Changing isn’t easy. Change brings with it uncertainty, which can be scary. There are plenty of video game franchises out there content to just keep putting out new installments without any meaningful changes to their formulas (I won’t name names, but you know the ones). It takes a lot of guts to take something you’ve invested a lot of time and resources into making and throw some of it out the window to try something new. But every once in a while, a studio jumps headfirst into uncharted territory. Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio has spent most of the past decade building an action-adventure franchise around the Yakuza games. Across seven titles, Yakuza has become an institution in Japan, and is finally starting to break into the mainstream in the West. So naturally, the newest entry throws the action-packed combat in the garbage and pushes the memorable cast of characters fans have grown to love to the side. The result is Yakuza: Like a Dragon, a turn-based JRPG with a brand new cast. That’s a lot of changes, but do they pay off?
“Turn-based JRPG” is a phrase that made you cheer, or made you roll your eyes and groan. Whatever your gut reaction was, trust it, Yakuza: Like a Dragon isn’t here to shake up the genre. The encounters aren’t random, groups of thugs roam the street and can be avoided, but get too close and you’ll trigger the transition to the battle screen. Once in battle, your party changes into their (sometimes comical) battle outfits and the group of thugs transform into a variety of equally ludicrous characters. Friend and foe alike roam about the battle randomly, and that seems to be the special sauce Yakuza: Like a Dragon brings to the table. Certain attacks can impact an area surrounding a target, which makes timing attacks around enemies grouping up a valuable tactic. It’s a mechanic that works wonders when fighting on narrow streets or back alleys, but can feel a little useless on the rare occasion battles take place in more wide-open settings.
Every character has a couple of unique battle skills, but the lion’s share of moves come from Like a Dragon’s job system. Players can visit the local employment office and assign each party member a new job to change up their skill set. You won’t find your typical RPG classes here, but instead bizarre takes on more contemporary professions. Pop idols and musicians sing their allies back to health and perform stat boosts. Chefs and fortune tellers deal elemental damage. Melee damage is done by katana-wielding bodyguards and dominatrix-inspired “night queens”. There are more than just those jobs, but you get the idea. It’s a fun take on traditional RPG character roles that I feel works wonders with Yakuza’s setting.
That’s all I can really discuss without covering what makes a Yakuza game a Yakuza game. Yakuza, as a franchise, sets itself apart by balancing serious themes with wild absurdity. Serious stories about loyalty, power, and morality exist alongside outrageous side missions and minigames. The dichotomy between seriousness and silliness is what catches your attention, and as you work your way through the game the line between dour and delightful begins to blur. As the drama of the narrative ramps up, the tone pushes so far into straight-faced that it starts to resemble something like a soap opera. That’s when you realize Yakuza isn’t a game of two opposites, but one of complements. The story and the side activities are two sides of the same campy coin.
Now that we’ve completed Yakuza 101, we can talk around the narrative (I’d hate to spoil details for you). Yakuza: Like a Dragon does follow the “serious turns into soap opera” style for its main story, but is a much more lighthearted experience than its predecessors. Like a Dragon takes a good dose of the humor typically reserved for side content and injects it straight into the main quest. The jokes and funny moments (sometimes crossing into the wholly absurd) are placed carefully in-between the major events of the plot in a way that makes everything shine, it’s truly impressive. The writing is good, nothing earth-shattering, but certainly enjoyable. If you can appreciate a story with an overly-dramatic twist or two, you’ll find plenty to enjoy here. Like a Dragon isn’t afraid to get silly, and the game is better for it.
A narrative is nothing without good characters. Fortunately, the characters are perhaps the strongest asset Yakuza: Like a Dragon has. Ichiban Kasuga, Like a Dragon’s protagonist, is one of the most innately likeable characters I’ve experienced in a very long time. Ichiban is a fiercely loyal man with a heart of gold that just so happens to be dumber than a bag of hammers. His go-to solution for most problems is punching, and to his credit it works. His cohorts, a homeless man, a disgraced cop, and a strong-willed bar hostess, serve as foils for Ichiban’s ignorance and naivete as well as reliable companions. The dialogue between the party members is fantastic, and the friendship that grows between them is genuine and heartwarming. My lone complaint is that an optional party member gets absolutely no lines in any story scenes at all.
I’ve covered the combat, the story, and the characters. Now I turn my attention to the final pillar of a good Yakuza game, side activities. There are side quests, called substories, galore, and each one is delightfully absurd. Arcades are all over the city, packed with claw machines and classic Sega games like Hang-On, Space Harrier, and Virtua Fighter. Players can have Ichiban take in a movie, but they’ll have to fight off a horde of sheep-men trying to lull Ichiban to sleep. There’s an entire kart racer with multiple grands prix and vehicle upgrades. If that’s still not enough for you, Like a Dragon features a full-on business simulator, complete with stockholder meeting minigame! If that still isn’t deep enough for you, you can learn to play shogi and mahjong, gamble in casinos, fight in a battle arena, or just take some general knowledge tests! There are so many well-executed minigames in Yakuza: Like a Dragon, it’s staggering.
The setting for all this delightful madness is a beautifully realized, mostly faithful, version of Yokohama, Japan. The city looks great during the day, and is absolutely gorgeous at night. Every section of the city from run-down back streets to the brightly illuminated shopping districts is brimming with detail and personality. Most shops and restaurants feature fully-rendered, walkable interiors to really sell that feeling of authenticity. Yakuza: Like a Dragon is as close to walking the streets of Yokohama yourself as you’re going to get outside of getting on a plane.
I’ve been very positive about Yakuza: Like a Dragon so far, but no game is perfect. Like a Dragon is a pretty smooth experience overall, but there is one VERY steep difficulty spike. The spike in question occurs in chapter 12, and it’s such a huge leap in difficulty that I’m warning you right here and now to make sure you’re at least level 47 before you get in that taxi. Trust me, it’ll make sense when you get there. That’s the biggest issue with the game by far, and even that can be mitigated by taking part in optional missions and activities as you progress through the story.
If you hate the notion of playing a turn-based JRPG, Yakuza: Like a Dragon isn’t going to change your mind. I went in excited to see what a Yakuza RPG was going to be like, and I walked away completely satisfied. I adored the story and side activities. I walked from place to place rather than using fast travel just because I enjoyed exploring the city. Most of all, I loved Ichiban. I liked Ichiban from the very beginning, and had a great time watching him grow across the game. I genuinely wanted to see Ichiban succeed, and that’s high praise from me. If you’re in the market for a new JRPG to play, or are an open-minded fan of the Yakuza series, Like a Dragon will not disappoint.