Review – Yakuza: Like a Dragon
After seven fantastic games, Kiryu’s saga had finally come to an end with the release of 2018’s Yakuza 6: The Song of Life. We were all curious to find out what Sega would do next with arguably its most important gaming franchise at the moment, as Sonic has been relegated to pure, absolute mediocrity at this point. What would Yakuza be without Kiryu? Would it be possible to go on without him? Last year’s Judgment felt like an experiment to see if no Kiryu would work in a Yakuza setting. However, despite being as good as any other game in the franchise, it felt more like a spinoff, not a true sequel. Yakuza: Like a Dragon, on the other hand, is a completely different case…
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio’s proposal for a proper Yakuza sequel with no Kiryu. It’s a completely new saga, with brand new characters, but also the return of countless dudes and dudettes who have captivated our hearts over the past fifteen years. Moreover, the developers decided to ditch the series’ then-staple beat ’em up combat system in favor of something completely new, and completely nuts: a turn-based JRPG, in a move I like to call “the reverse Final Fantasy“. It’s a bold strategy, folks. Let’s see it if pays off for ’em.
Like a Dragon‘s new protagonist is amateur gangster (and certified loser), Ichiban Kasuga. The game starts off in the year 2000, with Ichiban working for yet another crime family under Kamurocho’s Tojo Clan, living life as usual. Some shady crap ensues and in order to protect his clan’s members from an imminent turf war, he volunteers to serve time in jail for the next nineteen years. Which has him missing out on pretty much every single Yakuza story released up to that point. He leaves jail as clueless as before. After trying to reconnect with some old faces, as well as finding out about some brand new and very harsh truths, he ends up in Yokohama. Here he gradually meets a roster of new characters, and quickly becomes entangled on something big and occasionally epic.
You read that right. Despite being able to explore Kamurocho in its entirety, as well as Osaka’s Sotenbori district (the one from Yakuza 0), Yakuza: Like a Dragon is mainly set in a brand new city, Yokohama. What a better way to showcase that your series is undergoing a brand new start than changing its setting? The thing is, Kamurocho is way too iconic to be ditched altogether. I know that red light district like the back of my hand, being able to traverse it without the need of a minimap and I know where all the stores are, I know the name of every single street by heart. I grew to love that dumpster of a place, so I was skeptical about relegating it to a secondary area to explore.
But I guess I shouldn’t have doubted the folks at Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio. The brand new Yokohama setting is incredible. Not only is the map way larger than Kamurocho, but it’s filled with interesting neighborhoods, landmarks, and most importantly, things to see and do. You have your staple Sega arcades, cabarets, and casino parlors found in the other installments. However, Yokohama also features movie theaters, business simulators, golf courses, and shady mahjong clubs. It even has a Kumon-esque vocational school that rewards you with progression points if you partake on test-based exams about real-world trivia, maths, and even your knowledge on other Sega franchises like Panzer Dragoon or Valkyria Chronicles! I did a math exam in a video game and had fun while doing so…
Just like in real life, a city isn’t anything without the people that inhabit it. The citizens of Yokohama are the reason this place is so endearing. You’ll meet all sorts of unusual human beings, from shady bartenders, masochists who can’t feel pain, businessmen wearing a Viewfiful Joe-inspired helmet, middle-aged strippers, an American tourist, a washed up Korean actor, and many more. You’ll also meet the head honchos from each of Yokohama’s main crime syndicates: the secretive Korean family Geomijul, the Chinese syndicate Liumang, and the more traditional yakuza syndicate featured in here, the Seiryu Clan. They all have their own agenda and motivations, which will eventually tie to the game’s overall plot.
All of this won’t matter at all if the main protagonist isn’t someone as engaging as you would expect from a Yakuza protagonist. We’ve seen our fair share of boring playable characters in the past, such as Yakuza 4‘s Tanimura, but Kiryu was still featured in some way, making us ignore the boring bits while looking forward to the good ones.
Don’t worry about the lack of Kiryu or Majima as playable protagonists in Yakuza: Like a Dragon. Ichiban is a phenomenal character, being equally dumb, naive, brave, and mischievous. He is ridiculously likable, starting out as a middle-aged loser who daydreams about becoming a Dragon Quest hero and eventually becoming a fully developed badass who fights for relatable causes. Dare I say, his optimism and charisma won me over so quickly that I don’t even know if Kiryu is my favorite protagonist anymore. He is just that well-written. Other playable characters, such as the driving instructor Adachi and homeless bum Nanba, are also very likable. As expected, they are all backed by phenomenal Japanese voice acting. There is also an option for English voice acting, but the less I think about it, the better.
So we’ve got a great story, a great setting, a great character, and a great supporting cast. But what about the gameplay? As previously mentioned, Yakuza: Like a Dragon features a brand new, turn-based JRPG combat system, a total deviation from the series’ beat ’em up roots. I was worried that the game would feel way too different as a result. I feared the brand new combat system would bore me. It didn’t. In fact, it was a genius move. It works like a charm.
The Yakuza franchise has always featured RPG elements, so the transition ended up being smoother than expected. This system works because your protagonists, at least at first, are a bunch of losers, fighting with makeshift weaponry, such as an umbrella or a plank of wood. It also lets you control a bunch of people at once, instead of just one character at a time. The combat system is equally complex and easy to learn. You will quickly learn how to use all of its features to your advantage.
This is a love letter to JRPGs in general. Not only because Ichiban can’t shut up about Dragon Quest, but also because it seamlessly mixes elements from different classics of the genre, creating a unique beast of its own. The UI and turn-based system are inspired by Persona 5. The overworld enemy placement, as well as everyone’s movement during battle, comes from Chrono Trigger. The “summons”, called Poundmates in here, are obviously inspired by old-school Final Fantasy. The job system comes from Final Fantasy Tactics. The equipment system is the same featured in Dragon Quest. Finally, the button prompts that show up whenever you choose a special attack are a nod to Paper Mario.
This combat system is just downright excellent. There is a lot of room for experimentation, since each character has a handful of jobs at their disposal. You can learn new moves by leveling up your normal stats, or by leveling up your job rank. You can also buy new “weapons” at select stores, such as a french boutique, a Chinese smuggler, or a red light district sex shop. Finally, you can collect materials and ask for a mechanic to turn them into brand new weapons, which can be further enhanced if you bring in even more materials. You can even take that girl on a date eventually. It has nothing to do with the combat system, but I figured it would be important to point that out, since this game is just absolutely packed with side content.
This is a Yakuza game, so expect around two to three times as much side content than the actual story mode included in here. You can do it all. Want to play some classic Sega arcades? Just go to your near arcade parlor and play some Virtua Fighter 2, Hang-On or Fantasy Zone. Do you want to race around in go-karts? There is an entire side mode called Dragon Kart, which lets you do exactly that. What about turning a small confection shop into a legit business empire, in a business simulator as detailed as the one I had to deal with while studying in business school? You can waste hours in that mode alone, and yes, you can still hire a chicken as one of your staff members, just like in Yakuza 0.
Sidequests are everywhere and just like in any other game in the franchise, they are as nonsensical and ridiculous as ever. Most of them revolve around a colorful and comedic character, and completing each sidequest will reward you with cash, experience points, and most importantly, new “summons” for you to use in battle. These summons range from some B-tier Yakuza characters like Gary Buster Holmes, to a poisonous crawfish. The summon cutscenes are long and absolutely ridiculous, just like they should.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is absolutely fantastic, but it does have an issue or two. Just like I mentioned in my DIRT 5 review, this is a next-gen game running on dated hardware. The Dragon Engine offers some ridiculously detailed environments and a world without loading screens, but at the cost of a ton of processing and graphical power. This game struggles to maintain 30fps as a result. It does manage to achieve its target performance most of the time, but the framerate does tank when the action gets too hectic onscreen. This was a bit of a dealbreaker in Yakuza 6, Kiwami 2, and Judgment, but the turn-based combat makes the framerate drops feel less egregious as a result.
I’d say that the first few hours are going to be a patience test for those who aren’t accustomed to playing JRPGs. The first two chapters are incredibly important to the game’s overall plot, but they are long and at times, a bit uninteresting. I wouldn’t exactly call that an issue per se, but you need to be aware that if you’re one of those players who can’t stand a slow burn, you might feel annoyed with Yakuza: Like a Dragon at first. I do suggest trying to stick with it, though. It is worth the time investment.
Finally, there is one thing newcomers might want to know before deciding to tackle Yakuza: Like a Dragon. Despite being called Yakuza 7 in Japan, you don’t exactly need to have played all previous games to understand what is going on. This isn’t a reboot, but it can basically be called a brand new starting point for the series, so everyone is (mostly) coming in without knowing what the hell is going on. With that being said, the game assumes that you, at the very least, know who the Tojo Clan and the Omi Alliance are and if you don’t, they’re a Wiki page away.
Give it up to Sega and Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio for actually making the impossible work like a charm. Yakuza: Like a Dragon is more than just a great transition to a brand new JRPG environment. It might as well be one of the best Yakuza games ever made, and one of the best JRPGs I’ve played in years. Once you get rid of an admittedly slow start, you’ll be greeted a fantastic story, great combat system, relatable characters, and a ludicrous, borderline insane amount of content.
The Dragon Engine is being pushed to its absolute limits, with even larger environments and ridiculous set pieces. The framerate is still occasionally faulty, but given the fact this is now a turn-based JRPG, it’s not as irritating as before.
Changing the overall combat system to a turn-based RPG one was bold, but it works like a charm. It’s a deeply complex battle system, but not complicated enough that you won’t be able to figure things out quickly.
As expected from a Yakuza game, the soundtrack is catchy, and the Japanese voice acting is superb, you don’t even need to understand the language to notice its quality. There is an option for English voice acting, but it’s nowhere near as endearing.
Fun Factor: 9.5
The first couple of chapters might be a bit slow, but they’re crucial to the game’s overall plot. Once you beat these two initial chapters, you’ll be greeted with one of the best JRPGs ever conceived, with a fantastic story, great combat system, relatable characters, and a ludicrous, borderline insane amount of content.
Final Verdict: 9.0
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is available now on PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X and PC.
Reviewed on PS4.