Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio reinvents their crazy beat ‘em up Yakuza series with hilarious JRPG shenanigans.
Openly and unabashedly inspired by the Dragon Quest fantasy role-playing games, Yakuza: Like a Dragon steps into the turn-based realm. The game’s protagonist, the hopelessly loyal and optimistic Ichiban Kasuga, accepts the torch passed on from his predecessor, the stoic and serious Kazuma Kiryu from Yakuza 0 through Yakuza 6. The Yakuza games seamlessly switch between gritty underworld crime drama and ridiculously silly humor, with tons of outlandish side stories and mini-games, wild characters and over-the-top combat. Yakuza: Like a Dragon continues these traditions through Kasuga’s fresh set of eyes, taking place predominantly in Yokohama, with the yakuza clashing forces with subsets of the Chinese mafia and the Korean mafia. Featuring a brand-new cast of characters and a story largely removed from the previous Yakuza games, this is a great entry point for newer players.
In a surprising and controversial change for the series, Yakuza: Like a Dragon features turn-based combat. Even though the game and the story are grounded in reality, Kasuga’s overactive imagination makes up for the rest. Normal thugs walking around on the street suddenly turn into red-eyed demons. You and your party members can use magic spells for attacks, heals, buffs and debuffs. The meal you just ate at the restaurant down the block boosts your attack power in battle. You can change jobs at the employment office in town, switching your characters from classes like a homeless guy who smacks enemies with an old umbrella to a utensil-wielding chef donning a full apron, to a suit-wearing host with a bottle of champagne for a weapon. Leveling up one job offers permanent boosts and abilities to use on any other job, opening up many options for different setups and playstyles for each character.
Just like in any other JRPG, the friends that Kasuga meets during the story are his party members. You and your party run into all sorts of enemies, from the usual mobsters to weirdos dressed as trash bags, to nerdy otaku guys, all the way to perverts running around naked beneath their trench coats, getting off by exposing themselves to you in public during battle. Story-related boss battles tend to stick to Kasuga’s enemies from the yakuza and the Chinese and Korean mafias, though you’ll find a few surprises along the way. Enemy designs, skill descriptions, item uses, status ailments and character animations in battle each have their own flair, merging fantasy with reality in a funny, charming way.
The main downside of the combat is the need to grind. In the other beat ‘em up Yakuza games, you could easily get by with skill alone. That goes out the window in Yakuza: Like a Dragon. If you’re not leveled up enough, you’ll likely run into sharp difficulty spikes, most notably in the middle of the story and toward the end. You will have no choice but to grind more levels before continuing on because you won’t be able to escape certain bosses suddenly killing Kasuga in one hit, ending the game. Kasuga has a special skill that he can use to prevent sudden death, but you’ll still need to level up to learn it. Retrying battles repeatedly can be costly because you lose a large chunk of your in-game money whenever Kasuga dies. Depositing your hard-earned cash at a convenience store ATM helps with this, but it’s still an annoying inconvenience, especially since you need a lot of money to buy and craft gear for your characters.
Most other Yakuza staples carry over to Yakuza: Like a Dragon, including the open-world sandbox locations to explore. Walking through Yokohama as Kasuga feels true to life. You’ll find a wide variety of restaurants to dine in, stores to shop at and mini-games to enjoy, each packed with Japanese culture. When you’re not in the middle of story cutscenes, you’re generally free to do whatever you want. Play mahjong, shogi, or casino games, sing karaoke with Kasuga’s friends at a bar, take on the challenging underground dungeons for awesome rewards, play through dozens of side quests around town, or learn more about Kasuga’s friends through their optional character stories.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s story absolutely feels like it belongs in the series—strengths and weaknesses included. It’s a strong story with an intriguing premise. We first meet a young actor, Arakawa, who is part of a traveling troupe, who goes on to become Kasuga’s main father figure in the yakuza. Kasuga holds an unwavering loyalty toward Arakawa for saving his life. That loyalty leads to an unending series of trouble for Kasuga because he can never seem to leave his commitments behind, even when he would be better off doing so. His strength and convictions are inspiring, making him a compelling protagonist from the start.
Unfortunately, once the story heads to Yokohama, and you meet more of Kasuga’s friends and allies, things eventually fall apart. Kasuga gives his unyielding loyalty to characters he’s barely met, whom he shouldn’t have much of an emotional attachment to. Yet these minor-seeming characters take Kasuga from conflict to conflict, again and again, leading him on a wild goose chase at times. It’s Kasuga’s stubbornness that keeps him from walking away from these conflicts—not a genuine emotional investment in whatever’s going on. His friends also fall to irrelevance as soon as they join the party—with some exceptions. It’s hard to escape the sense that Kasuga and his friends are in over their heads. No one has any real reason for hanging around throughout all the murder and melodrama. It doesn’t help that the plot relies on a series of bizarre coincidences holding everything together. Once the story goes off the rails toward the middle, things stay that way until just before the phenomenal, heart-wrenching finale.
Anyone who’s played the Yakuza games will be very familiar with these issues in the story. A strong beginning and ending with a middle section that goes all over the place, full of outlandish twists and questionable justifications—it’s all standard fare at this point, though it’s still disappointing that the series has yet to evolve from these problems. Yakuza stories always go for the most outrageous, shocking moments, hastily throwing together the explanations later as more of an afterthought.
Graphics and Visuals
Yakuza: Like a Dragon entrenches you in the story through unforgettable cinematic cutscenes, just like every other Yakuza game. Realistic character designs, unique hairstyles and facial scars; the wicked curl of a sneer, the raw emotion in a character’s reddened eyes as he’s crying, and the specific, detailed threading on a gang officer’s double-breasted suit—all are incredibly marvelous. Paired with the backdrop of a lifelike depiction of Japan, Yakuza: Like a Dragon looks and feels like an actual crime film. While the NPCs are of notably lower quality, they fulfill their role as background characters.
Music and Sound
High-energy rock, electronic and hip-hop sounds make for a distinctly modern soundtrack. There’s a playful hardness to most songs, always fitting for the bright-eyed Kasuga charging headfirst into a rough gang’s dangerous territory. Boss battle tracks are particular standouts, matching a gang leader’s menacing presence or another’s unhinged fighting style and personality. The Japanese voice acting pairs well with the cinematic cutscenes, making the characters sound like real people with real emotions. Kasuga’s voice acting is also outstanding, bringing a ton of heart, sincerity and emotion to every scene he’s in. But the English voice work is hit-or-miss, especially for anyone who’s used to the Japanese voices from previous games in the series. The tough male characters too often sound unnatural, like they’re purposely lowering their voices to sound gruff and mean, which is more distracting than anything. So, if you don’t mind reading subtitles, go for the Japanese option instead.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon takes bold risks with its sweeping changes. However, after following the same formula for several games, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio needed to switch things up somehow. They mostly succeeded with these changes, bringing an unexpected breath of fresh air to the long-running series. Despite the problems with the main plot, Kasuga earns his stripes as a strong Yakuza protagonist. The sheer amount of variety in the turn-based combat keeps the game fun, even after dozens of hours of grinding challenging side content. Wherever the next Yakuza game takes us, so long as it retains the series’ extraordinary heart and soul—as Yakuza: Like a Dragon clearly does—it’s sure to be another wild success.