As a fully certified fan of the Yakuza series, I can say until only a few weeks ago I wasn’t very interested in this new chapter of the series. No Kiryu, no go. And a turn-based battle mechanic? No thank you. However, Leo’s preview managed to ignite my interest, as a lot of what he covered in that preview suggested that this was a worthy continuation of the main series.
He even suggested that the turn-based system was potentially better than the button-mashing beat-’em-up of the Kiryu series. So let me preface this review with my final thoughts. Yakuza: Like a Dragon isn’t just a worthy successor, but in many ways, it’s a better game than what has come before.
At first blush, the new protagonist, Ichiban Kasuga, is no Kazuma Kiryu. He’s brash, unrefined, has a short fuse, and is really just a bit of a loose cannon. Per Leo’s preview mentioned earlier, he’s almost a blend of Kazuma Kiryu and another series mainstay, Goro Majima. This, it turns out, is a good thing. Where Kiryu tended to always remain level headed, Kasuga tends to fire on all cannons, causing himself a great deal of trouble.
And — let’s face it — trouble is what this series is all about.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon Review
For those unaware or new to the Yakuza series, these games are heavily story-based, with lengthy cutscenes and wordy narratives. Yakuza: Like a Dragon is no different, so prepare to buckle in for some time investment into story. Yet, like previous titles in the series, the story is half of the reason you should want to play. It’s intricate and far from straightforward but leaves breadcrumbs from the very first moment. And in true Yakuza fashion, will leave your jaw on the floor at times when the big twist comes in to play (or perhaps I should say “twists”).
And that’s just the main storyline. In addition to the 20-hour core story, there are a number of side missions, and these are just as interesting – albeit for very different reasons. Where the main story is serious and dramatic, many of the side quests are utterly ridiculous, and will have you howling with laughter as you battle REM Rams in a movie theatre in order to keep yourself from falling asleep; you don’t want to offend the owner of the theatre, after all. Another will see you picking a public urinator from a lineup of men. Or tracking down an old man’s pet lobster after you accidentally throw it into a river…
The core story sees Kasuga starting out as a low tier Yakuza, outlining the story of how he got to where he is, and why he respects his Chairman so much… This respect leads him to accept the blame for murder at the request of said Chairman, landing him in jail for more than 15 years. On achieving his freedom, he sets out to find his Chairman, only to discover that everything has changed, leaving him betrayed and left for dead.
I’m being deliberately vague here, as there are additional surprises that fans of the series will want to discover for themselves, but suffice it to say, the intro to this game is HEAVY. Likely heavier than any of the other titles in the series, so prepare some kleenex if you are an emotional type.
Left for dead in Yokohama, with no friends or family to turn to, Kasuga finds himself homeless, and the story takes a new turn. Kasuga learns to gain himself some independence, as well as the trust of those he comes to work alongside.
And this is really the first place that the game starts to differentiate itself from previous titles (excluding combat, which we will get to in a moment). Yakuza: Like a Dragon takes on a more traditional RPG format, allowing Kasuga to build a party including himself and up to three additional party members. Sadly, there are only three available, but this is purely for narrative reasons, as each has their reasons to join the party. However, this also sees the player gearing and levelling each character independently of the others, as well as controlling each within battle. This is a true departure from previous titles and really changes up both the story and the battle mechanics.
Of course, the battle mechanics themselves are also a true departure for the series, as it switches from real-time button mashing to turn-based RPG. Each character has a standard attack as well as a series of special attacks, which come at the cost of MP, but do additional damage and/or apply status effects. There are also items to heal and alleviate ailments, as well as a guard that can be employed to reduce incoming damage. And that’s it. It’s not exactly ground-breaking RPG fare (in fact, it’s about as standard as it comes), but it works.
More than this, though… there is the ability to turn on Auto attacks. Much like a mobile gatcha game, this fully automates the entire battle, requiring the player only to mitigate damage by hitting the appropriate button with specific timing, or increase damage output by performing simple button presses on request. Eventually, I found myself fully automating all battles, and simply taking over when I saw fit. For the most part, the game makes good decisions, but there will be times when you will be left scratching your head as to why it performs certain actions.
At first, I was not a fan of the change, as in general, I’m not a fan of turn-based battle systems. I generally find them too slow and frustrating. However, with the ability to automate attacks, I found the system just as quick as the beat-’em-up mechanics, with a few added benefits. For one, there was now a clear reason to use items and abilities – previous games were mainly a case of button mashing until you win, with limited challenge. Further, the use of gear CLEARLY affected damage output and mitigation.
This is a major sticking point. In previous titles, Kazuma Kiryu could apply gear in order to make himself stronger, but I found it wasn’t necessary – I could simply win all of my battles through sheer brute force alone. The switch to turn-based eliminates this – players now absolutely NEED to manage their party’s gear in order to progress, and this really added a true RPG element that was missing from previous titles.
However, it’s far from perfect. Gear drops infrequently and costs a ridiculous amount of money from stores (once you find them). And if you choose to craft weapons (now that weapon crafting makes even more sense – weapons aren’t just used in battle, they affect your overall damage output), the material requirements are also exorbitant, not to mention the associated Yen fee. Sadly, this means that there isn’t a lot of gear to choose from, making the RPG element less a case of choosing what best suits your characters and more a case of applying whatever you can get your hands on. Hopefully, future iterations will see an increase in the amount of gear that can be applied, I found this a fun aspect of this new title.
Still, given the requirement for materials, and the speed of the turn-based battles, I found myself actively seeking enemies as I moved about the environment – something I can not say for previous titles in the series, where I found battles more of an obstacle to story progression and sought to avoid them.
In true Yakuza style, though, progressing the story, chasing side quests, and battling menacing men throughout the city isn’t all that is available to players. Far from it. Yakuza: Like a Dragon sees players running an enterprising small business, hiring and firing employees and purchasing shops along the way. There are also your standard mini-game options, with players able to lay Mahjong and Shogi, as well as Slots and Pachinko (some of which were not available prior to release, and will be added as a Day One Patch). And, of course, the Arcades. This time around, we have Virtua Fighter 2, Hang On, Space Harrier, and… Virtua Fighter 5. There’s a lot to have fun with here.
Further, Kasuga will be roped into joining a Vocational School, where he can take tests to improve certain aspects of his personality (which will unlock other conversations and so on throughout the game), be given a “Sujidex” (essentially a Yakuza version of Pokémon) to record all of the enemies he encounters, and… be forced into becoming a “part-time hero”, which provides him with battles and tasks throughout town for various rewards.
There’s more than this, of course, but to cover every little thing that the game throws at you would make this already lengthy article even more lengthy. However, I wanted to bring up the “part-time hero” aspect in particular as this is a common theme throughout the game, which really transforms the overall feel. Kasuga himself is a bit of a nerd, frequently referencing his love of Dragon Quest, and this seeps into the game, as Kasuga sees himself as the leader of an RPG party, and therefore a hero – in some ways, breaking the fourth wall. But this allows the team to play around with things, injecting more humour into interactions, and emphasising the fact this is a game… while somehow still managing to maintain the tension of the dramatic storyline.
This means players can now choose “jobs” for their characters, which allows them to change uniforms (which appear during battles only) as well as weapons and abilities. In effect, jobs are class types, with a Yakuza twist. This does complicate things, though, as certain jobs can only use certain types of weapons, and jobs can only be changed at the “Hello Work” office in the city. This ties into the storyline, as Kasuga and his friends, are all unemployed, so they go here to seek out employment… but these jobs become their battle classes.
Brilliant, if you ask me.
Still, there are plenty of little annoyances that continue to plague the series. For one, there are certain areas that seem to go on forever – for no real narrative purpose (underground dungeon, I’m looking at you). It goes on and on and on, and acts as a place to grind for materials, gear and cash, but… doesn’t feel necessary – and the first playthrough is forced. Then, of course, there are the bosses. While I hoped the switch up in battle mechanics was going to mean that the cheap tactics they sometimes employed would now be gone, I was sadly mistaken – some of these bosses not only employ the same cheap tactics (unblockable high-damage moves, for example), but they also seem to have double or triple the amount of speed, meaning they often attack two or three times within the space of your team attacking once. It just feels unfair at times (but is generally countered by gearing up).
Of course, the biggest negative for many players will be in the amount of talking – this is a playable drama, through and through, with plenty of open-world shenanigans almost on the side (I deliberately neglected to mention there is a fully-fledged and highly playable karting game in here too, called Dragon Kart – possibly the best distraction ever to grace a game of this type). But for those of us that love the series, it’s all part of a cohesive whole. It’s almost like a lovingly crafted course meal at an expensive restaurant – some items may seem strange or you might not even like them, but most of the time it’s the experience that matters most. Yakuza: Like a Dragon, when all of its pieces are taken together, is not only a fantastic new direction for the series, it’s also one of its best titles.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon was reviewed on PS4 using a digital copy provided by SEGA.