Title: Yakuza: Like A Dragon
Available on: PlayStation 4, Playstation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC
Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio
Version Tested: PlayStation 4
Official Site: https://likeadragon.sega.com/home.html
Release Date: November 10, 2020. PlayStation 5 version March 2, 2021
For a while, it seemed as if the Yakuza franchise was all but dead in the West. These shores never got to see many of the spin-offs, and it took Yakuza 5 almost 3 years to make it to the West, an agonizing wait. Thankfully, since then a number of games have released seeing the series grow in popularity outside of Japan. Even my friend’s 5-year-old son plays the series religiously, not that he should.
Bad parenting aside, 2020 sees the release of Yakuza 7, the first title to release here in the same calendar year as Japan, and the first, since the original game, to have an English dub. The West is no longer an afterthought.
Wait Your Turn in Yakuza: Like a Dragon
Dropping the 7 and going as Yakuza: Like a Dragon for its release outside of Japan, the newest game is a departure from what has come before. Kiryu is no more, and gone is the brawling fight system. Instead, the new protagonist Ichiban Kasuga must fight his foes with a turn-based RPG system.
Having played every single Yakuza game (including Japan-only releases) my main questions when tackling this review were, how does it play as a Yakuza title, and how does it play as a JRPG?
The story starts with Ichiban as a low-level Yakuza grunt, who after spending 18 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, gets left for dead and dumped in Yokohama’s fictional Ijincho district. That’s really all there is to know at the start, as to spoil this story would be a shame. As per usual, there are plenty of twists and turns as Like a Dragon reaches its satisfying conclusion, with a story that feels much more grounded, for the most part.
Ichiban himself is a likable character, although he comes across as cockier, and definitely less mature than Kiryu. He does, however, have a heart of gold that he wears on his sleeve. He is also a huge fan of the Dragon Quest series and fancies himself as a bit of a hero, which ties into the new fighting system as he imagines life as an RPG.
It seems as if the developers at Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio are huge fans of Persona 5, as everything seems to be a love letter to that game. As you can see from the screenshots, even the battle menu looks the same. This is no criticism though, as Yakuza: Like a Dragon isn’t a blatant rip-off, it’s a declaration of love. If you were worried about the turn-based combat, fear not, as it is glorious. Everything from an RPG is present and accounted for. The characters can perform a variety of moves on their turn before waiting for the enemy to attack, in what is actually a pretty traditional turn-based RPG.
What is different is how it does it, and just how mad everything is. Selecting an attack is fairly normal, as the character given the command will run up and hit the enemy in the face. Once on the floor, another character may automatically do a follow-up attack, but even if they don’t, attacking with the next character will cause additional damage.
Kick, Punch, It’s All in the Mind
Any items, such as bicycles, or traffic cones that lie between the character and foe, are automatically picked up along the way to inflict some brutal damage. However, any enemies in the way may kick them out and cause damage, ending the turn.
One thing that does shine is the perfect guard mechanism, which is nothing more than a simple button press that reduces the damage taken by an attacking enemy. This has to be timed just right, and as each enemy has different attack patterns and speeds, this always felt fun to get to learn and really helped save me from some game overs in the later stages of the game.
So far, so normal, so let’s talk about the skills, and summons in Like a Dragon. Skills act as the magic and need MP (Mental Points) to use. There is plenty to discover that will inflict damage, heal the party, or cause buffs just as they would in any other game. What I haven’t seen in another game though is a homeless man throwing feed at an enemy causing an army of pigeons to attack, or an enemy breathing on my character giving him a cold that soon spread around my party for negative effects.
It’s all madness, and there is so much to discover and play around with thanks to the job system. At the start, Ichiban and company are unemployed and broke, so they do what anyone would do in that situation and head to the unemployment office. Here, various job roles are available, each with their own set of skills to obtain as they level up. Playing about with these, and finding the perfect skills for any given situation was a joy, even if some grinding is required.
The summons are called “Pound Mates”, these are characters that Ichiban can call on his phone to aid the battle, with a hilariously long (skippable) cutscene showing them damaging the enemies or healing the party. They are fantastic, although they do cost money to summon, and certain pound mates will only work during certain times of the day.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is Madness I Tell You
I’ve only just scratched the surface of insanity here, as listing it all will take forever, as well as spoil a great amount of fun to be had in discovering all the skills and summons that can be found as you progress through Yakuza: Like a Dragon.
The new combat made everything feel fresh, and despite being a huge departure for the series, was great fun. I lost countless hours to it, just wandering around, fighting random battles and trying to fill my Sujimon Index, or Sujidex as it’s known.
This tribute to Pokemon is a bestiary that lists every unique character that Ichiban has encountered, and brings rewards when you start to catch them all. Add the fact that the enemies can be pretty crazy (one enemy just wears a bin bag for example), and the index added a fun new reason to seek out battles, thus increasing my levels as I received XP for my troubles.
The Sujidex is just one of a host of extra things that are available, there is honestly so much to do. So much that I can’t really explain it all. Firstly, the sub-stories return, and they feel like proper, well thought outside missions here in the RPG setting. Sure, they usually culminate with hitting someone to fix the problem, but there are some that evoke a surprising amount of emotion and are not to be missed. As standard, there are also some that are as weird as you’d expect from Yakuza. They all help with the leveling though, which is good as there are some difficulty spikes along the way which will require some long grinding sessions if you aren’t careful.
Mini-games are back, I won’t go through them all, but there are 3 notable additions that I have to mention. The first is Dragon Kart, a Mario Kart style racer that has seen plenty of coverage in the run-up to release. It doesn’t beat Mario, but driving around whilst shooting other racers is a fun distraction, complete with its own story. Once again, hours can be lost to it.
The property management of Yakuza 0 also makes a return, although this time Ichiban is managing businesses and is in charge of hiring and firing, as well as choosing what to invest in, in order to take the company to number 1. This is a huge distraction from the game (in a good way), but it is worth doing as plenty of money can be gained from it, plus who doesn’t love to see a chicken sit in on a board meeting, yelling back at angry shareholders?
Can’t Sleep, Sheep Will Eat Me
Lastly, there’s the cinema based game that tasks Ichiban with staying awake during a movie as sheep try to send him to sleep. They are vanquished with a quick press of the correct button, just make sure not to hit the roosters.
While I absolutely adore the latest Yakuza entry, it’s not without its problems. The Yokohama setting does look lovely, and it was great to explore somewhere new for the most part. The trouble is that it’s a bit too big. Couple that with the fact taxis will only be available if you open the door to them, makes unlocking fast travel locations a bit of a chore. Not to mention they are expensive when money is tight early on. This can lead to a pretty long walk to objectives.
I also noticed a few moments of slowdown, along with frequent loading screens that can distract from the game. I was playing on the PS4 version though, so many of these issues may not be present in the next-gen versions.
The story may also put some players off, or more specifically, how long it takes the game to get going. There are so many cutscenes here, and it takes the game absolutely hours to get going as different mechanics are slowly taught to the player over the course of 10 or so hours. This wasn’t so much of a problem for me, but it may not be for everyone.
I’ve only just scratched the surface of Yakuza: Like a Dragon, and even then I’ve written too much. I don’t think even 10,000 words would be enough to do it justice. I haven’t managed to cover the part-time hero quests, that has Ichiban helping strangers around town, or the Persona style bonds and stat points. There’s just so much to it, and so much to do.
What I would say is this. If you’re a fan of both Yakuza and RPG’s, make sure to pick up this game. So many hours can be spent playing, and despite a few small problems the change in gameplay feels amazing. At the end of it all, you’ll really feel as if you’ve known these characters for years, and getting to know them is a joy, which is why I haven’t spoiled anything or discussed anyone outside of Ichiban.
Just do yourself a favor, go and buy it.
Verdict: Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a brave departure for the series that pays off. A love letter to games like Persona that brings its own unique charm to the table. The English voice cast includes George Takei and does a great job for the most part. It won’t be for everyone, but RPG fans should definitely play this masterpiece.