Yakuza: Like a Dragon $59.99
Game title: Yakuza: Like a Dragon
Game description: Ichiban Kasuga, a low-ranking grunt of a low-ranking yakuza family in Tokyo, faces an 18-year prison sentence after taking the fall for a crime he didn't commit. Never losing faith, he loyally serves his time and returns to society to discover that no one was waiting for him on the outside, and his clan has been destroyed by the man he respected most. Ichiban sets out to discover the truth behind his family's betrayal and take his life back, drawing a ragtag group of society’s outcasts to his side: Adachi, a rogue cop, Nanba, a homeless ex-nurse, and Saeko, a hostess on a mission. Together, they are drawn into a conflict brewing beneath the surface in Yokohama and must rise to become the heroes they never expected to be.
I don't got friends, I got family.
The Yakuza franchise has been slowly building a world and mythos over the last twenty years. The story of Kiryu, the Tojo Clan, and Kamurocho spans decades. As such, the developers of Yakuza: Like a Dragon (Yakuza 7 in Japan), had quite a challenge in front of themselves. Not only did they leave the lovable protagonist of the series behind with this new entry, they also left the familiar setting of Kamurocho, and transitioned from the beat ‘em up/brawler gameplay of the series to replace it with turn-based combat, a four-person party, and a job system that works.
While Yakuza: Like a Dragon does leave behind many aspects, it still maintains some relation to the previous games in the series. Our new protagonist, Ichiban Kasuga, is an orphan and member of The Tojo Clan and starts his journey in Kamurocho. He’s also quite capable of holding his own in a fight and has a knack for finding himself in absurd situations, much like Kiryu. While the two share a wealth of similarities, Ichiban is not a simple replacement or recreation of Kiryu. While Kiryu is a Yakuza legend for his skills and exploits over the course of the series, Ichiban wears his emotions on his sleeve and is almost completely unknown. This is in large part to an early event that leaves Ichiban in prison for 18 years, while the world and the entirety of the Yakuza series (save for Zero) pass him by.
That’s where the story begins to pick up steam. Ichiban is thrust into a world that is not only unfamiliar to himself but drastically different from what fans of the series have come to know. The status quo has changed, and there’s no room for Ichiban in it. We’re quickly pulled from Kamurocho (a fictionalized part of Tokyo) to Ijincho (a similarly fictionalized part of Yokohama), a first for the series. Ijincho is larger and more sprawling than other areas in previous Yakuza games, and effectively creates a sense of place. Much like other games in the series, Like a Dragon has an open world that actually feels alive, and as if people are really living in it and spending time. The streets are crowded, traffic can be dangerous, and people react when a fight breaks out between your rag-tag group and the local ruffians and gangs of Ijincho.
And boy, do fights break out often. More so than previous games it feels. Part of that may because upon defeating a mob out in the world, another will respawn to take their place somewhere down the street. And if that happens to be in the direction you’re running, it can begin to feel a little tedious to have to fight multiple times on the same street. There is an auto-battle system that you can utilize to let fights play out without your help, but you can’t guarantee that you’ll get the most efficient or quickest victory with that. Now more than ever before in the series is that a concern.
As mentioned earlier, the combat system of the series has been replaced with JRPG turn-based combat. This is justified and explained away by Ichiban’s ferocious love for the Dragon Quest series, which drastically impacts the way he sees the world, and especially how he sees fights. Part of this change is the addition of a party, which allows three additional companions to join Ichiban in combat for the player to control. Each companion has a unique job, which can be changed freely at Hello Work. The real Government Employment Service Center (the Don Quixote license wasn’t renewed, but somehow, they got Hello Work). Changing jobs is helpful for getting new skills and abilities and to create new strategies for fights. This mostly works, but there is little carryover for skills, and it can take a long time to level up each job. Because of that, it’s hard to know when you should bother changing jobs and which ones are important.
Then comes the somewhat frustrating combat. Enemies and allies don’t take static positions in the world, nor does there seem to be any sort of logic to their positioning at all. Characters walk freely about the combat area, breaking furniture, or kicking street signs. It’s a little bizarre. Causing further frustration is the fact that enemy placement can have a significant impact on execution and strategy. Enemies can opportunistically attack out of sequence to stop a character’s attack from being successfully executed if they run past. You could wait until you have a clear shot, but there’s no telling how long that could take, or if an enemy’s pathing could randomly reverse and thwart your attack. It felt frustrating more than it made me carefully consider and plan my attacks.
My final gripe with the combat has to do with the last quarter of the game, which sees a sharp spike in difficulty that the game does a poor job of preparing you for. Autosaves can save you some measure of pain, but fights can drag out for long periods of time, and surprise one-hit kills can sometimes erase up to an hour of progress near the end. The difficulty spike makes sense in the context of who you’re fighting, compared to your previous opponents, but that doesn’t mean it feels good to play.
The time you spend outside of battles is largely the same as it has been in the series since its inception. You wander around an open world, happening across battles and an embarrassment of substories that will leave you moved, amused, and baffled. As usual, the substories give the developers an excuse to insert all manner of weird mini-games into the series. This time, the most prominent is Dragon Kart, a riff on the go-kart tours that bother so many native Japanese (and Nintendo). Through Dragon Kart, you can meet an assortment of strange characters and watch a dramatic story unfold. While the gameplay of Dragon Kart isn’t exceptional, it is totally serviceable as a vehicle for the game to deliver another series of sub-stories. Importantly, no sub-story felt like a let-down and some even reward you with a Poundmate (the game’s name for summons in combat).
Even without that added reward, the writing in the sub-stories is what fans have come to expect from the series. A story that has Ichiban assisting a young girl soliciting donations, doesn’t feel out of place next to a story about Ichiban helping a hapless Circus Ringleader who can’t keep his animals caged.
This deft weaving between the dramatic and the absurd unsurprisingly carries over into the main narrative as well. It’s a compelling crime story that lives and breathes melodrama with every ounce of its being. And it uses much of its story to address multiple social issues like sex work, homelessness, and even political corruption. All complex issues, that the game doesn’t claim to have a solution or even an answer to, but through its narrative humanizes many people that society often looks down on, if it even looks at them at all. It does this all while being genuinely funny, over the top and occasionally fantastical.
One way the game stumbles, however, is the way it characterizes these groups outside of the narrative. Referring to homeless enemies as things like “Hungry-Hungry Homeless.” I can’t say whether that was a localization choice or if that was the intended method of naming, but it’s punching down from a game that usually attempts to raise those same people up and humanize them. But these issues don’t feel malicious, more like attempts to lean into the absurd nature of the game that was somewhat careless.
The game also has one party member that is 100% inconsequential to the story. While the character in question is optional, she may as well not exist outside of combat and the sub-story she is a part of. It would be nice if the game recognized that she had been an important member of my party and gave her even just a handful of lines and presence in the narrative or cutscenes. Instead, she feels like a character added by Gameshark.
On PC, the game looks mostly good if you don’t pay special attention to signage in the game. Textures around the world, on things like street signs, which are a little low res even at the highest settings on PC, but it doesn’t really detract from the experience. My gut reaction is to say that Yakuza 6 looked better, even playing on a PS4, but I didn’t bother to check because, either way, it looks perfectly fine for the experience.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon is a fantastic evolution of the Yakuza franchise, that continues the themes of previous games, while also carving out its own path forward for the franchise. There are some missteps that have come along with the changes that the Ryu Ga Gotoku studio made but they are not enough to detract from the fantastic story being told. And those missteps bring along new ideas that serve to freshen up a series that had maintained a rather steady formula for the past 15 years. Whether you’ve been following Kiryu from his earliest adventures on the Playstation 2, or have never touched a Yakuza game before, you’ll find something to pull you in and keep you moving through the story.
- New turn-based battle system.
- A compelling and moving narrative
- Lots of interesting side content
- Poorly balanced last act
- Some party members are underutilized
- The new combat system has annoying quirks.