Yakuza: Like a Dragon review for Xbox Series X, Xbox One, and PC.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a new beginning for the series in many ways. It introduces a new protagonist, a new turn-based combat system, and a relatively self-contained story. This is a gamble for Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, as up to this point, each entry in the series has primarily focused on one character, Kazuma Kiryu, and featured similar gameplay.
The amount of effort that went into the game’s creation, along with the first English dub since the original Yakuza was released on PS2, shows Sega’s confidence in the Yakuza series. The franchise has exploded in popularity in the West since the release of Yakuza 0, and Like a Dragon is poised to please long-time fans while serving as an excellent entry point for newcomers.
Ichiban is Yakuza‘s next great protagonist
Though Kiryu is out of the spotlight, newcomer Ichiban Kasuga is similar to him in many ways. Ichiban is an orphan, born in a soapland, who found himself looking up to the Yakuza’s romantic ideals. Growing up, Ichiban fought hard to be accepted into the Arakawa Family, one of the infamous Tojo Clan’s smaller franchises. When the game begins, Ichiban is a low-level soldier of the Arakawa Family, who is mainly tasked with menial jobs like collections.
Despite his low stature in the family, Ichiban holds the idea of the chivalrous Yakuza close to his heart. He’s much more emotive and outspoken than Kiryu, and he’s more naive as well. His only objective when the game opens is to make his patriarch, Masumi Arakawa, proud.
However, Ichiban’s blind loyalty turns out to be his downfall, and when he’s asked to take the wrap for a murder one of his superiors commits, he ends up serving 18 years in prison. When he’s released, he finds his world turned upside down. The writing here is top-notch and among the best in the series.
As much as I love Kiryu, his story felt like it had been told after seven games, and his send-off in Yakuza 6 was a great conclusion that opened the door for new stories to be told. We know how Kiryu would react in a situation, typically stoically and deadpan, and the introduction of Ichiban allows the writers to be more inventive. Ichiban is quicker to joke, he’s hotheaded, and he’s emotional to both his advantage and detriment.
It’s my turn
The biggest change between Like a Dragon and the other main series entries is that combat no longer takes the form of a real-time beat-em’-up. Instead, Like a Dragon is a turn-based RPG where players select commands and characters execute them. Of course, it’s Yakuza, so things are a bit different in presentation.
Ichiban fancies himself a hero, ala Dragon Quest, and as such, his imagination transforms his foes into weird and wonderful forms. The player will fight men dressed in trashbags who look like kappa, escaped hospital patients, and even heavy construction equipment. All of these are tracked through the Sujidex, which is given to you by a shady Professor Oak ripoff.
The goofiness is matched by Ichiban and the party’s combat style. Like a Dragon includes a job system, but there aren’t any warriors, mages, or archers here. Instead, the player can specialize Ichiban and co. as breakdancers, musicians, chefs, fortune tellers, and the like. Some of these classes concentrate on inflicting status effects on enemies or healing, while others are brute physical attackers. There’s a lot of room for creating specialized builds and min/maxing in Like a Dragon, so stat buffs will have a field day here.
However, the new combat system does have a downside. Each area has a star level, which indicates how formidable the enemies are there. However, players will have to run all over the map to visit shops, take on substories, and reach mission objectives. So, for example, your level 20 party might have to spend 20-30 minutes running through areas where enemies max out at level 10-15. The game includes a very capable auto-battle system, but this just means players will end up zoning out often.
However, I can excuse some of the issues with encounters as this is Ryu Ga Gotoku’s first turn-based game. I would have liked to have seen more challenging and strategic battles with a reduced encounter rate, but it’s refreshing to see the studio try something new, and I hope it’s a system that continues to be refined in future Yakuza games.
Forming a party
Previous Yakuza games had you controlling one protagonist. While there were plenty of memorable side characters, these games focused on the player character’s relationship with them. Like a Dragon differs by centering around a party of characters. Ichiban is very much the driving force behind the party, but the plot isn’t razor-focused on him. Like a Dragon often shines the spotlight on other party members and puts their problems and relationships in center stage.
Ichiban’s relationships with his fellow party members also factor into combat. For certain actions, like winning battles or having conversations, his bond with the party will grow. When it reaches a certain point, players unlock the opportunity to have a conversation with a party member, which reveals more of their backstory or personality, and the bond will increase a level.
Increasing Bond Level gives party members access to more jobs and makes them more likely to execute a follow-up attack when Ichiban takes an action in battle. The whole bond system is entirely skippable (aside from its introduction), like most content in the game. However, players who do so will miss out on one of the things that make Like a Dragon special.
As the game progresses, the Bond System does a great job of making it feel like the group is forming a friendship. Learning about Adachi’s guilt about an arrest that’s haunted him for 20 years or Saeko’s strained relationship with her sister and father and helping them come to terms is tremendous character building. It’s all part of Yakuza’s tradition of stories within the story that makes the series so compelling to play.
Man of the people
Of course, Yakuza: Like a Dragon is packed with swathes of optional content. If the player makes a beeline from start to finish, only accomplishing main missions, the game will likely take around 20-25 hours. However, a 100% completion will take around triple that number or more.
Like a Dragon contains Yakuza staples like minigames and simple challenges (beat x enemy type # times). It also includes some new ones, like Dragon Kart (a full kart racing side game with multiple tournaments and its own storyline) and a complex business management sim that pits Ichiban against the big wigs of Yokohama. One of the things that impressed me most about the Yakuza series is that Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio consistently includes multiple side activities that could be separate titles independently.
Substories also make their return, with 52 available for players to complete. Some of these are intros to other activities, but most are self-contained multi-part stories. There are fewer substories in Like a Dragon (only half the number that feature in some titles), but most of them are longer, more complex tales. Almost all of them are winners, and the rewards makes them worth the extra time it takes to see them to the end.
I love the way most of the substories play out. Some of the most heartfelt moments in Yakuza take a little extra time to seek out, and few games give that feeling of being a good person that you get when you help a little girl collect money for her brother’s surgery, or find a clever solution to help an independent old woman cross the street safely. While the main plot is fantastic, substories are the franchise’s soul, and they’re fantastic here.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon Review | The final verdict
I’m thrilled the Yakuza series is getting the recognition it deserves because it’s one of the few long-running franchises that continues to consistently pump out excellent games. Like a Dragon is an excellent place to start for newcomers, as it requires no knowledge of previous games to enjoy. The new turn-based combat system is a daring move for Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, and for the most part, it works well. The series’ evolution from a beat ’em up with RPG elements to a full-blown JRPG has been a natural one, and the switch feels like it has been a long time coming.
Yakuza fans were anxious about whether the series would survive without the glue of Kiryu Kazama to hold it together. However, Ichiban Kasuga is a worthy successor to the Dragon of Dojima, and Like a Dragon is a great new start for this fantastic series that will please long-time Yakuza fans and newcomers alike.