I absolutely love the way Atlus and SEGA continue to handle the Yakuza series of games.
The games start with this level of seriousness, hooking you in with an intricate plot, great characters, powerful dialogue, and hard-hitting combat.
Then a few hours later you end up visiting an adult nursery full of thugs dressed up in diapers, drinking condensed milk, giving tips on how to hold your baby’s neck.
Like A Dragon quite possibly features the most outrageous, unorthodox, unexpected of all the subplots in the series to date and that’s not even the biggest risk it takes. Which seems mind-boggling when you consider there’s a mini-game for collecting used cans and a story that has you filling a sort of Pokedex for flamboyant fighters.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon is the game I’ve gone back to the most of all the launch lineup I’ve had a chance to play. Not only because it happened to offer the most stable use of Quick Resume – rapidly becoming my favourite feature on Xbox Series X – but It’s quite possibly the Yakuza game I’ve enjoyed the most and I’m a big fan of the series in general.
This is easily the best looking Yakuza game in the series, with incredible detail going into the faces of the cast and their attire – appropriately filled with creases and fading. You also see stunning use of lighting, bringing the game’s beautiful towns and cities to life as they radiate in striking ways. It also loads so fast that you do not have time to read the tips screen, which is actually kind of hilarious.
Serving as something of a cold reboot for the franchise, players will now get to slip into the suave shoes of Ichiban Kasuga, a confident, plucky streetfighter who consigns the beloved Kazuma Kiryu to our memories once and for all. When we meet him, Kasuga is an emerging, opportunistic Yakuza who seems like he has all the tools to climb the ladder of success in the mob boss world. At this point, it feels kind of inevitable where the story is going to go.
We learn he became homeless early on in life and it was Masumi Arakawa – voiced by Mr Sulu himself, George Takei – who took him under his wing and gave him a home. It feels like Kasuga is being groomed for great things. That is, until an incident occurs which sees our main man become imprisoned for eighteen years!
Fast forward through time and Kasuga is back out in the wide world, but a lot has changed. I mean, he doesn’t even know what a smartphone is at this point, and the Kamorochu he once knew isn’t the same as the one he left. This is where Like A Dragon’s plot takes some really surprising twists and turns and plucks at your heart strings more than once.
I think that was the biggest draw for me. It took a long time for the game to enter its silly stride, and once it does, you actually sort of welcome it for light relief, because Like A Dragon tackles some very serious, very deep and sad themes. In past Yakuza games, it all sort of blends it together, but this time I think Atlus have got the pacing down just right, and it’s all the more effective and enjoyable for it.
Don’t worry, you can still go bowling or spend hours in the arcade playing Space Harrier and Outrun, although I did encounter some emulation problems with these at times with the game hard-crashing to the dash more times than I’d like.
Of course, that’s not the only big shift for Yakuza Like A Dragon, because the traditional 3D side-scrolling, Streets of Rage style beat-em-up action is gone and in its place is turn-based action. Which is a massive departure for this series and has certainly been a controversial, sticking point for many people when they’ve come to play the game.
As an RPG buff, this wasn’t even a slight concern for me. In fact, I was more excited to try it because – and let’s whisper it quietly – I was getting kind of bored with Yakuza’s combat. Sure, there were some nice evolutions and adjustments in later entries in the series – and Yakuza 6 was my favourite game in the franchise to this point – but ultimately it all boils down to the same punching/kicking combo theme that’s stood the test of time.
The franchise is moving on from Kiryu, and to do that there needs to be some changes. To me, this is one of the smarter and best implemented changes in LAD, because it not only suits the type of character we’re playing, but it also opens the door to some strategic thinking – which feels quite refreshing – and lets the game continue to lean into the off-rail fanfare it’s beloved for.
See, Kasuga is a massive Dragon Quest fan- this game is absolutely loaded with DQ references – and he kind of sees the world as this massive, sprawling RPG, where you need to build up your skills to do new things and ‘level up’ to grow in life. So, to match that, he envisages combat to be like this turn-based dance where warriors trade each other, move for move. Just like you’d find in a DQ game.
It’s a big move for a series that has traditionally allowed for free-flowing encounters in between its narrative and it’s possible this could deter some people from checking it out, especially if you’re a bit adverse to RPGs. Thing is, Yakuza games are like RPGs in a sense anyway and I wouldn’t say the adjustment is as big of a stretch as it might first appear.
It also works really well as you alternate between different jobs, skills, and classes, selecting a party and strengthening a bond between them through conversations and eating food together. You can buy new weapons for them to use, perform tag team moves and do specials that deal more damage. If you’re close enough, you can even use objects in the environment to hit your enemies, like traffic cones and cycles. Just like the other games.
You can also summon these imposing warriors – bit like a Shiva or Bahamut in Final Fantasy – and have them attack all your enemies for you in various different form. Kasuga sees his enemies differently when you’re in the middle of battle, so what may seem like an everyday worker in a business suit can turn into a powerful thug with pulsing muscles.
The turn-based nature, while serious, actually reminded me a lot of South Park: The Stick of Truth. Through the smacking people around with Iron Pipes and Baseball bats, there’s a comical layer to it with special attacks that have you throw bird seed at an enemy so pigeons attack them, and attacking people with an umbrella.
It’s a hybrid of the bare-knuckle brawling you know and love, mixed in the hyper uncertainty that makes these games so unique and special. It can also offer a tougher challenge as you’ll often find you walk into battles where you’re the underdog one minute and you’re too overpowered the next. Which can be really frustrating.
And to be honest, I found myself avoiding battles quite early on where possible as they ended up being such a drain on resources – my team would be half dead after a fight or two and that sometimes doesn’t go hand in hand with the story where you can often end up in fights unexpectedly.
But I really loved and enjoyed Yakuza: Like A Dragon. There’s some fantastic side-stories and the main arc itself tells a really compelling yarn about a group of middle-aged folks looking to make a change in the world, each with very different backgrounds. The story goes to unexpected places and reveals some surprising things about its characters. It’s incredibly refreshing.
You also soon learn the big differences between Ichiban and Kiryu. For the past few games, we’ve dealt with this very cool customer who also happens to be a very nice guy underneath. Ichiban isn’t exactly that person, not at first, anyway. In fact, you may not even like him for a good long while. But I came to appreciate the differences between the characters and soon found ways to connect with Ichiban, even if I didn’t always agree with the things he says and does.
By the end, though, I was fully onboard with our new protagonist and I truly hope Like A Dragon is just the beginning for its unique cast. I want to see more from them, I want the series to continue to evolve this new RPG style combat and progression, and I love looking at this world through a more current and modern day lens. Between this and Judgement, we’re seeing the series evolve to some exciting and interesting places and I feel like somehow, the best is still yet to come.
+ A rich, tearjerker of a story with a strong cast
+ RPG style combat really works in Yakuza style
+ Best graphics in a Yakuza game with incredible load speeds
+ Quick Resume on Series S & X is simply wonderful
+ Excellent assortment of mini-games
– A few emulation problems for the arcade games caused some crashes
– Combat can leave you exposed sometimes and be a little too much at times
Yakuza: Like A Dragon is now available on Xbox Series S l X and PS4.
Tested on Xbox Series X
Code kindly provided by SEGA