SEGA’s long-running Yakuza series gets a new coat of paint in Like a Dragon, with a new hero, new city, redesigned combat and… kart racing!
Now about to hit its 15th anniversary, the Yakuza game franchise has, for the most part, stuck to a tried and tested overall design, with familiar characters and an epic story centred on yakuza clan member Kazuma Kiryu stretching across multiple years and games. There’s been a sense, though, that developer Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio has been getting more and more eager to try something new. The tricky part is, of course, to expand the world and gameplay of the Yakuza games while keeping the series feeling fresh for veterans and accessible to newcomers.
Last year’s series spinoff Judgment may have been a sign that the studio was looking for new ways to approach their much-loved game world, and its detective story theme coupled with familiar locations made for a hugely immersive (and often very funny) game – and as a standalone spinoff, it was a welcoming pick-up-and-play title, no story background required.
That’s once again the case with Like a Dragon, despite this one being an official instalment in the ongoing main Yakuza series. This time, we have a brand-new protagonist in Ichiban Kasuga, a wide-eyed, well-meaning and somewhat terrified man with a lifelong Dragon Quest obsession who’s just been released from prison after serving nearly two decades for a murder he didn’t commit, an act of loyalty to his clan boss. Upon his release, Ichi (as he’s more frequently called) tries to reconnect with his family – only to find himself exiled to Isezaki Ijincho, a fictional region of Yokohama and the new location for this game.
“…this could be the only game where you can face off against a team of adult men in diapers, because of course you do!”
That change of scenery is immediately refreshing – while the chaotic streets and neon lights of Kamurocho have served the series well, it was almost on the verge of wearing out its welcome, especially when also leveraged for spinoffs. The new main location (once again fictional, but based on a real Yokohama district) has a different tone and flavour that feels like a breath of fresh air and welcomes exploration.
But the biggest change of all is in the very design of the game itself, with the action combat of previous games swapped out for a turn-based system, and the overarching game being built around RPG mechanics. That’s a huge gamble for a franchise that has spent many years honing its fast, flashy and often downright action combat, and there’s likely to be more than a few who see the words “turn-based” and shudder at the thought of the action being slowed down or combat being turned into a serious strategic puzzle.
Of course, this is a Yakuza game, so fear not – there’s plenty of fun to be had with the combat in Like a Dragon, not least because the turn-based design is augmented by a few bonus shiny things that help keep the action level high and the player feeling powerful. While you may now be selecting your attacks and defences from a growing list of abilities that looks and feels vaguely similar in design to Persona 5, as you execute those abilities, you’re often given the chance to do special attacks, usually via a bit of timely button-mashing. The animations during fights are as flamboyant as always, as are the enemies – this could be the only game where you can face off against a team of adult men in diapers, because of course you do!
Sitting atop the RPG stats system is an interesting social mechanic for Ichi as well. Early on, you’re given a choice about whether to help a drunken woman who’s fallen off a bar stool, or to tell her off. What you decide determines whether you get points in Ichi’s personal stats that help him socially or, as the game puts it, “make him the best man he can be.” With the usual dense story and numerous character interactions packed in over a 40-odd hour play time, those traits can come in handy – but also help reinforce the RPG feel that the game is trying to move toward.
As with so many RPGs, though, there can be too much of a good thing. In the case of Like a Dragon, that comes in the form of the game’s “dungeons”, which have a decidedly old-school design about them (enemies just standing around waiting to be fought) and are way too long. Bosses often have little more than a hefty health bar as their difficulty, something that’s becoming all too common in all forms of RPG lately. While nobody’s asking for a Dark Souls style action combat dance, whittling down a boss’s health a teensy bit at a time never manages to feel fun, and is more a test of patience than anything else. With a levelling system in play, you’ll sometimes have to wait to take on bosses you encounter as part of the story, too.
Voice acting is available in both English and Japanese, and we’d recommend you go for the latter with subtitles. The English voice acting is all over the place, more often than not sounding like a table read of a soap opera with weird pauses in all the places they shouldn’t be. The American accents don’t help, but it’s the strange rhythm of the conversations that’s the most jarring.
For the most part, though, Like a Dragon is great fun. The trademark series silliness gets ramped up to sometimes ludicrous levels while a fun melodramatic story (with some very long cut scenes) underpins it. The switch to turn-based combat feels refreshing and engaging, while the trademark series mini-games are there again as fun diversions (this time including a Mario Kart style racer!) Graphically, it looks as good as any recent Yakuza game has (and reportedly even better on the Xbox Series X, where it’ll be a launch title) and there’s plenty for fans to get excited about.
RGG Studio’s decision to effectively “soft reboot” the Yakuza series was a wise one, and while it’s not without its missteps, this first trip to the streets, alleys and bars of Isezaki Ijincho has flamboyant style to spare.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is available November 10 on PS4 and Xbox Series X|S/One, March 2, 2021 on PS5.