Once considered a cult-hit, the Yakuza series has finally been rising in mainstream gaming popularity as of late, and it’s both refreshing and curious to see the Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio continue to take crazy approaches with the direction of the franchise. Last year we got Judgment and now we have Yakuza: Like A Dragon, which even for a Yakuza game goes completely off the rails.
What Is It?
Yakuza: Like A Dragon is the eighth entry in the Yakuza series (if we’re including Judgment), but it takes a couple steps to really stand out from the rest of the series. The first of which is the fact that the game stars a brand new protagonist, but the second step it takes to stand out is perhaps the biggest and most head-scratching–Yakuza is now an RPG with a turn-based battle system.
Before we dive into that, as stated, Like A Dragon features a new main character in Ichiban Kasuga. He’s a man of humble beginnings as he was born in a soapland–a bathhouse primarily used for acts of prostitution (for those unfamiliar with the Japanese term). A junior member of the Tojo Clan’s Arakawa family since his late teens, Ichiban serves an 18-year prison sentence for a crime he didn’t commit early in the story, hoping it would gain him favor in the family.
When Ichiban gets out, he finds that nobody is waiting for him, and the Japan he once knew has turned upside down when he finds out the Omi Alliance, the rival family of the Tojo Clan, is the top yakuza family in his hometown of Kamurocho. To make matters worse, it seems like not a single person remembers him, including the patriarch of the Arakawa family, Masumi Arakawa, who gave him his blessing in the first place.
Clearly a lot has happened in the 18 years “Ichi” was locked up, and that’s not even going over the fact that the world in the year 2000 is a far cry from what the world was in 2018 when the game takes place.
After an unfortunate and chance encounter with Mr. Arakawa, Ichi eventually wakes up with a bunch of homeless people in Ijincho, and that’s where all the fun begins.
Why Should I Care?
The Yakuza series is known for being as lighthearted as it is serious, and like any JRPG before it, you get as much as you put in. Ichi is far from gaming’s brightest character, especially early on, making the first hour or so in the game right up until you reach Ijincho is hilariously cringey.
Despite all that, you have the entire city at your fingertips and are free to do whatever you want. In addition to following the story’s main path, you can explore most of Ijincho to fill your map out, talk to the locals for various sub-stories, find gangsters to fight, or even play in a Sega-branded arcade. This is all typical open world Yakuza fare.
Like A Dragon‘s open world vibe is one that encourages exploration to make it even more enjoyable. There’s no grand theft auto in the series, so much of your exploration will be on foot. To get around faster, you’ll have to find taxis throughout the map, which act as your quick travel points. You’ll also find restaurants that provide a way to replenish your health or bond with members of your party, and there’s a wealth of minigames to play including a home run derby, a can-collecting minigame, and even a go-kart racing minigame (a first for the series).
Adding incentive to the open world are sub-stories, and these are what really makes the Yakuza games what they are. Yakuza has always featured heavy-hitting stories about family, acceptance, brotherhood, and all that’s “good” in gangster life and they’re all entertaining, but it’s the sub-stories and side content that really give the series its bizarre sense of charm, and Like A Dragon is no different.
Some of the sub-stories are more heartfelt, like the one about a sick little girl in a wheelchair pessimistic about her life expectancy and relating it to the lone persimmon on a tree falling off and possibly ending her life when it does fall off. There’s also the story of a homeless man who gives a friendly kid a handmade bookshelf for his birthday, only to reject it because of his elitist father. Others just get plain weird. One sub-story has you fight a masochist you can’t defeat because he can’t feel pain anymore, and his life changes when he meets a dominatrix. There’s also another one where the circus is in town, and animals keep escaping their cages, forcing you to fight them off–the last part of this sub-story has a chimpanzee escape and take control of an excavator that you also have to fight. There’s just no shortage to the strangeness you’ll come across, and it all keeps the game fresh.
A breath of fresh air is exactly what you’ll need at times too, especially with this entry in the series transitioning to a turn-based combat system. Longtime fans of the series know that there’s no better 3D beat-em-up around, and Yakuza‘s emphasis on eastern culture and martial arts makes it even more appealing. That said, to call the change to a turn-based system drastic would be an understatement, but it’s really a welcome change especially to people that aren’t fond of grindy dungeon crawlers.
The best part about it is the game literally makes fun of various RPG clichés. He doesn’t break the fourth wall or anything, but Ichiban himself frequently says he wants to be a great hero “like the ones in Dragon Quest.” He even finds a great weapon plunged into the ground, and only he can pull it out… except it’s not a greatsword, it’s a bat covered in barbed wire–the Self-Proclaimed Hero’s Bat. Yes, that’s what the weapon is actually called.
Like A Dragon‘s battle system is sort of a cross between the turn-based action of Persona mixed in with some of the more active gameplay timing-based mechanics of the Mario RPGs. While much of the gameplay is you picking options in various menus, there’s often a command you can follow to apply more damage. To give battles even more of a Yakuza feel, when your characters are near interactive objects or surroundings, they’ll be able to use them as weapons or as a way to apply more damage, similar to how garbage cans, motorcycles, and other inanimate objects could be used to aid you in other Yakuza games. Whether it’s timing the press of a button or rapidly tapping a button, it’s all there and straightforward enough for combat to be easy to pick up and play.
While the combat system is pretty intuitive and works for the most part, it isn’t without some issues that can be pretty annoying. Battles start as soon as you run into a group of enemies. That’s completely fine, but the problem is you’ll be doing a lot of running around in the city, and for some reason or another, your party struggles to catch up. That being said, when you go into a turn-based battle and you’re ridiculously far ahead of your party members, when it’s time for them to attack, you have to watch them run to the enemy from whatever far distance they’re in. There’s no way to skip that animation either, though it’s a minor annoyance. The only attacks that can actually be skipped are the “Essence” skills and Poundmates, Yakuza’s version of a typical RPG summon ability, which are mostly hilarious.
A job system adds depth to the combat system, and while the game does a good job segwaying this class system into the story, I can’t say they’re all that useful. Each character in the game is automatically assigned to a job/class exclusive to them, and the curious thing about that is that exclusive job/class is their best one in the game. For example, Hero is the best job/class available to Ichiban, but he’s already at the Hero class from the get go. What’s the point? Aside from learning new battle strategies, there’s really no purpose to switching classes or jobs. It just seems like an excuse to put different attire on each character.
Lack of usefulness for the job system aside, the main thing that brings Like A Dragon down a notch is its pacing. For the most part, the game is easy, but you’ll eventually come across bosses near the endgame that are so ridiculously hard, the only way to really stand a chance against them is by grinding. There was one boss that literally took all my money as I was unable to beat it, and I was forced to grind my way through 30 levels of Yakuza‘s battle arena, and I ended up doing that twice for another boss fight not too long after that gruesome one. I don’t purposely avoid battles and I was more than passively doing sidequests, so the fact that I was challenged this much was pretty surprising. As painful as those fights were, though, it was incredibly satisfying to beat them.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
There’s a lot to like here for both new and old fans of the Yakuza series. For old fans, there’s just enough of a connection to the previous games to keep you invested and for people just getting into the series, Ichiban Kasuga is as new as he is likable, and the game makes for a stellar first foray into the world of Yakuza.
I played the game exclusively on the Xbox Series X, knowing it was already tailor-made for it along with the fact that the PS5 version isn’t due out for another few months. While I wasn’t stymied visually, the game still looks and sounds amazing–the voice acting along with the house soundtrack is terrific. Even more impressive is the fact that the karaoke scenes are sung in English by the voice actors. Quick Resume on the Xbox worked well when it chose to work, as it did freeze on me a couple times upon waking up my Series X. The best thing about playing on Series X, though, was the load times. You know everything is hitting on all cylinders when you don’t even have time to read the tips when available to you as the game loads.
As a fan of the Yakuza series and an even bigger fan of JRPGs, I was floored by how good of a game it ended up being. There’s quite a bit of content in the game too, as it took me around 44 hours to roll credits and it wouldn’t surprise me for a 100% runthrough to take almost as much time. In a year that gave us superb RPGs in Persona 5 Royal, Final Fantasy VII Remake, and Trails of Cold Steel IV, Yakuza: Like a Dragon stands shoulder to shoulder with each of them. The surprise isn’t the fact that it’s one of the best JRPGs this year, it’s the fact that it’s one of the best overall games of the year.