Yakuza: Like A Dragon review – gangster squad
The latest chapter in Sega’s beloved crime drama series debuts a new protagonist and a completely new combat system.
Sega’s long running Yakuza series is justifiably famed for balancing emotionally fraught narrative with an offbeat sense of humour and a strong sideline in bizarre mini-games. It’s also renowned for overarching, multi-episode storylines, the most recent of which concentrated on the life of Kiryu Kazuma, an arc that reached a satisfying conclusion in Yakuza 6. With all loose ends tied up there’s a lot riding on Like A Dragon, because it not only introduces a new protagonist but also a different city and a completely reinvented fighting system.
If you’ve played past instalments you’ll already be used to helping the games’ heavily tattooed leading men rise up from humble beginnings but new boy, Ichiban Kasuga, has further to climb than his predecessors, with a lengthy prologue that sees him imprisoned for 18 years for a crime he didn’t commit, before being disowned by his yakuza family and left for dead in a pile of rubbish. At the start of the game proper he’s a critically injured homeless man with nothing to his name but the bloodstained clothes on his back and a mysterious forged ¥10,000 note.
From this brutally inauspicious start, it’s your job to navigate your way back up to a life of organised crime, this time in the prefecture of Yokohama, which offers a play area about three times the size of Kamurocho – the setting for previous outings. Naturally, it retains the sense of realistic Japanese street life, from the beef bowls in its noodle shops to the many vending machines and arcades full of slot machines.
Life as a hobo is hard though and the first substory, the series’ name for side missions, is to collect cans for recycling by riding over them using a bicycle and cart. As well as grabbing cans, there are sparkling multi-can piles to aim for, and can-hunting rivals who you can ram to steal some of their haul, whilst attempting to avoid the same thing happening to you. It’s a pleasing diversion and a good way to earn a few yen while you’re getting back on your feet.
The change of locale and descent into vagrancy are only minor changes compared with the retooled fighting system, which is now turn-based. Instead of using Virtua Fighter-style combos, you now select attacks, special moves, or healing items from a menu, before choosing a target and letting fly. Some moves then require you to rapidly tap square, or hit triangle at just the right moment, with a similar rhythm action-lite system for blocking.
It’s a sea change, but actually the biggest update to combat is that you now have a full role-playing style party of fighters, all of whom you control, and each with their own specials, equipment, weapons, and jobs. The latter are effectively character classes, and while everyone comes with their own unique job you’re free to swap them out and experiment with different roles for team members.
Unfortunately, while the move to turn-based combat is reasonably successful, if eventually a bit repetitive, the jobs don’t work as well. That’s partly down to the fact that equipment is only usable by specific jobs, so changing them means finding all-new kit. It’s also hindered by the fact that you’re continually short of cash and upgrading weapons is expensive, a feature that tends to disincentivise experimentation.
The other issue is that a lot of jobs just aren’t that effective, even once you’ve upgraded compatible equipment. For most characters you recruit to your party, their default class is the best option for them, making the whole system seem a bit superfluous. It doesn’t ruin combat, but it does feel like a missed opportunity.
While Yakuza has always had role-playing leanings, Like A Dragon pushes these right to the fore, with numbers for everything from kindness to passion, health to magic points – some of which get a boost when you level up and some of which require topping up between or during battles by eating and drinking. There are also what the game refers to as ‘dungeons’, which are usually set in regular office buildings or bland concrete underpasses. Inside those you’ll find far greater concentrations of enemies and special items.
Those are fine up to a point, but one in particular, that you can repeat as often as you like to grind levels, is so devoid of visual interest it amounts to repeatedly trekking down empty corridors, bouncing between groups of near-identical bad guys to whom you administer yet more beatings. That would be okay if it wasn’t completely essential. In past games you could scrape by simply by being a good fighter. This time you need to grind just to stay competitive and being forced to repeat something you’d already written off as soul-sappingly tedious feels nothing like a good time.
There’s plenty to like though, and the series’ surreal humour is back in force, with absurdist missions and characters cropping up throughout. The lurching tonal shifts between touching interpersonal relationships laced with loyalty and longing, and Ichiban getting his post-prison perm messed up by the hairdresser are part of the series’ charm. For extra giggles, this is only the second Yakuza title to offer the option of English voices, and hearing Western actors attempting to make sense of the insane dialogue only multiplies the hilarity.
There are also numerous Dragon Quest references. Ichiban is a keen retro gamer and looks at the world as a role-playing game, so when you perform extreme magical special moves in combat it turns out that’s happening purely in his imagination, his fellow team members seeming baffled when he talks about it. There’s also a nod to Pokémon with Ichi’s Sujidex in which he records the different types of bad guy he defeats, with your mission to ‘dispatch ‘em all’.
The mini-games are great, the standouts being Dragon Kart, which is a heavily militarised go-kart racer, and a substory that sees you taking over and turning around a failing business, a process that involves balancing the books and also physically battling groups of rebellious shareholders. And despite all the craziness, it still manages moments of real emotion.
Although not without its faults, Yakuza: Like A Dragon is a likeable entry in the series, that retains the underlying themes of honour and helping the underdog. The turn-based combat works reasonably well, even if it’s fundamentally less exciting than the old system.
It’s likely to be a divisive feature, and it will be interesting to see how it’s adapted in future episodes, hopefully with a rebalancing of the job system. Like A Dragon is also a massive game and for fans of side quests and distractions it’ll be easy to get lost in this for weeks on end.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon review summary
In Short: The turn-based battles don’t fully convince but the new protagonist and bizarre mini-games still feel distinctively and entertainingly Yakuza.
Pros: Cracking mini-games, bizarre characters, and a truly surreal sense of humour that’s balanced against moments of genuine warmth and tenderness.
Cons: The combat isn’t interesting enough to sustain the amount of fights you get into. Too much level grinding with some very dull dungeons to crawl through.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5, and PC
Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio
Release Date: 10th November 2020 (2/3/21 on PS5)
Age Rating: 18
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