The Yakuza series has long been a cult series in the west due to the lack of wide western releases initially and once Sega did realise what a gold mine they were sitting on they were five or six games into the series and the continuity seemed almost as impenetrable as an X-Men comic. However, the retconning work that was done to re-release many of the games starting with Yakuza 0 and Kiwami has helped clear things up and brought a whole host of new fans to the series. But that is still a heckuva lot of games to get through to catch up so that is where Like a Dragon comes in – a perfect entry point into the craziness that is Yakuza.
Like a Dragon follows a wholly new protagonist, Ichiban Kasuga as he seeks to unravel the mystery of what happened to his mentor and Yakuza family in the 18 years that he spent in prison after doing a favour for the boss of his old family. I’m keeping it vague from here on out because you have to experience the story yourself just like any other Yakuza game because it tends towards the bonkers while somehow weaving in deep themes of friendship, loyalty and most of all being heartfelt without becoming saccharine.
And one of those themes that are so deftly handled is how the game treats homelessness and the homeless. Instead of using the homeless as a prop to advance the story, it takes the time to humanise the homeless when your first ally Nanba berates Ichiban for making assumptions about why people end up homeless and destroying his perception that they are simply lazy who could find jobs if they wanted to. The challenges they face from crime syndicate exploitation to not being able to get a menial part-time job because they do not have a fixed address. This sensitive handling of difficult themes extends to the way they have written the plight of illegal immigrants and the sex workers too, though not the same extent as that of the homeless.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon changes the traditional formula in one significant way by moving the series away from its brawler roots to a traditional turn-based JRPG. The game now focuses on Ichiban and three other party members as they take on any and all sorts of weirdos and dangerous gangsters in Yokohama, itself a change of location from the fictional Kamurocho. While the previous games focused on a single PC at a time it did incorporate some RPG elements in that you can upgrade your character and their various fighting styles. Oddly Like a Dragon simplifies instead of leaning into what would be a traditional part of an RPG, albeit a western one. In this game, you can improve your party’s stats by simply levelling up. However, by simply having conversations with NPCs and giving the “right” answer you can improve your Charisma or even your sense of style. Improving these stats will unlock more conversation options and even new NPCs to talk to. The writers have explained this change deftly by making Ichiban a huge fan of Dragon Quest who sees himself as the hero. It makes so much sense once that piece of information is revealed, but it is so subtle as to be a great Easter Egg for fans of Japanese produced games.
As in any party and turn-based game, combat is based on mysterious initiative rolls to determine who goes in what order and your party level and the skills they have are more important than your reaction time and ability to learn combos and sometimes esoteric button input combos. Managing your party and combat is simple yet complex at the same time. Waiting for your turn and attacking is the simple, easy and ultimately impossible way to play this game. Impossible as without understanding what abilities and skills are effective against which enemies you will spend far longer in battles and far too often reloading saves as you die repeatedly.
Helping you keep track of all these enemies is the game’s own version of a Pokedex that plays off that well-known game with its tongue firmly in its cheek. The game is littered with these satirical nuggets. For instance, Yokohama is facing off against a puritan movement called Bleach Japan who are often found protesting outside brothels and in the Red-Light District. Bleach Japan is too long to fit on a tee-shirt, so they shorten it. I am sure you can see where this is going.
Adding more complexity to the game is a job system, old hat for JRPG fans, but new for anyone else. I must admit that forcing myself to explore the job system was difficult as once I found a job for each character that I liked I wanted to stick to it because it worked and I had spent so many hours levelling up my characters in that particular job. However, if you give in to that desire to explore the game to its fullest you will be rewarded with some weird and fun mechanics and combos between the characters.
As one of the signature games for the launch of the Xbox Series S and X you would think this game would come with all the bells and whistles, however, none of the fancy ray tracing etc is present. On PC, where I played the game, it ran perfectly. I experienced zero frame rate drops or crashes. However, load times can be a bit much even when running off an SSD. Visually the game is not what I would call a powerhouse or showcase for the series, it is not ugly or visually unappealing but if you were expecting spectacular vistas similar to the ones we experienced in Valhalla you will be disappointed.
The game is a long one at over fifty hours, but I feel as if half of that is taken up by cutscenes. Yakuza Like a Dragon is slow to start with what seems like a cutscene every five minutes, but the writing is so good and the characters so endearing that you will find yourself not skipping these scenes.
If you wanted to experience the wackiness of the series but did not want to wade through all the backstory Like a Dragon is the perfect gateway with a new protagonist to guide you into the game. The length may put many off, but it should not as the writing and the weirdness will keep you entertained for all those hours.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is available on Xbox Series X | S, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon was reviewed on PC though Steam which you can purchase here for £54.99.
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