I’ll go ahead and get the hyperbole out of the way: Yakuza: Like a Dragon ranks as one of my favorite games of 2020, and it’s easily the best game thus far in the Yakuza franchise. Although I had my doubts when it was announced — due to the game’s shift from highly stylized beat-em-up action to Dragon Quest-inspired turn-based combat — it didn’t take long for Like a Dragon to completely win me over. While I’d anticipated a goofy, over-the-top romp filled with that type of ridiculous nonsense that the series has delivered in the past, the latest installment assembles one of the most heartfelt stories in the entire franchise — spin-offs included. And if you’ve had your own doubts because of the shift in mechanics, don’t let that stop you from sinking hours upon hours into Like a Dragon — every single shift in design and execution makes this a deeply refreshing departure that’s hard to put down. I’m certainly hooked.
As mentioned, I had serious (and misguided) reservations about Yakuza: Like a Dragon after hearing that it would serve as a new chapter in the series (sans Kiryu Kazuma) and offer a complete revamp of the way you take down your enemies. I’m not exactly a person who openly embraces change, and when you mess with a winning formula in a series with which I’m particularly smitten, my first inclination involves turning up my nose and complaining about things — even before I had an opportunity to play it! I went out of my way to avoid early previews and footage in order to keep my expectations in check. If people absolutely hated the new system, I didn’t want to hear about it — I wanted to experience everything for myself. In truth, of course, I really didn’t want to get my hopes up about anything.
The first major hurdle I had to overcome involved lovable yakuza thug Ichiban Kasuga, Like a Dragon’s hot-tempered but well-meaning protagonist. Although he and Kiryu share many of the same traits, it’s obvious right off the bat that you’re playing a completely different person; this isn’t some half-baked reskin. Ichiban feels like a totally different character, and to my complete surprise, I found myself warming up to him almost immediately. Without giving too much away, he and Kiryu share a very similar background — including spending some time in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. It also helps matters greatly that he rocks a botched punch perm after his stint in prison, which instantly gives this character a hefty dose of charm. Simply put: Ichiban rocks. Full stop.
Unlike Kiryu, who always seemed self-assured and street smart, Ichiban often feels like a total fish out of water. The years he spent in prison have not prepared him for the modern world, making his parole somewhat bittersweet. To further complicate matters, the yakuza family he thought would once again embrace him with open arms have turned their backs to him, with one individual going as far as to make an attempt on his life. It’s at this point in the story that Like a Dragon makes its biggest departure, introducing a completely different city and a cast of characters who need to help Ichiban find his footing so he can become the hero Yokohama needs.
Rest assured that all of the hallmarks of the Yakuza series are present and accounted for, right down to the batch of zany characters and substories that require you to partake in a wide range of goofy activities (collecting cans while savagely running down the competition quickly became one of my favorite pastimes). Although I initially believed I’d have more fun with the substories than I would the main storyline, which has happened before (Yakuza 6, sometimes), I hadn’t prepared myself for the heavy emotional angle this narrative would take. Instead of using Ichiban as an avatar to visit this wacky side of Japanese life, I found myself absorbed in his story.
Early on, Ichiban briefly touches on his rise through the ranks of the yakuza with a fellow Arakawa family member. During this exchange, he essentially explains that he learned everything he needed to know about becoming a hero by playing Dragon Quest. This perfectly sets the tone for what follows; from the “rise of a hero”-type storyline to the way the combat, leveling system, and equipment operate, you’re basically playing a Dragon Quest spin-off. To my surprise, this actually works in Like a Dragon’s favor. I hadn’t noticed how tired I’d become of the beat-em-up system until Yakuza took it away from me and replaced it with a turn-based mechanic. I love it.
If you’ve ever played a turn-based JRPG before, then you should know precisely what you’re getting into gameplay-wise. After Ichiban removes a holy barbed-wire baseball bat from a sidewalk, the enemies he and his party encounter tend to take on a more fantastical appearance (the Hungry Hungry Homeless character made me laugh and then immediately question my own sense of humor). In fact, the further you delve into the game, the more self-aware it becomes. Like a Dragon wears its Dragon Quest-inspired antics like a badge of honor, and it embraces this silliness with open arms. Everything our heroes do during the adventure, from getting jobs to digging around under vending machines for treasure, relates back to JRPGs. It’s a little too on the nose at times, but that doesn’t make it any less amusing.
While working through substories, grinding for levels, and partaking in oddball mini-games will definitely keep you busy, you need to prepare for downtime while playing Yakuza: Like a Dragon. The cutscenes, of which there are many, tend to be a little long-winded and exposition-heavy; during the first few hours, you’ll consume so much backstory that you may have a difficult time keeping everything straight. I have no problem with exposition — I love getting to known the characters and the world they inhabit — but Like a Dragon wants you to learn everything right from the jump. However, it takes a while for the game to really get rolling, which tends to work against the experience as a whole since exploring the world and interacting with its stable of weirdos is a huge part of the charm.
Sadly the game also suffers from stiff animation and slightly repetitive enemy design; I once encountered a party of three goons who each looked exactly the same – right down to their outfits and weapon of choice. The Dragon Engine does a great job of bringing Yokohama (Isezaki Ijincho, specifically) to life, but the character designs often leave you feeling a bit underwhelmed. Speaking of underwhelming, I expected a little more in terms of “dungeon” design; when you strip away the Yakuza aesthetic, these dungeons boil down to a series of interconnected hallways with little thought given to their design. Coincidentally, this is often my biggest complaint about Dragon Quest: a fantastic overworld with ho-hum dungeons. And I promise that’s the only dig at Dragon Quest I’ll take. No hate intended!
These minor issues matter little in the grand scheme of Yakuza: Like a Dragon, because this is the franchise’s finest hour, by far. It may not lean into the goofiness found in Yakuza 0, but it absolutely nails the storytelling and the characters — even if you have to twiddle your thumbs while you’re treated to yet another exposition dump. Fortunately, Like a Dragon knows how to build a world and spin a yarn, so boredom rarely swings by when you’re watching cut scenes. Ichiban and his merry band of urban heroes embrace the “life is nothing more than an elaborate RPG” concept, and the game’s self-awareness helps when the story delves into dark and/or familiar territory. If you’ve never played a Yakuza game in your life, Like a Dragon is an excellent place to start your quest.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 Pro version of the game. A code was provided by Sega of America.
The latest installment in the Yakuza franchise takes the series in a brave new direction. And while it takes a moment to get used to the new characters, setting, and battle mechanics, you'll soon find yourself sinking into a fully-realized world that's charming, heartfelt, and an outright blast to play - even if you're not a Dragon Quest fan.