It’s been out in Japan for a while, but the western release of Yakuza: Like a Dragon is finally here – making the next big entry for the Yakuza franchise and at the same time a bit of a departure in terms of gameplay mechanics. The game is out now for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PCs – with the next gen version for the Xbox already out and the PS5 one not arriving until later.
Speaking of next gen consoles – with a lack of exclusive at launch, the new Yakuza was a game we’ve be looking forward to a lot. It doesn’t disappoint, although it took a while to really accept that this wasn’t a numbered sequel in the series but something more akin to a spin-off, despite tackling familiar themes and locations.
Stepping away from the traditional mob narrative, Yakuza – Like a Dragon focuses much more on political intrigue, corruption and some of the larger (and smaller) issues that society’s struggling with. It also doesn’t shy away from social commentary by highlighting ‘the other side of the story’ – showing who’s affected when prostitution is outlawed or highlighting the mental hardships people go through when they lose their job.
It’s a different kind of narrative than the usual revenge/violence-fueled stuff we’ve come to expect from a Yakuza game, but the earlier spinoff Judgment had already shown us that this is a game world that’s rich enough to now support other genres and approaches – and Like a Dragon is much closer to a traditional Yakuza game than Judgment was, even though it’s different on key aspects.
The opening chapters in Like a Dragon introduce us to everyday people with not-so-everyday problems, like a doctor who’s lost his license to practice and a former cop struggling to make ends meet. Our main protagonist this time is Ichiban Kasuga, who was once aligned with the Arakawa clan but shown the door after serving an 18 year prison sentence for them even though he was innocent of the crime. His feelings of justice and injustice are (understandably) strong, and this is what creates a connection between him and the many other characters in the game – with a cast that gets bigger as the game progresses through the story.
While that’s a narrative shift for Yakuza, the biggest change is in the game’s combat, which is no longer real-time and combo-based. Surprisingly, combat is now of the turn-based strategy variety – which the developers have tied into Ichiban’s love for JRPG games in a clever meta-nod. You’ll spend your action points on offensive or defensive moves, you’ll notice that characters (on your team as well as the opposing crew) have distinct classes and you can even equip gear to play around with your loadout.
There’s a lot to love if you’re already a fan of the genre, but it can be a barrier and source of frustration as well. This gets better as time goes on because you’ll learn how to best fight certain enemy types, but there are also instances where Like a Dragon turns into a grind where you need to fight battle after battle just to upgrade or generate more income. And while teammates are disposable, it’s over if Ichiban himself dies in combat. Saving frequently is recommended, but not always an option during some of the larger combat/dungeon scenarios in the game, forcing you to backtrack and plough through previously explored content again.
Luckily, as you get more comfortable with the excellent battle system, this is more of an exception than the rule – and although I miss the traditional combat in Yakuza I had a great time with the new turn-based approach. And if I wanted some of that old school Yakuza gameplay, then Like a Dragon still had plenty of silly minigames and an in-game arcade with a bunch of SEGA classics for you to play.
Ultimately it’s the new cast of characters, the narrative and an eclectic mix of brutal, hilarious and emotional story beats that really makes Yakuza – Like a Dragon come together. It’s a good English dub as well, which for the first time also applies to many of the mini-games. With perhaps the most fascinating story campaign to this, this is a Yakuza entry you don’t want to miss.