Questing Like A Dragon
Yakuza: Like A Dragon marks a significant departure for the franchise. The seventh mainline game in Ryū ga Gotoku Studio’s underworld adventure series, it eschews its predecessors’ beat-’em-up action in favor of a turn-based battle system that completely changes the combat flow. This fresh approach to its bare-knuckle brawls, combined with a brand-new protagonist to play as and city to explore, comes together to deliver an exciting adventure that succeeds in breathing new life into a series that was admittedly starting to go a bit stale in recent years.
To The Heroes Of Tomorrow
Ichiban Kasuga, the game’s protagonist, was easily one of my favorite things about Yakuza: Like A Dragon. In sharp contrast to the ever-stoic Kazuma Kiryu, he’s a wild-haired goofball who loves Dragon Quest and always wants to do the right thing. Whether it’s returning money to kids who were scammed into buying bestiality porn or refusing to collect from those he’s been ordered shake-down, he regularly puts himself in great peril to protect the locals of Kamurocho – much to the chagrin of his family’s leadership. As you can imagine, this makes him a less-than-stellar member of Japan’s criminal underworld. Despite his questionable judgment, Ichiban’s loyalty to his beloved patriarch, Masumi Arakawa, is unquestionable.
Early in Yakuza: Like A Dragon’s story, Ichiban takes the blame for a murder he didn’t commit and serves an eighteen-year prison sentence. When he finally leaves prison a free man, he returns to Kamurocho to find things have changed. The Tojo Clan, which he once served, has vanished from the city, and their rivals, the Omi Alliance, now control the entire territory. Seeking answers, Ichiban confronts his former patriarch and gets a bullet in his chest for his troubles. After this surprising act of betrayal, he awakens in a trash heap in Yokohama, where he becomes entangled in a bitter turf war between three shadowy criminal organizations.
If this all sounds very familiar, that’s understandable. Yakuza: Like A Dragon’s setup draws close parallels to earlier entries in the series. However, that’s not to say it’s not full of surprises. After all, this is Ryū ga Gotoku Studio we’re talking about. The game’s story features all the intrigue and plot twists fans would expect, where nothing is as it seems, and shocking revelations await around every corner.
Mastering A New Technique
When it comes to its combat, Yakuza: Like A Dragon has much more in common with JRPGs like Persona and Final Fantasy than it does its forebearers. Brawls unfold in turn-based fashion, where you’ll be able to choose attacks, use items, or unleash devastating special abilities that function like spells in traditional role-playing games. Mind you, it’s not the most ambitious system out there, but it gets the job done. You can exploit enemies’ elemental weaknesses to deal extra damage or pummel them while they’re down for a critical hit. Additionally, pressing the circle button just as an enemy strike connects allows you to perform a Perfect Defend, mitigating the damage you receive.
Poundmates are perhaps the most entertaining aspect of the game’s combat system. Like Final Fantasy‘s summons, these are characters you unlock through sidequests, which, once unleashed, can turn the tides of the fiercest battles with their incredible power. So if you’ve ever wanted to rain down a hail of murderous crayfish on your foes or devastate your opponents with the force of a diaper-clad Yakuza boss’s tantrum, this game has you covered. Also, you’re pretty weird. We should grab a beer sometime. Cool?
Overall, I think this change of pace is one of the best things to happen to the Yakuza series. As someone who’s a diehard beat-’em-up fan, I don’t say that lightly. There’s just something special about nailing that last-second healing spell before a boss unleashes an attack that would have wiped out your entire party or planning the best strategy for a grueling, 15-minute boss brawl that I can’t get enough of. Honestly, after experiencing Yakuza: Like A Dragon‘s more tactical combat system, I’m not sure I ever want the series to return to its beat-’em-up roots. It’s just that refreshing.
Get a Job, Ya Bum
A short while into the story, you’ll be able to visit the Hello-Work employment office to change your party members’ jobs. There are 19 jobs to choose from, and these can significantly impact how Ichiban and his motley crew of miscreants perform in battle.
For example, one of my party members, Nanba, began the game as a humble homeless man. What he lacked in safe and permanent housing, he made up for with his unique ability to summon flocks of pigeons to peck apart his enemies or poison them with his halitosis-tinged breath. When I found his birdly beatdowns were becoming less and less effective, I decided to switch his job to Breakdancer instead. I initially regretted my decision, as his stylish kicks didn’t pack the punch of my Rank 7 hobo’s umbrella. Thankfully, with a bit of grit (and lots of grinding), he became a veritable force of destruction with his punishing windmill kicks that could topple entire gangs of punks with their AOE damage.
Likewise, when I felt Nanba’s limited healing abilities weren’t getting the job done, I trained my party’s bartender Saeko as an idol who could heal my entire party with her inspirational songs. I had a blast experimenting with all of the various jobs in the game. Though I admit, it did get a bit tiresome having to dump tons of money into buying new equipment for each character every time I did so, as their starting weapons were always useless at that point in the story. Still, grinding for levels and gear is all part of the RPG experience. And to that end, it’s hard to knock Yakuza: Like A Dragon for sticking to its vision of delivering a true JRPG.
A Welcome Change Of Scenery
While Ichiban and his allies will visit a handful of familiar places during their journey, the lion’s share of Yakuza: Like A Dragon takes place in Yokohoma’s Isezaki Ijincho district. This new setting is massive. Easily several times larger than the series’ iconic location of Kamurocho, it’s a town as colorful as its diverse criminal element, filled with interesting characters to meet, sidequests to undertake, and activities to enjoy.
Series staples such as karaoke, darts, shogi, and the batting cages (to name a few) are once again available, and they’re as fun as ever. But they’re just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. You can hit the streets for some zippy Dragon Karting, channel your inner transient and collect discarded cans from the comfort of a sweet trash collection bike, and even guide a struggling cracker company from financial ruin to the pride of Isezaki Ijincho.
In addition to these activities, Yakuza: Like A Dragon also introduces a new Friendship mechanic similar to Persona‘s Social Link System. By choosing to hang out with your party members, your bonds can increase. As your relationship grows, you’ll learn more of their backstory while unlocking new Team Attack abilities and skills. Again, it’s really cool stuff. I found myself wanting to spend as much time as I could with my comrades to learn more about them and unlock their full potential.
As you’d expect, the game also features casinos with slot machines and Club SEGA amusement centers where you can play a selection of classic arcade games and crane machines. Unfortunately, I could not test these features, as they weren’t accessible in my review build because they’re part of a Day-1 patch.
Year Of The Dragon
Yakuza: Like A Dragon is is an excellent game, but it’s not without its share of issues. One of the most glaring of these is its questionable pathfinding, which can cause some frustrating situations. In one extreme example, a hoodlum I was fighting became trapped behind a piece of playground equipment. I was eventually able to bring him down, but only after spending roughly five minutes watching as Ichiban and his allies clumsily bumped into a swing set before finally landing a lucky hit. The game also sports a very tedious dungeon about midway through the story. It feels like it goes on forever. To make matters worse, you’ll need to revisit this dreary labyrinth a few times if you want to complete your Pokemon-inspired Sujidex or collect some of the game’s rarest crafting materials.
No doubt about it, SEGA took some considerable risks when they decided to change their established formula so radically for Yakuza: Like A Dragon. But in the end, I think the gamble paid off. Ryū ga Gotoku Studio’s latest offering may not pack the punchy, moment to moment gameplay of its predecessors. Still, it makes up for that with its more in-depth brawls, an engaging job system, and a story that focuses not just on a single protagonist but on several compelling heroes with their own complex motivations. While beat-’em-up fanatics may find this change in direction blasphemous, I couldn’t be happier. If you’re a Yakuza fan who loves JRPGs, adding this underworld epic to your PS4 library is a no-brainer.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PS4 (reviewed); Xbox One, Xbox X|S, PC; Publisher: SEGA; Developer: SEGA, Ryū ga Gotoku Studio; Players: 1; Released: November 10, 2020; MSRP: $59.99
Editor’s note: The publisher provided a review copy to Hey Poor Player.