The Yakuza series has seen seven mainline entries over two decades. If including several spin-offs, a visit to the feudal era, and an adventure against the undead, I think Yakuza: Like a Dragon is the wackiest iteration in the series so far. Yakuza 6: The Song of Life saw long-time protagonist Kazuma Kiryu leave the world of organized crime behind and Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio closed the chapter on one of the most selfless characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing as. Many fans of the series could only postulate where the next game could take place and who would lead the series going forward.
Thankfully, with the new protagonist revealed to be Ichiban Kasuga, I feel fairly confident that the series is in good hands thanks to the wonderfully wacky adventure Yakuza: Like a Dragon presents. By doing away with many familiar conventions of previous entries, Like a Dragon offers an experience that is self-aware and goofy and delightful to play. While many games in the series towline noir moments with over the top scenarios that include fending off a group of grown men wearing diapers, a Michael Jackson lookalike, and buying an adult magazine for a kid, Yakuza: Like a Dragon goes even further beyond.
Fight like a Dragon
Poor Kasuga Ichiban is sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit to cover for his family’s patriarch. In 2019, Kasuga is released from his sentence and returns to discover no one remembers him. In the opening hours of Like a Dragon, we get a ton of expose to help flesh out his character and see that even though he’s a bit naïve, he’s got a heart of gold and is always willing to do the right thing. After being betrayed by the Arakawa family and being left for dead, we wind up in Yokohama, a new city for the series and one that’s as much a character as anyone else. And with the help of new characters Koichi Adachi, Yu Nanba, and Saeko Mukouda, the foursome work together to uncover the truth behind the Arakawa’s betrayal.
All four characters end up being extremely likeable. Koichi Adachi is a former detective, Yu Nanba is a disgraced doctor who helps the community, and Saeko Mukouda is a cabaret hostess that who haphazardly meets Ichiban Kasuga. Together the four heroes work together and battle street thugs in a combat system that is an homage to the Dragon Quest series.
Like a Dragon excels at bringing new players to the fold, while trying to appear veterans of the series by introducing a new battle system, shifting from the tried and true brawler mechanics the series has been known for. Growing up, Kasuga was enamoured with the Dragon Quest series and this plays into the new combat system which sees our hero imagine brawls become full-fledged RPG battles in his mind – this is what we see when exploration turns into combat. Along the way, we see homages to other series, including Pokémon and even Final Fantasy.
Turn-based Yakuza works
And as it were, the shift works! In battle, your party has the ability to attack, defend, use items, and even utilize unique abilities. Characters circle the battlefield waiting to attack, and parrying at the right time will lessen incoming damage. My favourite thing though is watching how rambunctious each character’s unique skills play out. And to make things even wackier, Yakuza: Like a Dragon includes a job system and key traits are dictated by your chosen profession. The thing is though, while I enjoyed cycling through the various jobs, they only begin to shine after heavily investing in each respectable job. You can choose to be Dancer, Fortune teller, Riot Officer, or an Idol (available to females only). And in order to use them, you need to fulfil certain conditions before using them and heading over to the Hello Work office to select the job you desire.
Don’t think you’ll only be facing off against enemies in Yakuza: Like a Dragon. You’ll also have new minigames to keep you entertained including Dragon Kart, a racing game set on a course in the streets of Yokosuka. If you prefer PachiSlots, several versions are available in parlours around the city. There’s even a rhythm game set with a movie theatre and the objective is to keep Kasuga awake or risk falling asleep. Oh, and fan favourites like darts, mahjong, shoji, and SEGA arcades return, so if you prefer familiar minigames, those are here, too.
Rounding off the list of features is something you’ll know well if you’ve ever played a Persona game. Instead of social links, you’ll establish bonds with your team. To build bonds, you’ll need to battle with your friends, enjoy a meal together and play minigames. In doing that and deepening your bonds, your ally’s abilities grow in battle, allowing them to learn new skills, new jobs and even learning more about your allies. Through side stories, your party opens up to Kasuga, leading to powerful cooperative attacks.
What excites me the most about Yakuza: Like a Dragon is Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio taking the modern-day setting and mixing familiar genres together. We’ve seen video games incorporate the modern world several times but not like this and not nearly as exciting as it is presented here. With so many activities to keep you busy, minigames to keep you distracted, and the option to learn more about your allies, while there is some grinding spread throughout the game, the battle system works in favour to keep things flowing.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a bold departure for the series because it shifts from brawler to a JRPG. Engaging characters and an interesting narrative hold the entire game together though and while the RPG mechanics be grating for some players, there’s room for improvement and I’d like to see another attempt at nailing the format. If anything, Like a Dragon, should be applauded for attempting so far out of the left field and introducing something the series has never really seen before. Everything I love about the Yakuza series is here: melodrama, wackiness, and excellent story beats. I can’t think of a more perfect protagonist to help navigate the series going forward, with him, the developers are free to experiment with the formula and try new things.
[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.]