Those that are familiar with Ryu Ga Gotoku’s Yakuza series likely are in for a rude awakening. If you haven’t already picked it up, Yakuza: Like a Dragon is in stores now, offering an all new spin on the franchise. Unlike the previous beat ’em up entries, Like a Dragon morphs the series into a Dragon Quest inspired JRPG. Despite the shift in gameplay, this is still very much a Yakuza game at its core. Do the new mechanics work well in this transition? Thankfully, they do for the most part, but not without some sacrifices in the process.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon presents us with a new protagonist. This means saying goodbye to Kazuma Kiryu and saying hello to Ichiban Kasuga. Starting at the beginning of the 21st century, Ichiban serves his Yakuza family, the Arakawa of the Tojo clan, with loyalty and undying passion. Feeling in debt to the patriarch of the family, Ichiban seeks any chance he can to pay it, and it just so happens to fall right in his lap. Accepting a request from the patriarch, Ichiban takes the fall for another clan member for a murder, and ends up in prison for 18 years. Emerging from prison in the year 2019, his goal is to rejoin his Yakuza family, only to find that things have changed since 2001.
Ichiban is quite a different character than Kazuma, but he’s still a great protagonist. He’s a little meat-headed, but he has a heart of gold and his sense of honor is second to none. He’s also a big fan of Dragon Quest, which gives him an overactive imagination, more on that later. Not long after his prison sentence expires, he meets many new faces, friend and foe alike. Being the JRPG fan he is, he starts to form a party of friends, each having their own role on the team. It’s not your typical bunch of RPG heroes, that’s for sure.
You’ll meet characters like Kouichi Adachi, an ex-cop who knows of Ichiban’s innocence. Then there’s Yu Nanba, a homeless ex-nurse that heals Ichiban after he receives a near fatal wound. Not too long after, Saeko Mukouda joins up, bringing a little spice to the team. Over the course of the game, your party can grow, adding a handful of other characters, one of which is entirely optional. We don’t wish to spoil anymore of the party members, so we’ll just leave it at that. Of course, party members won’t be the only friends that join Ichiban on his quest. Completing various substories, you’ll also obtain allies through the Poundmates app, working as the comical summons for the game.
While the game starts in the iconic Kamurocho, it’s not long before players find themselves in the beautiful city of Yokohama. More specifically, the fictional red-light district of Isezaki Ijincho. This city is notably much larger than Kamurocho, but it’s still just as lively and full of things to do. You’ll of course have shops and Sega arcades, but you’ll also have plenty of other distractions. This includes things like fighting “Sujimon” to collect data for a professor, taking photos of Kappa statues, or even collecting Tojo Clan Crests. On top of this, there are plenty of sub stories to find, with many quests that have Ichiban helping people throughout the city. Completing these often give you some pretty good rewards like gear to equip to your party of heroes. The Part-Time Hero requests are especially valuable to complete.
Since Yakuza: Like a Dragon takes inspiration from a JRPG, that falls into the gameplay as well. Using turn-based combat, players will give commands to their party members at their leisure. Interestingly enough, the characters will still be constantly moving, making battles a bit more lively. An example of this would be the various objects in the environment, as attacking an enemy near one allows your character to use these objects in their attack. This isn’t new to the Yakuza series, though it does take a bit of a downgrade here. While it’s great to pick up a bike and pummel your foes, it’s not like slamming an opponent into the hood of a car or using a microwave the defeat them. It’s a small sacrifice of details, but it’s clearly due to the shift in gameplay.
While the environmental components aren’t up to par, we do get a slight replacement with character skills. Some of these attacks can be pretty standard while others get a bit more silly. Examples of this would be like Nanba summoning pigeons to attack foes by scattering beans on them or Saeko using her womanly charms to mess with enemies. Of course, most skills are based on the job your character has, giving us another trope of JRPGs. Each character can take on jobs, quite literally, as they become bodyguards, chefs, musicians and more. These jobs provide clever spins to combat, and playing as each one helps to improve the abilities that come with them.
Players will also have tag team attacks, allowing characters to work together to deal devastating damage. This can be between all party members like Essence of Mayhem, or can even be between specific members by building bonds with them. These bonds also help to earn extra experience for non-active party members. To build them, players will have to spend a lot of time with each character, including battles, or even just casual conversation. At a certain point, these bonds become locked, meaning the player will have to visit a bar to progress a side story with them.
The Survive Bar eventually becomes a hangout for players to utilize in the game, where all the characters can unwind. Not only can you rest up here, but you can also do some gardening, or even karaoke. Yakuza fans will likely be no stranger to the karaoke minigame, but it helps to show more personality of each character here. On top of this, you can also do some gardening here, as well as various other places around the city. Growing fruits, vegetables and flowers will give access to special items, or even various food dishes. Using a timer system, players will be able to fertilize their seeds and come back after a certain amount of time has passed. It feels somewhat like a mobile game, but luckily, the time limits are short.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon also offers a couple bigger features as players progress. One of them is a Mario Kart-like minigame called Dragon Kart, which is actually a lot of fun. Racing around Yokohama can help to earn some pretty sweet rewards while also just enjoying the ride. Interestingly enough, there’s also a management game built into Like a Dragon. At some point, Ichiban will become president of a confection company, where he will have the opportunity to become a big businessman. While it’s far from the JRPG mechanics, this distraction is actually a pretty good use of your time. Not only does it unlock a new party member, but it also earns a lot of money, assuming you do well. It’s also worth it just to get to the shareholder battles, which are pretty amusing.
When it comes to presentation, Yakuza: Like a Dragon is pretty solid. The game itself has a ton of style with the various effects from attacks and events. Aside from this, the music is pretty good too, though the battle theme does get repetitive after some time. This is especially the case if you resort to grinding. As for the graphics, Yakuza games have always done well with their character models, looking fairly realistic in game. Like a Dragon is no different, though it’s pretty clear the animation is starting to show its age. And while characters look good, the environments are also starting to look dated as well. Lower resolution textures and low-poly count models don’t hold up nearly as well as they used to. This is especially disappointing on the Xbox Series X, which doesn’t improve much aside from performance and load times.
As for the voice acting, players will have the option to use Japanese or English voices here. This is the first mainline Yakuza game since the original to feature an English voice cast, and it’s honestly fantastic. Not only is the localization script full of fun interactions and dialogue, but the cast themselves offer great performances too. Kaiji Tang plays Ichiban, helping to make him a lovable goofball with a carefree spirit. Greg Chun also does great as Yu Nanba, giving him another role in the universe after his days in Judgment. We even have an excellent performance from George Takei as Masumi Arakawa, Ichiban’s Yakuza patriarch. A lot of other veteran voice actors join the fray as well, making this an extremely well rounded cast. The English lip-syncing is a huge plus too. If Yakuza games are going to be like this going forward, then I can’t complain.
Getting back to the story, the pacing is a little off due to the lack of focus during the midsection of the game. Things start out fine in Kamurocho, but as Ichiban builds his party up, his own goal diminishes greatly. With several chapters, each of varying lengths, it’s easy to forget your motivation. It’s not until later on in the game where things ramp up and Ichiban’s goal becomes clear again. It’s an interesting gamble, but one that luckily pays off in the end. I will say that some of the “dungeons” could’ve been shorter though, as it would’ve likely helped the pacing here. Though I do suppose this is intentional to continue to parody the JRPG genre, so it’s fitting.
While it’s hard to say if this is the best path for the series to take, Yakuza: Like a Dragon is still a fun departure. It’s silly and dramatic in all the right ways, and the combat is a breath of fresh air. While the story lacks a little focus in some areas, it still manages to stick the landing in the end. Ichiban is a great new character to the series and while his story might not have Kazuma’s legs, I’d love to see more. If you’re a die-hard fan of the Yakuza series, then there’s plenty to love here. Even if you’re not, this is a great place to become one, especially given the standalone nature of this title. With that in mind, joining Ichiban’s heroic journey is an easy choice here.
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