The Yakuza series is something of a miracle. The fact it even exists outside of Japan is part one of this miracle. Second, and more importantly, each game in the Yakuza series is a serious, dramatic, absurd, wacky, bizarre, hilarious fighter/RPG filled with mini-games odd niches of Japanese culture, fan service and melodrama.
That Yakuza games even work is outright insane. But they do. They always have and part of their charm is in just how off-the-wall they can be in one moment and how sombre and serious they can be in the next.
Recently, Yakuza has been having something of a renaissance, as remakes and re-releases have poured out of SEGA and the games have finally made their way onto Xbox. Yakuza 6 served as longtime protagonist Kazuma Kiryu’s swansong and was a fitting way to farewell the character. However, after waving goodbye to the Dragon of Dojima, where was the franchise to go?
Yakuza without Kiryu is like Mario without Mario. Which seems insurmountable. Then, SEGA went and announced it was changing the combat in Yakuza: Like a Dragon to make it turn-based. A Yakuza game without Kiryu and the brawling real-time combat that was so, so good in Yakuza 6, was the series headed for disaster?
It’s safe to say, I was concerned.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon
After an extended hands-on preview with Yakuza: Like A Dragon, I’m happy to report my fears were unfounded. The loss of Kiryu is a big one and new hero Ichiban Kasuga didn’t immediately fill that void but given some time, Ichiban is a great replacement, shaped in the mould of Kiryu but having his own distinct personality, ideals and morals. While I don’t yet know his history, I’m keen to learn more about Ichiban and how he fits into the world of Yakuza, the Tojo Clan and the Omi Alliance. Ichiban isn’t a famous Yakuza like Kiryu, nor so respected or feared. Where Kiryu was the Dragon of Dojima with his enormous dragon tattoo, Ichiban has no nickname and instead of a dragon, he has a dragonfish tattoo. He says to homeless companion Nanba that up and coming Yakuza can’t just go out and get a dragon tattoo. So he settled for a dragonfish and one day, he believes the dragonfish will be more feared and fearsome than any dragon.
It’s a nice nod to Kiryu and the franchise’s past.
Ichiban is an orphan, raised on the streets who turned to a life of petty crime before joining the Yakuza. His journey from Yakuza family member to unemployed do-gooder of Ijincho is a mystery for now. His motivations are also not entirely clear. He is easy to read though. He’s a good person who enjoys helping others. He’s not as serious or composed as Kiryu though and has a temper that gets him into trouble more often than not. He’s impulsive and reckless and doesn’t have the wealth of experience that Kiryu had. After my hands-on, I felt as though Ichiban was part Kiryu and part Majima. Dangerous, unpredictable but ultimately good at his core.
Without knowing the beginning of the game, it’s hard to know why Ichiban is in Ijincho and what the end-game is. Even if I’d played the beginning of the game, you never really know anything in Yakuza. There’s always a twist, a double-cross or some event that throws a spanner in the works. So, I didn’t try to figure too much out and instead went along for the ride.
Dropped into Chapter 5 for my preview, Ichiban and his crew were in the Ijincho red light district of Yokohama. Based on and modelled after the real-life district of Isezakichō, Ijincho doesn’t immediately have the same impact that Kamurocho did and still does. It’s a new location so there’s not an immediate familiarity or nostalgia, though I’d bet people who’ve been to Isezakichō would have those feelings in spades. I was in Japan in 2018 and went to Kabukichō, the inspiration for Kamurocho, and my tiny mind was blown away. It was literally a 1:1 recreation and there’s no reason to think Ijincho would be any different.
One thing to note about Ijincho is its size. Compared to Kamurocho, it’s enormous. It contains several different and distinct districts, a large river, roads with cars (yes they can hit you) a train station and more. Eyeballing it, I’d guess Kamurocho could fit inside Ijincho two, maybe even three times. That being said, Ijincho certainly doesn’t feel as densely packed as Kamurocho with points of interest and interactable locations spread further apart. Still, it feels great to break away and explore a new location. Every time Yakuza has taken the series to somewhere new (Osaka, Hiroshima, Okinawa) it’s been a welcome change of pace. Ijincho is the greatest departure yet and by far the most successful.
At the beginning of chapter 5, Ichiban is investigating the death of a friend and believes Mabuchi, leader of the Chinese Liumang mafia is involved. The Liumang is one of three organisations that make up the Ijin Three. The Korean mafia and the Seiryu Yakuza family are the other two. These three groups have been at a stalemate for years, a cold war ready to explode at any moment. The Chinese influence in Yakuza: Like A Dragon is important as Yokohama has historically had a large Chinese community and population. So it makes sense that the Liumang would be a large threat in the game.
The majority of chapter 5 sees Ichiban and his party investigating Mabuchi and the Liumang. Along for the ride are ex-cop Koichi Adachi, homeless nurse Nanba and ex-hostess Saeko Mukoda. Each of the supporting characters has their own distinct voice and personality. They bring something different to the table which manifests during cutscenes and, importantly, in combat.
Unlike every previous Yakuza, combat in Yakuza: Like a Dragon is turn-based. Where you’d be used to roaming Kamurocho, punching up dudes using Kiryu’s special moves and abilities on the fly, now, you’ll be selecting your moves from a menu. Each character involved in the battle is put in order based on their stats and then they take their turns. Characters in your party have four options each turn; Attack, Ability, Guard or Etc. Selecting attack performs a basic attack based on your character’s job and equipment while Abilities offer a much broader range of options. Again, based on your characters’ jobs, you’ll be able to perform all manner of offensive, defensive and buffing moves to help your party win the fight. Abilities cost MP, which charged when you level up and can be charged with items. Some party members recovered MP during combat but I wasn’t able to figure out why. I’m sure there’s a passive stat that governs it, but I didn’t dig that far.
Most Abilities also give you the chance to deal extra damage either by mashing X or press Y with the correct timing. It’s a bit like Paper Mario in that respect. You’re also able to press B when you’re hit (with good timing) to perform a Perfect Guard and prevent some damage.
At the beginning of chapter 5, I didn’t have access to change jobs yet so had to use what each character was by default. However, partway through the chapter, I gained the ability to change jobs and things really opened up. Some abilities will stay with your characters no matter which job you choose, but many more are job-specific, so you’ll need to experiment to find the job and abilities you like and suit your playstyle.
Before I could change jobs, Nanba could perform a host of ‘homeless’ moves. Pigeon Raid saw him spread birdseed all over the enemy and then watch as pigeons went to town on them. He could also ignite his alcoholic breath and breathe flame over one or more enemies for huge damage. Another ability saw Nanba beg on his hands and knees for the enemy to pity him which could see the enemy toss him an item. Each of the jobs is as thematic as this. I gave Sa-chan the Idol job which allowed her to charm enemies by singing and buff her teammates too. I gave Nanba the musician job which gave him an acoustic guitar to clobber enemies with and a ‘Volt” gauge which could be charged up for additional damage.
Not every character will be able to use every job. There are prerequisites to each job and meeting them will take some work and grinding on your behalf. However, with so many jobs on offer, it’s likely you’ll find something that works for you. Every job also comes with its own specific costumes which your characters which instantly change into once combat starts. I gave Nanba the Majima Yakuza 0 outfit, eyepatch and all.
Outside of standard attacks and Abilities which deal damage, heal, buff and debuff, the Etc option allows players to use items and call for help from other characters. The latter option wasn’t available during my hands-on but a tooltip in-game referenced it fairly regularly. Using items is pretty self-explanatory and allows you to recover health and MP by eating and drinking, much like in previous Yakuza games. Finally, Guarding makes your character more defensive for that turn, reducing incoming damage from enemies.
I’d be lying if I said the switch to turn-based combat wasn’t jarring. It is. There’s just no getting around it. But it doesn’t take long for things to start coming together. It’s clear SEGA wanted to give Ichiban a supporting cast and doing so required a drastic change to the combat. It simply wouldn’t work to have realtime combat with multiple party members. On the surface, the combat system seems simple but it’s got quite a lot of depth to it. Once you start fiddling with jobs and creating builds for your characters and party, you can do some pretty interesting things. As usual, fighting goons in the street is a breeze and is useful for nothing more than grinding out XP and cash but fights which take place during missions get far more difficult. You’ll have to use your abilities wisely, manage your MP and make sure you’re buffing and debuffing to come out on top. You really can’t just attack over and over and expect to win.
One thing to note is the awkwardness of the camera on occasion. When you’re fighting, the camera focuses on whichever character’s turn it is. However, sometimes the distance between characters is such that the camera doesn’t focus on the next enemy quickly enough for you to react and get your Perfect Guard in. It was frustrating to lose a big chunk of health because I couldn’t see what was going on.
Besides that though, I’m a convert. The turn-based combat has real depth and lots of surprises. The higher the bond between Ichiban and his party members, the more likely they are to perform follow up attacks. The higher each of Ichiban’s personality metres, the better certain abilities will work. Yakuza: Like A Dragon has, more than any other game in the franchise, found a way to make all the extraneous activities feed into the combat. By doing side quests, mini-games and exploration, you’ll level Ichiban and your party up in ways you hadn’t anticipated, making them far more effective during battle sequences.
Speaking of side quests and mini-games, it wouldn’t be Yakuza without an absolutely bizarre collection of things to do. One of the first substories I completed saw Ichiban innocently throwing a lobster back in the river, believing it had swum up on shore by mistake. Immediately after, a distraught man told me it was his pet that I’d thrown away so Ichiban promised to bring her back. Her name was Nancy.
To find Nancy, I had to scour the shoreline, looking for lobsters (of which there were dozens) and find the one with an X shape on its back. After I found Nancy, I brought her back to the owner who thanked me and then tried to carve her up for his lunch. Ichiban, being the caring guy he is, couldn’t let that happen so promised to bring the man a Sushi Set in exchange for Nancy’s life.
Another substory/minigame took place in an old school cinema which showed classic movies. The owner was frustrated with people coming inside only to sleep through the films rather than watch them. Ichiban agreed to watch a film with him, but was quickly bored by RoboCook and struggled to stay awake. The minigame had REM Rams (men in suits with sheep heads) pop up and try to make Ichiban fall asleep. To stop them, I had to press the button related to their location, kind of like a shooting gallery and keep Ichiban awake until the end of the film. It was absolutely bizarre and totally fitting on Yakuza.
Ichiban could also tackle heroic side quests through the Part-Time Hero app on his phone. These short missions require Ichiban to either save someone in danger through combat or to undertake a fetch quest and deliver a required item. There are tonnes of Part-Time Hero quests on top of the usual substories and campaign missions. Something else that caught my eye during my preview was the Sujidex. Every time I fought a new enemy type, it would be added to my Sujidex, complete with description, move types and stats. Basically, SEGA has added Pokémon style ‘catching them all’ to Yakuza: Like A Dragon.
Finally, a young woman named Eri came to visit the deceased friend of Ichiban as he was supposed to take over her business. Instead, Ichiban volunteered which led me into an enormous business management minigame. Think of the Clan Battles in Yakuza 6 and you’re onto a similar scope. The Business Management mini-game requires Ichiban to take a failing business all the way to the top of the Yokohama stock market by making wise investments, hiring the best people and making sure sales go well. It’s an in-depth business management sim inside Yakuza: Like a Dragon and I barely scratched the surface of it during my hands-on.
For all its changes, Yakuza: Like A Dragon remains a pure Yakuza game. It may not have Kiryu but Ichiban is a fantastic protagonist and a breath of fresh air for the series. The same can be said of the shift to turn-based combat. I was wary of both before I got to play Yakuza: Like A Dragon but SEGA has made sure that even though there have been largescale changes, the spirit of the franchise remains intact.
Longtime fans will find out that Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a fitting newcomer while those who’ve yet to take the plunge on the series can easily jump in here without getting lost. The tangled web of relationships and events from the first six titles is irrelevant to Like a Dragon so prior knowledge isn’t necessary. And despite its overt strangeness, there’s a very low barrier to entry in Yakuza: Like A Dragon.
It’s got character, style, silliness, comedy, drama, Japanese whackiness, Kurasawa homages galore and best of all, it’s incredibly playable. I can’t wait to take Ichiban for a spin around Ijincho when Yakuza: Like A Dragon launches.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon was previewed on PC using digital code provided by the publisher.