I can’t recommend the series highly enough but if you’re still on the fence, Sega has released a timed demo of Yakuza 6 that might whet your appetite.

Sayonara, Kiryu-san, it’s been a pleasure knowing you.

Thanks to Five Eight Distribution for the review copy of Yakuza 6: The Song of Life which was redeemed via digital distribution. 

 

 

AKG N60NC noise cancelling headphones: When you want some peace & quiet

 

I have to admit that until I was offered a set of AKG’s N60NC wireless noise cancelling headphones for review, I hadn’t heard of the Austrian manufacturer before. Now, I’m a convert.

Thanks to Mr Google, I now know that AKG is an Austrian acoustics company and manufacturer founded in 1927 by Dr. Rudolf Görike and Ernest Plass, has its headquartered in Vienna, Austria and is now owned by Samsung Electronics through its Harman division (lightbulb moment: Now I know why the earbuds that come with the Samsung Galaxy S9 are “tuned by AKG”)

Comfort is important to me when it comes to headphones (hell, I’m sure I’m not alone in that) and the on-ear N60NCs are comfortable, thanks to a nice amount of foam on the ear cups. They really do cancel out noise, too, handy for when you want to listen to something and not hear the family chattering in the background, or you want to block out office noise (which it does brilliantly).

Pairing to a Bluetooth device, be it laptop or phone, is quick enough thanks to the switch on the right ear cup, and they paired to my MacBook Pro and Samsung’s Galaxy S9 easily. The N60NC build quality oozes quality, right down to the chrome edging around the ear cups and the nice braided 3.5mm audio cable if you like to go old-school and go for wired headphones. There’s also a nice braided USB charge cable.

The N60s folds in on itself to create a tight package and there’s a nice foam carry bag that also houses the USB cable and the audio cable. I think I only used the 3.5mm audio cable once as the headset offers hours of battery life on one charge.

But what is the sound like? Do the AKG N60NCs deliver incredible sound? According to my ears, yes they do. I tested the N60s watching movies off Netflix, playing Yakuza 6 and listening to my Hits of the 80s playlist on Spotify, and the N60NCs delivered every time, throwing back strong bass notes, while handling the mid range with aplomb. Everything just sounded crisp and was a delight. Look, I tried to find something wrong with them but I just couldn’t. I just couldn’t.

In New Zealand, the AKG N60NCs go for between $420 and $499 which, for a decent pair of noise cancelling headphones, doesn’t seem too bad to me, after all you get what you pay for – and with the N60NCs your’re getting top-notch sound and great noise cancelling properties.

Just the ticket for when you want to drown out the world, eh?

Some minutes of me playing Rare’s Sea of Thieves & some initial thoughts

Sea of Thieves is an interesting game.

When it’s played with players that chat amongst themselves so you can co-ordinate who does what in a quest (“Hey, WIbblewobble42*, set the sail angle”,  “Consolegrindr4434*, man the cannons: I see a ship on the horizon!”,  “Oi, F3nd3r B3nD3r3323*, repair the ship!!), it can be super fun and incredibly rewarding, but when players don’t chat amongst themselves and there’s no communication – or you’re taking to the high seas on your own –  it can be a frustrating, often, lonely experience.

Sea of Theives, as it was designed by Rare, is a game that is best played with friends – and friends you know, I’ve decided. If you don’t like MP games and don’t have a good crew with you, it’s a frustrating experience. It looks good, though: I’m playing on my PC via cross-play ( I don’t currently have an active Xbox Live Gold membership which is needed to play Sea of Thieves) and I have to say I’m loving the cartoon-ish art style. The sea, too, is perhaps on of the best looking seas I’ve seen in a video game in a long time, with rolling waves that bounce your ship around.While I’m running an old nVidia GTX660Ti (3Gb of memory) I’m managing a fairly solid 30 frames a second at legendary settings and 1080p. Of course, I could increase the FPS if I drop the resolution.

A couple of times I’ve joined crews and despite me having voice chat – one player confirmed that he could hear me – there was no chat, even though I was talking. I guess not everyone wants to chat in Sea of Thieves but it made for an awkward quest. There was no coordination in what was happening, apart from one guy – the same one who kept on running up to people at the start and saying (in a rather annoying voice) “Do you have a voice box? Do you have a voice box?” – and the in-game chat, which lets you message with generic commands like “Ahoy”, “Man the cannons”, “I’m low on health”, that sort of thing.

Sea of Thieves is best played with a crew because if you’re on your own, when you set sail you have to control everything yourself: You have to check the map, you have to set the sail length and angle, you have to raise the anchor, you have to steer the ship and you have to climb the crow’s nest to get a better view on things. It also means if you’re ship gets damaging or is taking on water, you’ll have to go below decks, grab some planks and plug up the holes before you sink.  If you have several people, it means they can (hopefully) each man one of those stations and co-ordinate a voyage. Sea of Thieves is definitely more fun played with other people.

If you die, you’ll be transported to the Ferry of the Damned, a ghost ship where you’ll stay in limbo (for a few minutes) before you can travel back to your ship. Incidentally, if you get left behind by crew mates or can’t find your ship, a mermaid (seemed to be a merman, actually) will be floating in the sea with a flare: click on him and you’ll be transported back to your ship.

Sea of Thieves has lots of promise and I’ve read online some people compare it to PlayStation’s No Man’s Sky. I think that’s unfair, to be honest. Despite early day hiccups through unexpected demand, Sea of Thieves is doing what it says on the tin: Offering sea-faring adventures to online pirates, even if a lot of the quests seem similar. I’m sure Sea of Thieves will evolve over the coming months, as Rare looks at things and sees how players interact with each other.

Microsoft will be pinning its hopes that Sea of Thieves does well to help bolster its – in my humble opinion – rather light exclusive gaming line-up.

*I had a good play session tonight, with a few online companions. With a good crew, that work together, Sea of Thiives is great fun. I also found that there are more chat options: One guy was giving rather long sentences so I’m guessing you can type using a keyboard if you’re on PC? 

*I made all these names up. I didn’t actually come across anyone with those online names. Any similarities to actual online names is purely coincidental and if they actually exist, wouldn’t that be incredibly amazing on my abilities? Cripes, what  if they were actually playing Sea of Thieves as well? 

Samsung Galaxy S9: Your ears will love you long time

 

A  work colleague proudly proclaimed the other day:  “I’m getting one of those phones that you can unlock by doing this” (she then proceeds to contort her face, screwing up her eyes and mouth)

“I’m just going to do this all day with it,”she said. She pull another funny face, this time screwing her lips up in a bizarre fashion.

I step in, all casual like. “Oh, you mean one of these,?” I say, thrusting the loaner Samsung Galaxy S9 I happened to have with me in the direction of her eyeballs.

“Oh, do the face, do the face!,” she implores.

I look at the phone – with a normal face, mind you –  unlocking the screen with the power of my eyes. I have magical eyes, don’t you know? (Oh, and in fairness, it’s not mandatory that you pull a funny face to unlock the phone: You can just user your normal face. Or a fingerprint. Or an old-fashioned PIN number. It’s up to you)

The Galaxy S9 (RRP $1399. There’s also the S9+ model which adds another two hundy to the price tag) is the latest in the Korean company’s flagship smartphone range – and it’s a beauty, to be honest.

My normal day-to-day phone is a Galaxy S7, and it’s alright, but, sorry S7, the S9 blows it right out of the water – then hoovers up all the charred fragments, popping them in an airtight shoe box before burying said box 50 metres underground, never to see the light of day again.

The S9’s screen is nothing short of breathtaking, at least to me (remember my normal day-to-day phone is an S7), with videos and images vivid and bright, and colours really do pop on the panel. The build quality, as you’d expect from a flagship smart phone, is nothing short of spectacular and it really does look beautiful. As you’d expect with a glossy, metallic back plate, though, you’re going to see those fingerprints so I’d recommend you get a  protective case pretty early on.

Compared to the S8, which came out last year and my teenage son got as a replacement for his Nexus 6P which slowly died, there is little to tell the two handsets apart: From the naked eye the only real cosmetic difference is the placement of rear fingerprint scanner: It’s been shifted across a bit. The S9 isn’t a major revamp of the S8: It’s a refinement of that great phone.

I’m not going to get bogged down by technical specs – you can hunt those down somewhere else – but in terms of features, I’m really liking the People Edge feature (where you swipe from the right to reveal your four favourite phone contacts) and haven’t grown tired of unlocking the phone with my magical eyes. The S9 feels really nice in your hand, too.

Samsung is making a big noise about the camera on the S9, especially the super slo-mo feature, which captures the action at 960 frames a second. The NZ division’s launch that I went to in Auckland a couple of weeks ago had 25 S9s set up in a room to capture 5 seconds of action that was then edited into a video that was played to the crowd. Capture stuff included an S9 dropping into a martini glass, some coloured jellies dropping onto a display with someone dusting it with icing sugar and a dance troop busting some moves. I actually missed most of the 5 seconds shooting so it was good seeing it in short film format.

The S9’s takes great photos (I’ve included some I took here)  but I’m not a professional photographer so I don’t really know a good photo from a better one, to be honest. I m just an average Joe with an average Job  taking photos of average things (the dog, the river near my work building, some sport event I went to last weekend).

The slo-mo is a neat feature, but to be honest, I can’t see myself using it much at all, and the AR Emoji feature (which turns a photo of your into an emoji that you can slap onto photos and the like),  seems a bit of gimmick to me but will probably appeal to the social media generation. 

For me, what it perhaps one of the most impressive features on the S9 that isn’t the most talked about is the audio quality – and the fact that the S9 has two stereo speakers featuring Dolby Atmos sound, something the S7 certainly doesn’t have. That for me – using a word I detest – is a game-changer for the Galaxy S range.

Stereo speakers, obviously, means music sounds fantastic and audio in videos and movies sounds, well, fantastic, too. Just how good?

Phenomenal, actually. Home alone one Thursday night, my teenage son and I blasted out 80s tunes from the likes of Flock of Seagulls, Men at Work, David Bowie, The Clash, Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Toto, REO Speedwagon – and Venga Boys – from the S9 (and his S8: The S9 sounded better, though) and it just sounded magical. It sounded magical. My ears were in heaven!

[Sidenote: Flicking through the sound settings, I noticed there is an option to adapt the sound for music, calls and video with presets for users aged under 30 years old, 30 to 60 years old and over 60 years old. Thanks for thinking of us oldies with “selective” hearing, Samsung.]

Look, if you own an S8, I can’t really see much to gain by upgrading to the S9. Sure you get a better camera and stereo speakers, but the S8 is still a fantastic phone and the differences between the two doesn’t really justify the upgrade. For all intents and purposes, there’s little to differentiate between the S8 & S9. Save it for the S10 (which we all know is already being designed).

However, if you’re upgrading from, say,  an older Galaxy, say an S7, then take the leap, my friend,  without hesitation. It’ll be well worth it – and if  you’re a music lover, your ears will love you long time.

Big thanks to Samsung NZ and its New Zealand PR company Acumen Republic for a loaner of a Samsung Galaxy S9 to review and for flying me up to Auckland (and putting me up in a hotel) for the Galaxy S9 launch. It had blue martinis to drink (not a fan)  and jelly nibbles to munch on. 

Video Wednesday

Note: This was originally planned to be uploaded last night but thanks to some numpty digging through a cable in Sydney, Australia, it impacted on internet in New Zealand, meaning it took hours and hours for the video to actually upload. Things were sorted at 3.30am this morning, apparently.

I’m never going to be a popular YouTuber or Twitch streamer. I’m too old for that sort of thing. I’m an old man, don’t you know?

I don’t have the skills like this young whippersnappers to show-off my gaming chops live to an audience around the world (my ageing old man reflexes means I’d embarrass myself more than anything)  and I don’t have the confidence (or time) to devote to a channel full-time (I have a mortgage to pay off and a trip to Canada with my family later this year to fund).

I’m up with the times, though, and despite having a background in print and online writing, I can foot it with the young players by posting some of my gaming footage on this blog from what I hope will become a regular feature.

The footage will be either console or PC, depending on the game, and it’ll either be something that I’m reviewing at the time or just a game that I’m playing. At the moment I’m making my way through Yakuza 0 (while also playing Yakuza 6: The Song of Life)  but some of the fight finishing moves just lend themselves to videos.

So without further ado, here is a couple of short (ish) videos of Yakuza 0, some hours in where hero Kazuma Kiryu has to take the fight to some enemy yakuza. Enjoy.

Let me know what you think of the video. Is this something you’d be keen to see more of?

NB: I’ll look at posting some Yakuza 6 footage, as well as some of me playing pirate in Rare’s Sea of Thieves (despite not really being a multiplayer gamer and if I can actually find something interesting to do). I’m also hopeful of playing the next God of War game so I’ll definitely post footage of that. If you want me to, of course, dear reader).

Frantics review: Mini-games a plenty

The host of Frantics, The Fox. He cracks a few one-liners but isn’t likely to get a gig on The Chase or Tipping Point anytime soon.

Frantics (PS4),  the latest offering from PlayStation in its Playlink mobile-phone based series, is a selection of 15 mini-games designed to get people who wouldn’t normally play video games – play video games.

You can either play them on your own or – as PlayStation hopes – in party mode, with other people. The games are hosted by The Fox, a game-show styled presenter who will, from time to time, mix things up by calling on a player to do a particular thing. It’s a good way to keep the party atmosphere going and does create some uncertainty on how things will go.

You download the Frantics for PS4 companion app onto your smartphone (either using Google Play or the Apple App Store)  then use it to tilt, swipe, drag and press your way through the mini-games. You use your phone’s camera to take a photo of yourself, which is then displayed in-game.

Winning a mini-game grants you a crown, which becomes one life when you tackled the final mini-game, so the more crowns you have the better your chances of coming out on top as victor. You can also collect coins which can be used to upgrade abilities, which comes in useful.

Most of the mini-games are sports games. In Friendless Runner (an endless running game clone), you use the phone screen to swipe left, right, up and down to avoid obstacles while trying to bump opponents into said obstacles, loosing a heart). It’s fun but might not keep you entertained for too long. A nice touch is when you die during a round (race) you can sabotage a player, lessening their chances of winning.

As a weekend warrior cyclist one of my favourites was Tour de Frantics and there’s a Bomberman-style one and a football/soccer type one and I was impressed by how responsive the phone controls were: They’re simple enough to mean that there’s no confusion while you’re playing the games.

Look, Frantics isn’t going to be for everyone, it’s not ground-breaking and it’s unlikely to hold your attention for long, but it’s a nice addition for people who aren’t into gaming but are keen to game in a party-style environment while using their smartphones.

Yakuza: Heaps of cools stuff in a small area

This blog post is inspired by the great video that Jim Sterling did recently titled Yakuza’s Open World is the Biggest and Bestest. I felt myself nodding to everything he said so I thought I’d jot down my thoughts on the Yakuza series

The PlayStation 4-only Yakuza series’ Kamurocho district – loosely based on the city of Tokyo’s red-light district  Shinjuku  – might be small in size but it’s so densely packed with content that it puts to shame some of video games’ big, open world adventures.

I was first introduced to the action adventure  Yakuza series with Yakuza 2 on the PlayStation 2 and I was instantly captured by the craziness of the game world and the rich, deep narrative centred around main character, rising Yakuza (japanese gangster)  Kazuma Kiryu.

I love the Yakuza series’ open-world exploration mixed with almost over-the-top combat – Kiryu can switch between four fighting styles – but I think for me much of the charm comes from the Japanese audio with english subtitles and sheer craziness. Kiryu is voiced by Japanese actor Takada Kuroda (the original Yakuza had an english voice over actor but I can imagine the game would lose some of its charm) and the voice acting is just full of passion and really adds to the atmosphere.

Years passed and Yakuza fell to the wayside. I played games (a lot of games)  but  in the back of my mind, Yakuza was always there, waiting for me to come back. Last year, I decided it was time to get back into Yakuza and bought Yakuza Kiwami, and on booting it up, I instantly felt like I was home in a gaming world that I was familiar with. A few weeks ago, I bought Yakuza Zero, which takes the story back to the 1980s when Kiryu was a young, up-and-coming Yakuza.

Yakuza’s Kamurocho might be tiny compared to GTA’s Liberty City or Assassin’s Creed’s Egypt, but there’s so much content packed in that small collection of streets that I’m not sure I can go back to an open-world game that takes ages to traverse and has side quests that are just there to extend the lifespan of the game. I’ve visited Japan and visited the famed Akihibara district and Yakuza’s Japan felt familiar and warming, with  locations that seemed like they belonged in the world:  karaoke clubs, bars, noodle joints, convenience stores – and even a Sega arcade.

Yakuza’s side quests also feel as if they belong in the narrative, often quirky, light-hearted diversions from the main story. As he explores Kamurocho, Kiryu might have to pretend he’s a movie producer helping out two film crew workers who have found themselves in a spot of trouble, take a famous fighter around a few restaurants to show him a good time, or chase a variety of hooligans who stole a recently released video game from a small boy.

Even the people Kiryu interacts with have names that will bring a smile to your face: Man with Big Head,  Mr Shakedown (a giant of a man who fights Kiryu then steals his money), Bearded Homeless Man, (wait for it) Hatted Homeless Man and Mystery Man. You save your game at phone boxes, too, you can buy noodles from convenience stores, you can sing karaoke, you can race slot cars. The amount of stuff to do in a tiny world map is incredible. Just incredible.

I’m making my way through Yakuza 0 in anticipation for Yakuza 6, which was released in Japan in December, but is only coming to Western audiences next month. I’ll be trying my darndest to get it completed before I tackle the latest adventure of Kiryu.

Tragically, the Yakuza series hasn’t captured the attention of Western games like I think it should have. I think it’s probably been overlooked by a lot of Western gamers and that’s a shame. It’s a series that has a strong narrative with a likeable main character but not one that has been promoted heavily in our part of the world.

Have you got any games that you just adore but aren’t as popular as you think they should be?

 

 

« Older Entries