Loyalty. Respect. Two things in this world that are much easier broken than earned. Yakuza games often revolve around these two pivotal points. They give us grandiose stories of how these vices can really drive a character and influence the decisions they make. Kiryu gave us many years (and many titles) of Yakuza games, but was it right to leave him behind in favour of a new protagonist in Yakuza Like a Dragon? Does a Yakuza game even justify a Yakuza game without the powerhouse main character? Wouldn't that be like a Sonic game without Sonic?
These are a couple of the questions I will attempt to answer throughout this review. To give you a basis of where my Yakuza knowledge stretches to and from, I have only previously played the two Kiwamii titles. Both of them are worth checking out. But Like a Dragon does not follow from the main story from other Yakuza titles, nor does it require previous knowledge of the titles. It does, however, take place in the same world. A previous understanding is not necessary, but it will enhance your experience.
With that out the way, let us jump in.
A New Challenger Enters…
So, I am sure you may have concerns about not being in control of Kiryu in this new Yakuza story. And rightly so. There is a reason IPs never relinquish their iconic main protagonist role to a new character outright. There would be uproar if Crash Bandicoot disappeared in the next title and you played as some rando that nobody had heard of before. But in Yakuza Like A Dragon, it works. This is from both a mechanic point of view and from a story point of view. I mentioned earlier that my knowledge of Yakuza as a whole is definitely finite, but I am aware that Kiryu is getting on in years as of Yakuza 6. Like a Dragon plays much differently from other games in the series. Introducing a new character for a modern style, in a game based after the events of the series so far, make logical sense.
For all of you die-hard Kiryu fans out there (I know you are there) then you need not fear, he does make an appearance in this game. I will not say any more than that, but it seems he is not out of the fray just quite yet.
Ichiban does bring a charismatic charm to the franchise. Kiryu was great, but he was for all intents and purposes, well, a bit dry. I might get hate mail for that, but it is true. Ichiban is lively, energetic, and brings an innocent glee to the story. He is easily the most likeable of the new characters introduced in this game.
A New Challenge Awaits…
The other new thing to the franchise is the new combat system. A modern practice these days is to curve the combat of a franchise away from turn-based roots. We saw this with games such as the Final Fantasy VII Remake, Dragon Quest Heroes 2 etc. Like a Dragon does the opposite of this emerging trope. It turns the action beat 'em up style of the original Yakuza games and morphs it into a turn-based game. To many, this has been the antithesis of what they want from the franchise. Which is understandable, but also a shame. Like a Dragon deserves just as much loyalty and respect as its predecessors.
The old school mechanics dropped into a modernised world brings about some interesting moments. Turn-based combat systems go hand in hand with the fantasy RPG genre. It is so ingrained in the codes and conventions (shout out to my game design tutor who taught me these terms) of the fantasy RPG genre. We have never even considered the mechanic in any other genre or theme. Bringing it to a modern setting works in so many smile-inducing moments. It is almost criminal that we left the mechanic to stagnate for so long.
This all sounds like gibberish jargon I am sure, so let me give you some examples and break this down a little bit. One of the tropes of fantasy RPG games is dividing the characters into classes. True, we see this in modern set games such as Call of Duty but they essentially come down to different sets of weapons. You don't go into these types of games and expect to see a mage option, for example. This is where Like of Dragon's charm illuminates like a ray of sunshine on a gloomy day.
There is a mage in this game, he is a homeless man. His fire magic is in the form of pyromancy, his healing comes from his knowledge of being a nurse, he can even persuade enemies to drop items. He does this by getting on his knees and begging for help because he is homeless! So many little modernised spins on fantasy style tropes is just an absolute joy to witness. There are countless ways that the classes in this game do these twists, but the fun of them gets lost if I detail them all here.
Another way this game twists the fantasy style mechanics and tropes is with the way it handles summons in the game. We have all seen them in many different forms, from aeons in FFX, to conjuration magic in Skyrim, to summoning friends in the soulsborne games. Like a Dragon, of course, puts its own spin on this. It introduces an app on your phone that lets you essentially 'call a friend.' An often-humorous scene will play out where your summon will do its thing. A soup kitchen worker might fall from the sky and chop up some veg to make you a nice meal. Or Gary Buster Holmes charges in with his mace hands and hulk-smashes your opponents to dust. This system is only expanded and gets even better the further you progress, and the more side content you complete. It is such a fantastic little mechanic that you always find yourself using it. Seeing a summoned lobster take on an 8-foot-tall pirate, or Gary pounding a wrecking ball machine, is just pure delight.
Mace Hands? Pirates? MAGES!?
At this point, you might be wondering how such fantastical things can be in a game that is set in a modern setting. The answer to this is just as whacky as the game itself is. Ichiban (the protagonist) is a massive fan of Dragon Quest games. And with that, when he gets thrown into a fight, he sees the world as if he is a hero in a game. Very meta I know. This makes him see enemies in interesting and deformed ways and views the fights as if they are turn-based. Again, very meta. At the start of the game, it mentions that Ichiban must like getting hit. He always 'waits for the enemy to attack him' before he makes another move. This simple bit of character development makes this whole bizarre adventure make logical sense.
When you are in battle and you meet these mad characters that seem impossible to explain, it is simply that. They ARE impossible to explain. Everything that happens is just Ichiban being his loveable self, seeing the world through the eyes of a turn-based JRPG fanboy. I think that is just such a simple and engaging example of how to make two genres/settings simply work.
Stuff to Love…
There are many things about Yakuza Like A Dragon that are easily loved.
Building upon its Yakuza game roots brings with it a slew of minigames, exploration, collectible finding, side content and many restaurants and establishments to eat at. There is even a business to run if you get bored of all of this extra content. Classic SEGA arcades make a return with claw machines, Fantasy Zone, Virtua Fighter 2 and OutRun. There is Shogi, Mahjong, batting centres, golf clubs, darts. There are slot machines, gambling halls and even a secret area where you can play traditional Japanese card games like Koi Koi. There's even a kart racing mini-game with competitions and a vocational certificate school where you can take actual tests and increase your stats.
Speaking of stats, building upon new systems for a Yakuza game, there are now 6 different personality stats that you need to increase. These being: charisma, passion, confidence, kindness, intellect, and style. Some content remains locked until you have levelled up a specific one of these stats, much similar to the system used within Persona 5. I bet you never expected a Yakuza game to compare to a Persona game. You also have general stats, like in most RPG games. Such as specific ailment resistances etc. Interestingly though, the general stats you have link to whatever job you currently have each character assigned to. Levelling up individual jobs is separate to your overall level, or personality trait level.
Stuff to not so Love
There are two sides to every gaming venture. And it is this side that I always like talking about the least. We should celebrate games and enjoy them. But unfortunately, nothing is without fault.
Yakuza games have somewhat of a history when it comes to fighting and females. There is to my knowledge, not a single female enemy in the entirety of the series. I didn't even notice until I found myself coming across females in side-quests that literally said things like "I'm going to kick your *ss," adopting a fighting pose, and then when the scene cuts to gameplay it's just her male companion in the fight. This happens several times and it leaves a disconnect with the player and the immersion of the game. The disconnect is even more apparent when you have 2 females in your party that fight with you, so there is no real reason not to have female enemies.
There is also occasionally a disconnect between the combat mechanic and the environments you fight in. As, when a fight opens (which happens EVERYWHERE) you go into combat mode. This mode will have you fighting exactly where you started the fight. I do vastly prefer this over other games that whisk you away or place you somewhere specific to fight in. However, the enemies and party members will randomly walk around during the fight to make it feel more realistic than standing in place. This just doesn't work. Characters will often find themselves stuck walking headfirst into walls and trees, walking backwards far from the fight, or just doing stupid things. This gets frustrating quickly as you can't move your party during fights.
I would have liked more places to visit. The Yakuza games I have played have all felt very restrictive in terms of areas to visit. There is only so much attention you can give one relatively small map before you start longing for something more.
Yakuza Like a Dragon takes the codes and conventions (shout out no.2) of a well-established gaming genre and gives them a fresh lick of paint. All whilst retaining the classic feeling we get when approaching such mechanics in games.
Is the game perfect? No. The story is pretty predictable (I mean, it even has a party member betray us followed by a 5-minute redemption arc. Yawn), the gameplay can feel a little flat at times and the characters are very hit or miss. I only remember the names of half the people in my party. Is the game fun? Yes. The game constantly had me smiling with all of its tweaks to the mechanics we are all accustomed to. Ichiban's approach to situations he finds himself in, the silly side content, the amusing summons, and thinking I was becoming a pro at Koi Koi when really I still don't have the foggiest of how it works...
Yakuza Like A Dragon is great for newcomers to the franchise and die-hard fans alike. I feel like a true Yakuza game isn't about the fighting style, the characters, or the story. I feel like it is about the quirks you find along the way. The amusing ridiculous content that contradicts the seriousness of the plot. Getting frustrated at not being able to win a monkey plushie in the claw machines. In this vein of thought, Yakuza Like a Dragon is possibly the most Yakuzary game a Yakuza game has been so far. Try saying the ten times fast.
Definitely give Yakuza Like A Dragon a try, I feel like it is going to be a great inspiration for other developers looking to try something out of the ordinary!