The Yakuza series is an absolute phenomenon in Japan (fun fact: in Japan it is known as Ryū ga Gotoku which translates to ‘Like A Dragon’), but is slowly picking up steam in the West. The series has been on my list of wanted games for a long time now, but that same list is also about eight thousand pages long only if you change the font to eight point Calibri. So Like A Dragon marks my first foray into the world of Yakuza, and having spent 35 hours immersing myself in its overwhelming bizarreness, I can now say that it’s a world I want to see infinitely more of.
Kasuga chose fight! It’s super effective!
In Like A Dragon you play as Ichiban Kasuga, who begins the game as a lowly young Yakuza in the low-ranking but well respected Arakawa family. Brash, compassionate and fiercely loyal to the family’s patriarch Masumi Arakawa, Ichiban is an instantly likeable protagonist. After agreeing to take the fall for a murder in order to save the face of the Arakawa family, Ichiban spends a whopping eighteen years in prison. His loyalty miraculously remains intact despite his lengthy incarceration, but when he emerges he is not greeted by Masumi Arakawa or indeed any of the family, and the world which he once knew is now unrecognisable. Then he gets a terrible haircut…
Time to die, trashbag man
What in the fresh hell is going on here?
Before entering Like A Dragon, I harboured some fears that it would be a humdrum tale of rising through the ranks of the Yakuza, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. I don’t intend to spoil any of the complex plot here, but I do intend to sing its praises. It’s melodramatic, tense, emotional and genuinely surprising from start to finish, confidently weaving a multi-layered narrative with an electric pace. It’s all anchored by Ichiban himself, who is an almost painfully genuine and passionate dude with a heart of gold that he wears firmly on the sleeve of his red suit. Even though Ichiban’s circumstances change dramatically over the course of his journey, it feels like his morality and sense of self are rarely compromised, and he has an intoxicating strength of will that makes him incredibly easy to barrack for.
The Yakuza series is known for its brawler-style gameplay, but Like A Dragon bucks the trend and has embraced the turn-based RPG genre. Despite the fact that it has a modern realistic context (as opposed to stereotypical swords and sorcery of a classic RPG), its JRPG-ness is instantly recognisable. From the over-the-top melodrama to the wild characters and villains, if you’ve played any JRPG in the last half century you’ll recognise all the tropes. Ichiban himself is a fan of RPGs, even going so far as to project his view of the world onto the enemies he fights, often giving them menacing fantastical appearances that only he can perceive. The game is essentially a story of Ichiban’s desire to ‘level up in life’, and regardless of how bizarre it is, it is incredibly relatable for anyone who feels that life is a slightly confusing but oddly compelling XP grind. It’s a clever blend of narrative and genre, with the result being a slightly meta fourth wall-breaking experience where the game is both a mechanically competent turn-based RPG and a satirical melodrama that manages to poke fun at itself and popular gaming culture at the same time.
Even though Ichiban’s circumstances change dramatically over the course of his journey, it feels like his morality and sense of self are rarely compromised, and he has an intoxicating strength of will that makes him incredibly easy to barrack for.
The turn-based combat, while perhaps not revolutionary, is highly engaging and confidently stylish. When it’s your turn, Ichiban and his party members can perform basic and special moves, use items or guard. To keep you engaged, there are some elements of real-time combat, such as guarding from damage with a timely press of the guard button at the moment you’re attacked, or quickly attacking a downed enemy to do extra damage. Special attacks and support spells use up your limited pool of MP, and their availability is linked to the assigned Job you have for each character. While Job systems (which broadly equate to classes such as tank, healer or mage) are not new in the genre, the Yakuza-flavoured Job system is absolutely something I haven’t seen before. Do you want your buddy Nanba to hone his skills as an umbrella-wielding, fire-breathing hobo, or would you rather he pick up a guitar and bash people over the head with it and be your bard? I developed a soft spot for the Breaker job, which uses breakdancing moves that can damage enemies as well as provide buffs for you and the party. How you balance your Jobs in your party is important, and as you level up each Job you’ll unlock increasingly powerful moves, which keeps things fresh and interesting during the power climb. Changing jobs also drastically changes a character’s appearance, with often hilarious results. It is a bit annoying that Job changes have to be done at a specific location (a job agency called Hello Work), and I think having them accessible through the main menu would have been far less hassle.
Although there’s a fair amount of combat, there is also an equal amount of awesome side activities and mini-games in which to partake. I feel like some of the side activities are so good they could become games in their own right. They’re too numerous to list in their entirety, but discovering them was a constant source of joy. Things like cutthroat races with a bunch of hobos to pick up cans or trying to stay awake during movies by banishing REM rams whack-a-mole style is amazingly addicting. Each mini-game and side activity is lovingly crafted, and had me laughing out loud at how absurd and fantastic they were. They really fit the game’s bizarre tone perfectly, and have well balanced tangible benefits too (such as raising money or increasing certain stats). My favourite was definitely becoming president of a confectionary company and turning the business from an utter failure to a raging success, and then further building an expansive empire of night clubs and hotels. The same care and craziness also extends to side quest writing, which is universally excellent. While on the surface the objectives are fairly simple (fetch this or kill that), they are all wrapped in Yakuza-flavoured whackiness that makes you actively seek them out just to see how weird things can get. Whether it’s catching a public urinator, completing a Pokémon-style quest to document the city’s denizens or discovering a Yakuza family made up of literal man-babies, side quest design is refreshingly unique and satisfying, in a genre where it very often isn’t (looking at you FF7 Remake).
The game runs smoothly, but it isn’t exactly a graphical powerhouse. While attack animations are beautifully crafted and executed (particularly the crazy special moves), environments can appear a little dull, and some NPCs look like they’ve emerged fresh out of the Skyrim randomly-generated face maker. The art direction is strong though, and Ichiban’s distorted video game-esque view of reality gives the developers plenty of license to get creative with enemy design. The sound design too is universally excellent, chopping and changing seamlessly based on the mood with a bunch of killer tracks. Despite the fact it repeats itself it in certain scenarios, it strikes the balance of never feeling like it grates on the old earholes thanks to how well it’s executed.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon is as easy to love as it is for Ichiban to rip off his shirt in one fluid motion
Breakdance fighting a tiger, because that’s what heroes do
As I mentioned previously, Like A Dragon is a JRPG through and through, and unfortunately that means a rather stark difficulty wall towards the end of your journey. I felt like the game was a little easy up until a certain boss that absolutely wiped the floor with my entire party, who up until that point I thought were pretty rad. I was forced to grind for a few hours (in the relatively lazy designated grinding area), and come back and finish the fight. It’s not an element of JRPG design I’m really enamoured with, but there will no doubt be those who will simply accept it as an inevitable aspect of JRPG design.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon is as easy to love as it is for Ichiban to rip off his shirt in one fluid motion. Its compelling narrative is deep and rewarding, with amazing weirdness and incredible heart in equal measure. Its classic JRPG stylings are cleverly intertwined with the narrative and themes, and take advantage of a modern and relatable context to deliver a knockout blow. Ichiban Kasuga has emerged as possibly one of my favourite protagonists in gaming, and the game itself is one of the most unique rollercoaster rides I’ve had this generation. It’s up there with Persona 5 for me, and that is no small praise.
Reviewed on PS4 // Review code supplied by publisher
- Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio
- PS4 / Xbox Series X&S / Xbox One / PC
- November 10, 2020 (Worldwide) / January 16, 2020 (Japan)