Yakuza: Like a Dragon is the latest entry in the bizarre Yakuza franchise, whose popularity defies every rule publishers have about localizing games. The game’s so intrinsically Japanese that the franchise would give any localization team for their money.
Despite being labeled Yakuza 7 in Japan, Like A Dragon represents a brand new jumping on point for the series. It features all new protagonist Ichiban Kasuga, a new locale as well as a new combat system.
Is Like A Dragon the bold reintroduction to one of gaming’s most hidden gems? Or is its mix of crime melodrama and zany side quests just too much for one game to handle before falling apart at the seams? Read on to find out.
A Legitimately Good Story
As mentioned, you play as all-new protagonist Ichiban Kasuga. A low ranking grunt of the Arakawa family, he owes its patriarch, Arakawa, a massive debt from an incident when he was a kid. He finally gets the chance to pay off that debt when his Captain kills another member of Tojo Clan, of which the Arakawa family is a subsidiary of. Rather than let the Captain go to jail, Ichiban goes in his place, losing much of his youth to an 18-year stint in prison.
When he gets out in the year 2019, though, the world is completely different. Not least of all because he’s now been told that Arakawa sold out the Tojo Clan to their old enemies, the Omi Alliance. When he goes to confirm these details for himself he’s shot by Arakawa, and wakes up in Yokohama days later.
This is just the game’s introduction, mind you. Ichiban is now homeless in Yokohama, where his life was saved by homeless ex-nurse Nanba. He learns about Yokohama’s own gang situation, involving the Chinese and Korean mafia, as well as its own Japanese gang, the Seiryu clan. Now, Ichiban needs to find a way to get his payback while coping with the fact that a man he dedicated so much of his life to has up and betrayed him, and also get a way out of homelessness.
The plot for Like A Dragon is legitimately one of the best stories I’ve experienced this year. It’s got tension, drama and suspense as Ichiban tangles with the three deadly gangs that form the Ijincho Three. Often times I lose out on doing side objectives because so much of this game is cliffhangers, and you’re just rushing to the next quest marker to find out if characters you like will turn out okay.
A Well-Rounded Cast
It also helps that the game has a deeply charming cast of characters, all making up traditionally less savory parts of Japanese society. Nanba and Ichiban are given a roof over their heads by the owner of a brothel, they’re given jobs by the owner of a Soapland (another type of brothel), and one of the small-time antagonists you encounter early on is a campaign called Bleach Japan, that views these people with the same kind of high-nosed judgement many in a hyper-conservative society would.
The appeal of Like A Dragon is all exemplified in Ichiban, the game’s protagonist. He’s a lovable himbo, more muscle than brain with an overly idealistic view of the world shaped by his love of Dragon Quest and his mentor, Arakawa’s old-fashioned Yakuza ideals. Early on in the game we’re shown he cares more about that romanticized view of the Yakuza as defenders of the weak, when he willingly lies to his superiors to avoid taking money from people who need it.
The game handles Ichiban really well because he’s not really one for long speeches. As I said earlier, more muscle than brain. Other characters catch on to his love of Dragon Quest quick, and realize the best way to convince him of something is to put it in RPG terms. On top of that, he’s fleshed out with plenty of fairly mundane character tropes that really tell you how low on the Yakuza ladder he was before he went to prison.
His party members that you pick up on the way are also equally charming, all with their own quirks. You have Adachi, the ex-cop fired for investigating police corruption, homeless ex-nurse Nanba and barmaid Saeko who make up this nice found family trope. The fact that Nanba, Adachi and Ichiban are also well in their 40s and beyond is also a great touch, because they give off just enough of a loser vibe to be endearing.
As I said earlier, Like A Dragon does away with previous Yakuza’s beat-em-up combat. Instead you have a turn-based RPG, all taking place through the Dragon Quest-obsessed Ichiban’s eyes. Characters have jobs that all embody JRPG archetypes, but have names rooted in reality. A great example of this is Nanba, who acts as your mage. He has healing, is your earliest access to elemental magic, and even carries a crooked staff. Rather than call him Mage though, his job is Homeless Guy. That staff? An umbrella.
As a JRPG, Like A Dragon has a lot of features I want to see in future Persona titles. Although it’s a turn-based combat, the encounters still happen in real time, as all characters shuffle and strafe around the streets of Ijincho. This positioning matters, as Ichiban and party can pick up traffic cones and bikes when they start their attack next to them, enhancing their attacks and damage.
Similarly, downed enemies are also vulnerable to bonus attacks, and they get up in real time as well. In this instance, you want to be quick as you mash the game’s attack button to get them before they get back up. Thankfully, the game makes you do the downed attack as long as they were downed when you hit the button, so you won’t have to worry about bad pathfinding robbing you of big damage.
On the enemy’s turn, you have the option to perfect guard attacks by mashing the guard button as you get hit. This makes combat quite an involved experience, as many of these attacks need to be blocked to keep your party alive. The multi hit ones are especially nasty since you’ll need to block each individual hit, but nailing them all makes you feel like Daigo at EVO.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a JRPG without summons. These take the form of “Poundmates”, where Ichiban calls various allies to help him out in a pinch. This is where the game most shows its love for the long-running Yakuza series, with many of the summons being loving throwbacks to past characters.
Rise And Grind
Later on in the game you also get access to a Job Change mechanism, letting your characters change from their unique jobs to more general jobs. These include roles like Chef, Bodyguard and Idol. For the most part, many of the unique jobs are plenty good (Nanba’s fire spells will carry you through a lot of the game) but some of these jobs become must-picks, like Saeko’s “Idol” job. It’s an amazing support, being able to heal a huge chunk off the entire party as well as cast two different debuffs, Silence and Charm.
Now we run into the slight problem with Yakuza, and it’s a problem that’s plagued it long before Like A Dragon: it’s sexism. It’s never overt, but the way Yakuza writes women can often feel outdated. In the case of Like A Dragon, Jobs are gender-locked. The only problem is of the game’s 7 total party members, only 2 of them are women, with one of them being a secret character locked behind a minigame. That means if you want to keep your crew alive, you’re going to have to make one of them lose their unique jobs to get the Idol class.
There’s also just the poor taste of abilities like “Saeko fixes her makeup, boosting her defense”. I get they don’t mean any harm by it, it’s just kind of sad when all the other characters get cool skills like Nanba falling asleep to heal himself or Adachi giving street punks a stern talking to to debuff them, but none of Saeko’s cooler traits like her insanely high alcohol tolerance get any reference in cool skills.
Bonding With Your Party
Similar to Persona, Ichiban can build relationships with his party, boosting their capabilities as a result. These are called D-Links, and after every few fights or so you’ll need to head back to your favorite bar.
Just like Confidants in Persona 5, these D-Links are a progressive story, with new chapters unlocked as you reach new levels of affection. These stories really highlight the bond between the characters, with many of them getting to shine once they get their one-on-one with Ichiban.
It’s a great testament to how solidly the characters are written, since all their stories are really endearing. Adachi’s been sending money to a kid from a case he worked long ago, Nanba accidentally steals a drink from a bar, and Saeko has relationship issues with her twin sister. They’re nothing compared to the threats of the main game, and are hard carried by the characters’ reactions to their situations, rather than some false sense of drama.
Of course, no Yakuza game is complete without its plethora of minigames. There’s the mandatory business manager where Ichiban has to build a business empire out of a humble cracker shop, as well as fully playable versions of Virtua Fighter 5 and Shogi. There’s also exams to boost Ichiban’s stats, as well as everyone’s favorite, the Karaoke.
These all make the game plenty of fun, as you can always put off rescuing someone at gunpoint to go sing a few rounds of Baka Mitai. It’s also currently one of two ways to play Virtua Fighter 5 on the PS4, with the other being playing it in Judgement instead.
Personally, my favorite minigame is a minigame within the business minigame. It’s where you have to go to your shareholders meeting, and it’s a series of quick-time battles where you need to call upon your employees to counter the Shareholders’ complaints with employee retorts. Omelette, a chicken in homage to Yakuza 0’s Nugget, can be brought to this segment, and watching angry shareholders sit back down after being clucked at aggressively is never not entertaining.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon is an absolutely lovely RPG, being not just absurd but genuinely wholesome. It’s also incredibly fun to pitch the game to people as “Persona but if nobody was hot”, as the game borrows enough from its fellow-Sega game to feel like it could improve that series, as well.
From it’s incredible story keeping me on the edge of my seat to its massive world full of fun sidequests, there’s little to complain about this game, even though a normal playthrough of it would take well into 50 + hours.
It’s also a great jumping on point for those new to the series, needing no homework unlike the deceptively-named Kiwami and Kiwami 2. Just be prepared, the game’s pace starts off incredibly slow, with the actual plot of the game starting only about six hours in. If you’re willing to accept that commitment, you’re in for one of the best RPGs released this year.
|Great combat system||Slow starting story|
|Amazing story||You may get tonal whiplash|
Game reviewed on PS4. Review code provided by Sega.