Yakuza: Like A Dragon is the 7th game in the long-running franchise developed by Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio and published by Sega. The game brings a change of pace to the franchise with some key gameplay changes. It distances itself from the stylized beat’em up gameplay that the franchise has been known for. Yakuza: Like A Dragon offers very action-packed turn-based combat that puts it more in the league of a JRPG than an open world beat’em up. Despite this major change, there is still a lot about the game that makes it a quintessential Yakuza game.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon Brings Forward A New Face
Yakuza: Like A Dragon features a departure from the series long-running hero, Kiryu, who has been a fan favorite for many games. A new character is brought to the forefront, Ichiban Kasuga. He is a loveable and goofy Yakuza underling who has a little too much love for the Dragon Quest franchise. Throughout the game, he uses 4th wall breaking jokes to make fun of situations that are happening within the game by relating them to events in Dragon Quest. While some may find that kind of meta-humor annoying, I personally found it very endearing. For what it is worth, I found myself warming up to Ichiban much faster than I did to Kiryu when I started playing the Yakuza franchise.
Ichiban is a fresh step in a new direction, and ultimately I think the risk of a new protagonist was a brilliant step in really separating Like A Dragon from previous Yakuza titles. Ichiban quickly becomes a classic character propelled by his constant empathy for others. He does everything he can to make the world around him better. Nowhere is this is more exemplified than in the side stories. They really show how much he is willing to stick his neck out for people that he barely knows, no matter the consequences to himself. It is a level of empathy that seems lost in our modern world and feels like a breath of fresh air. Most importantly, it makes Ichiban an easy character to love and cheer for. Unlike some of the other more morally complicated characters, you will always find yourself grinning like an idiot from Ichiban’s antics.
Turn-based combat Has Never Felt This Good
Many people, myself included, really raised an eyebrow when it was announced that Yakuza: Like A Dragon would step away from its traditional gameplay. Choosing to go with a turn-based combat system, was met with heavy resistance from longtime fans. However, Yakuza: Like A Dragon has some of the most kinetic, hard-hitting, and hilarious turn-based gameplay that I have seen in a game. For those that are not familiar with the Yakuza franchise, it is undoubtedly one of the weirdest but most charming franchises that have come out of Japan. This is translated perfectly in the combat. The skills you use to vanquish your enemies can range from a simple bat swing to actually slapping an enemy with your fat stacks of yen. There are tons more hilarious moves to discover as you progress through the story and unlock new party members and skills.
There are very few turn-based combat systems that I find appealing or exciting to play. Often they feel too robotic and can ultimately make combat feel more like a chore than something to enjoy. Yakuza: Like A Dragon does not suffer from this due to the wide gameplay variety. The ability to interchange party members in between and during battles means that if your preplanning goes awry then you can rotate in a fresh face. This creates an intense metagame that allows you to take on challenging foes. Even seemingly impossible boss fights can be made almost easy by simply rotating a few party members around.
Another source of variety, as well as giving the player a dose of the game’s signature humor, is from a service called “Poundmates”. Poundmates is a service that the hero Ichiban can use during his turn, to call in a wide variety of characters that can change the course of a battle in your favor almost instantly. This, of course, comes at a financial cost to your party; however, the power of Poundmates cannot be understated. You start the game with only one contact in Poundmates, but as you complete side quests you will earn more allies that you can summon into battle. From an army of crawfish to a very angry sumo wrestler, you have a great variety of options to help yourself in a tough fight. The more you explore the more allies you have, it is a very good reward system for players who spend their time doing more of the side activities within the game.
While Yakuza: Like A Dragon features many JRPG stereotypes, such as summons, skills, and how you manage your party. They find a way to make it uniquely Yakuza by having a big focus on over-the-top action, that will make you excited to grind and fight the game’s plethora of evil Yakuza and goons.
Story Telling in A Meaningful Way
Yakuza: Like A Dragon has no qualms about making light of intense situations or throwing players into absolutely ridiculous scenarios. What makes this game so incredible is its ability to handle the humorous sides of life. It also does an incredible job handling difficult topics, such as suicide, homelessness, internal struggle, and more in a really impactful way. This becomes incredibly apparent during some of the sub-stories within the game. Many side quests often feel like pointless, repetitive fetch quests to gain XP. However, in Yakuza, they use these activities to convey meaningful stories. These help to develop not only your relationship with the protagonist but also the party you travel with. As you increase your relationship with each member of the party, it unlocks their unique side story. What this side story often involves is an informative dialogue between Ichiban and the party member. The conversation options can help boost some of your skills early on while also giving you the important backstory. What this ultimately does, is create a deeper understanding of the characters that you rotate within your party. I found myself quickly becoming more invested in protecting my party members in combat, due to the emotional storytelling that was done through these sub-stories.
The main story is completed across 15 chapters, which send you on a quest for justice and answers. Each chapter adds a new twist, and often you find your enemies quickly become your friends and vice versa The story feels pulled from movies like Hard Boiled, and The Foreigner in the complexity of its character’s motivations starting with an early betrayal which leaves Ichiban almost dead in a dumpster. In many, this betrayal would cause unrelenting anger and bitterness, Ichiban spends the game fighting tooth and nail to reconnect with his betrayer. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the variety of villains with sinister motives. Eventually, you find yourself simply fighting for the people of the city, and the freedom from a corrupt government official from your past.
Though packed with lengthy cutscenes for its main quest, it never feels too over the top in length. Every conversation has meaning and purpose to the story, villains have well thought out motivations to back up their actions. As wild and crazy as Yakuza games can be, Like A Dragon continues the trend of creating a compelling and dark story.
Incredible Performance and Audio
Very often in JRPGs the cast of characters you play with becomes almost like your family by the end. If you are going to spend 80+ hours with a set of characters, they better be likable. Yakuza nails this brilliantly, as Ichiban and his cast of misfits are not only likable, but they are emotionally complex. Making a party of an ex-Yakuza, a disgraced cop, a soapland hostess, and a homeless man the heroes the city deserves is quite the task. However, these characters are brought to life by incredible voice acting performances. Whether you play the game in Japanese with subtitles or decide to play the game dubbed in English, either option will give you an amazing experience from the beginning till the end. It is worth noting that I played the game entirely in Japanese with subs. This is my personal preference for how to play Yakuza games, but you will not lose out on anything if you play the dubbed version of the game.
The music and soundtrack are great. The combat music really throws me back to the styles of old school Pokémon encounters. It adds a sense of action to the game while not being too overly in your face. Meanwhile, sadder and more emotional moments are complemented by subtle music changes. When I mean subtle, I mean you will not notice the change of music until the scene emotionally pulls you into it. With music sometimes if it is not good, and you bring it to the forefront of the game, it can be very jarring. Yakuza seems to really understand this well, with the music setting a tone or mood rather than being an abrasively front and center experience. The collectible and unlockable Sega soundtracks are a really cool throwback full of classic Sega tunes. From Persona and Virtua Fighter to even Daytona USA the variety here is fantastic. It serves as a love letter to Sega fans who grew up with these classic IPs.
An Immersive But Compact World
We are just a few days away from possibly one of the most expansive open worlds ever made with Cyberpunk 2077. However, Yakuza: Like A Dragon does not try to compete with these massive worlds. Being an open-world game allows you to explore multiple unique locations throughout the game. These locations are pack to the brim and full of life. There are tons of restaurants, bars, casinos, and even go-kart racing to occupy your time. The world feels alive with the wandering gangs of enemies and packs of NPC crowds just trying to get through their day. The best part about Yakuza: Like A Dragon is that if you enjoy a side activity you can spend quite a few hours enjoying it and earning bonus rewards from it. No matter what your flavor is, you will be able to find tons of side activities to suck up your time in a surprising and fun way.
Yakuza has a wide variety of activities like for example, Dragon Kart
I would not say the game is a graphical showcase by any means. The game runs incredibly well and looks stunning in comparison to previous Yakuza titles. Characters are incredibly detailed in cutscenes, with some amazing animation work done. This is especially true looking at the lip-syncing and facial expressions. The combination of this attention to detail and the packed world makes Yakuza: Like a Dragon a pleasure to explore and play in. Butter smooth performance and no bugs or glitches make it an absolute treat.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon Is A Brilliantly Executed and Complete JRPG
While the JRPG formula is one that has been practiced and tried for decades. Yakuza: Like A Dragon breathes a breath of fresh air into the genre. With its compelling story, action-focused gameplay, and a world packed to the brim with character. This is undeniably one of the best games I have played in 2020.