I was initially skeptical about the sudden transition to turn-based combat after Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio spent years honing the series’ beat ‘em up combat, but those doubts disappeared a few hours into the game and once I met Nanba, the third member of my party.
Nanba is an ex-nurse who fell on hard times and ended up living on the streets of Yokohama’s Isezaki Ijincho red light district. His default class is “homeless guy” and his main attacks are hitting things with an umbrella, summoning pigeons with beans to swarm his enemies, and spitting flaming bursts of alcohol at people. He’s one of my favorite RPG characters ever, and he perfectly illustrates how Like a Dragon expertly walks the fine line between realism and absurdity and just how much thought has been put into the game’s new mechanics.
Combat isn’t the only thing that’s changed in Like a Dragon. Series mainstay Kazuma Kiryu has been replaced by newcomer Ichiban Kasuga in this sequel/soft reboot. And while the story starts in Kamurocho, the fictional Tokyo district that has been the setting for previous Yakuza games, it quickly moves to the city of Yokohama, the series’ largest map yet.
The game opens on New Year’s Eve in the year 2000. Ichiban is the lowest ranking member of a small yakuza family in the Tojo Clan. When an indispensable senior member of the group murders a member of a rival family, Ichiban agrees to confess to the murder and serve the prison sentence in his stead with the promise that he’ll be welcomed back into the fold upon his release.
But 18 years later, things don’t quite go as planned. Ichiban’s patriarch betrayed the Tojo Clan while he was imprisoned and now works with their former enemies, the Omi Alliance. Worse, he refuses to acknowledge Ichiban and leaves him for dead in Yokohama, where Ichiban soon finds himself in the midst of a complicated three-way conflict between the local Japanese, Chinese, and Korean crime syndicates. Ichiban is a yakuza without a family just trying to uphold the honorable ideas of what he thought the yakuza were supposed to be in a land he’s unfamiliar with.
As expected from the franchise at this point, the story is wonderfully told through a regular stream of cinematics on par with some of the best Hollywood crime movies, and there are plenty of surprises mixed with the series’ trademark humor. It’s captivating as hell.
While the story’s setup is similar to the original Yakuza, Ichiban makes for a much more relatable character than Kazuma. He’s not a hard ass. He doesn’t want to be the boss. He’s just a good-natured kid who grew up in a brothel and is now trying his best. And he absolutely loves the Dragon Quest games, which is cleverly noted early on as the reason for the new turn-based combat system. The homages to JRPGs don’t end there, with plenty of other references to other series like Pokemon and Final Fantasy scattered throughout the 15-chapter adventure and numerous side quests.
Release Date: Nov. 10, 2020
Platforms: XBO (reviewed), PS4, XSX, PS5
Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio
For the most part, combat works extremely well. Similar to Paper Mario, some attacks require additional button presses to score extra damage, and if you press the block button just before an enemy attack hits, you’ll score a perfect block and take less damage. You can also get in extra damage by quickly attacking downed enemies before they get up, adding a little more strategy.
Given the lack of fantasy elements, there’s a surprising amount of variety in enemies, from sledgehammer-wielding gangsters to deranged flashers who spend most of the fight closely gripping onto their trench coats. Many go by creative names like “corporate punisher” and (my personal favorite) “pimpmaster.”
Your party of up to four characters can’t pick up nearby weapons in the middle of fights like in previous games. Instead, you have to position yourself near these objects and hope that they get used as part of attack. Unfortunately, characters move around the battle area randomly during fights, so you can’t actually do anything to influence these attacks besides wait a few extra seconds and hope your character moves where you want them to. And every now and then, that does mean a character gets stuck on something and completely misses an attack.
Adding to the variety is a job system that allows you to visit the Yokohama temp agency and literally change jobs at your leisure. Tired of being a generic hero? Think it’s time for Nanba to do more than be a homeless guy? No problem! After a brief conversation, you can become a bodyguard, chef, fortune teller, or even an idol.
Yeah, Like a Dragon can be a very odd game and that extends to the usual side activities as well. If you need a break from the main story, there’s pachinko, darts, a new kart racing mini game, and even a business management simulation where one of your best employees is a chicken.
So, what’s not to like? Mainly legacy issues that have always plagued Yakuza games. The Dragon Engine is perfectly serviceable, but conversation animations in particular are noticeably stiffer than in other big-budget titles. While Yokohama is impressive overall, indoor dungeons lack detail. And while the main cast of the English language track is outstanding, the quality of voice performances from minor characters can vary significantly. Finally, I often encountered significant load times while transitioning from gameplay to cinematics on the Xbox One X. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to try out Like a Dragon on the Xbox Series X, where it’s a timed next-gen exclusive, so I can’t yet comment on how much better the performance might be on Microsoft’s new console.
But even on the current generation of consoles, Like a Dragon is an impressive reinvention of the Yakuza series, with storytelling and combat on par with the very best of the JRPG genre. It’s not the Yakuza game I thought I wanted, but now it feels like this is how the series was always meant to be played.