The first Yakuza game was released about fifteen years ago. But it wasn’t until 2017, when Yakuza 0 was released, that the West fell in love with the Japanese-developed crime thriller beat-em-up. Yakuza 0 offered a different take on the open-world crime game that Grand Theft Auto popularized and countless other games riffed on. Yakuza’s open world is smaller and more dense. Its humor doesn’t focus on parody. And most notably, its gameplay is based around action combat rather than third-person shooting. But after seven games with this battle system, Like a Dragon makes a big change to turn-based combat.
Despite this massive change, Like a Dragon has many consistencies with past entries in the series. The environment is a highly-detailed representation of a large Japanese big city neighbourhood. The main story is filled with dramatic scenes, backstabbing, twists, turns, reveals, and deceit. There is the typical litany of strange side-quests, most of them with tones that are in direct opposition to the dramatic main story, that tell wonderfully weird stories of soaped-up men running through the streets or mascots trying to beat up the knock-off version of themselves.
The writing in the game is incredible. The characters are distinct and feel like real humans, with interesting backstories, motives, and relationships. The story starts slowly but keeps chugging for hours, evolving and changing alongside its characters, with one mystery being solved in exchange for one or two more being created. It isn’t perfect. There are a handful of long-winded scenes and some twists that border on soap-opera cheesiness, but by the end of the game, it feels like something akin to an epic adventure has taken place.
It sounds impossible to have a game that delivers a layered and surprising crime thriller plot and that also includes stories about crime bosses in diapers or has enemies that wear speedos and grease themselves up before attacking you. But these two tones diverge and converge in such a way that they serve as a natural pacing element for the game as a whole, two opposites that make one another that much more interesting, as well as grant a break from too much seriousness or too much goofiness.
After six main entries with Kiryu Kazuma as the lead, Like a Dragon introduces a new main character to Yakuza, Kazuga Ichiban. Kazuga is one hell of a likeable character. He’s loyal, unabashed in his goofiness, and wears his heart on his sleeve. Like a lot of the new characters in the game, he feels like a genuine human being. He also loves the RPG series Dragon Quest, which rings harmoniously with the game’s use of turn-based combat.
And while the turn-based combat in Like a Dragon is new for the series, it is traditional for the genre. There is MP and HP; different types of physical, elemental, and special moves – and weaknesses for each; there are items to heal, to boost stats, to revive, and to regain MP; and there’s a number of weapons to find or create on your own. But the traditional nature of the turn-based combat serves as a base upon which a lengthy progression system is built.
The game will take between 40 to 80 hours to complete, and throughout the main story there are always new enemies to face and new skills to unlock. A job system allows you to switch any character’s role and earn new skills, giving you some freedom to experiment with party builds and strategies. There is always some new skill to unlock. The long list of moves means combat is fun throughout the story, and beyond.
The pacing of the RPG elements in the game is rough in certain places, mainly due to significant difficulty spikes. These come without warning and are in the form of enemies simply doing more damage – nothing to do with clever strategy or being out-thought. So grinding becomes a necessity. But with the combat being so enjoyable, and two areas created just for grinding, it wasn’t a pain at all to grind levels and unlock new skills at the same time.
Yakuza games are always packed with mini-games like golf, baseball, darts, pachinko, and arcade cabinets. They are a nice optional change of pace, as well as source of income (or loss, if you’re bad at them). Like a Dragon adds two new mini-games: kart racing and property management. For the kart racing, there are a handful of races to compete in and the ability to upgrade your karts’ stats. But the racing gameplay feels stiff and isn’t much fun. In the end its an optional mini-game that could have used a bit more time in the oven.
As for the property management game, it offers quite a few hours of gameplay for just a mini-game. You can hire staff, train them, choose what properties they work at, and buy and sell properties as well. A mini-game within the mini-game has you “fight” against needy shareholders. The best part is that finishing quests in the main game will unlock characters as employees in the property management game, so there is extra reward for completing those quests. Plus it’s always nice to see that the sumo wrestler I helped out is now the manager of my cracker store. Keep it up, Kazuaki san!
Completing quests in the city will also let you call upon summons in fights, each of them with gloriously ridiculous entrance videos and moves. Some summons can also be purchased by collecting a certain amount of badges strewn across the city. If you don’t have enough money for a summon, you could always complete one of the hundred or so special missions to get more cash. Or if you want to focus on your weapons instead of summons, why not collect materials and build your own weapons? Or upgrade the ones you already have?
If its your party members that you want to improve, just keep fighting and your bond with them will increase. At certain levels of the bond, you can chat with them at the local bar and advance their personal quest and storylines. Of course, you might need to have a certain amount of intelligence, or bravery, or style for them to open up to you, so why not head over to the local employment training office and take some exams to improve those skills? Or start working on a separate hundred or so challenges to make yourself likeable, or smart, or passionate.
There is a lot to do in Like a Dragon. But whether its optional side quests, the main story, or relatively useless mini-games you are playing, Like a Dragon is a game that delivers high-quality fun for dozens of hours. The game offers a big buffet and it rewards those who dive in head first and stick with the story until the end.
Yakuza Like a Dragon is still a Yakuza game. But it changes enough to feel like a new direction for the series. It’s one of the best written games in a long time, with terrific combat and an incredibly detailed world. I’m looking forward to what the next entry in the series has in store.