Ah, there’s nothing quite like strolling down the streets of Kamurocho while armed with a bicycle, ready to unleash some mayhem to the poor fools who were itching for a fight. For friends and long-time followers, the fact that I love the Yakuza series is no secret; I’ve built most of my streaming history playing the games, starting with Yakuza 0 and working my way through the series since. Last year I even had a chance to review Judgment, and really enjoyed the chance to see the world of Kamurocho from a different perspective. When SEGA reached out and asked if I would be interested in trying a preview build of Yakuza: Like a Dragon, I leapt at the chance! But, I have to admit, I still didn’t know what to think about the switch from Action to RPG, or the movement away from Kiryu, Majima, Akiyama, and the rest of the regular cast. The preview build I got dropped me right into the thick of things, starting in Chapter 5, but I was able to get a pretty good handle on things right away and honestly, there’s a good chance that Yakuza: Like a Dragon might end up being my favorite game in the series when I finally get to play the full game!
Like a Dragon Quest
One of the first details about Ichiban Kasuga, Like a Dragon’s protagonist, that was revealed during previews was that he loved to play Dragon Quest. A lot of that bleeds into the theme of Like a Dragon, from the way his cell phone ringer sounds, to the “quest” noises you get for taking and completing subquests. It goes a bit deeper, too, blending itself into the RPG aspects of the game. Chapter 5 gave me a full party of Ichiban, Saeko, Adachi, and Nanba, perhaps the most ragtag band of misfits I’ve seen in the Yakuza series so far. Each one has various jobs they can pick that determine their skills and equipment, with each one having a “basic” job based off of their overall character. Nanba, for example, is a homeless man who can do things like summon pigeons to attack enemies, while Adachi, an ex-cop, can arrest enemies and prevent them from acting in battle. The ability to select jobs lets you mix your party abilities to your playstyle, letting you focus on either a “traditional” party of tank, mage, healer, and support, or going a bit beyond that, you can make glass cannon teams that worry about winning the fight first and deal with the consequences later!
Now, for the biggie: What did I think of the battle system, especially since it’s unlike the other games in the series? Honestly? I found the battle system really fun, and somehow, it felt totally natural. There’s a part of me that wonders if Yakuza should have perhaps been an RPG all along, and in a lot of cases the games were already there: sprawling stories, intense character development, sidequests, skills, levelling, the biggest overall change is really just the switch from “action” based beat-em up gameplay to turn-based RPG gameplay. But thinking a bit beyond that, I can’t say the change feels unwelcome or, perhaps, even an improvement! I’m sure this will be the 🔥hot take🔥 to have in regards to Like a Dragon, but for me, I really found myself loving it, and I kind of hope that the next games in the series either improve on this formula, or at least try something new! The biggest thing that stuck out to me was how easy it was to play the new RPG system. Granted, I’ve had a lot more of my years spent on RPG games (like Final Fantasy, Pokémon, Lunar, and of course Dragon Quest) than most other types of games, but even then, I didn’t feel that Like a Dragon was all that hard to pick up, and I found myself easily steering myself through battles stylishly in no time. The added QTE bonuses on special moves is a nice touch that reminds me of older heat actions, and the way that characters interact with environmental objects (such as picking up signs, kicking traffic cones, etc.) feels very much like a nice way to callback to the days of picking up random things on the street and hitting people with them.
One of the more joked about features in the game was the “summon” system in the game, called “Poundmates”. Double entendres aside, early on in Like a Dragon’s Japanese release videos of the Poundmates made the rounds for how ridiculous some of them could be, coupled with the cameos of certain series favorite characters. During this preview, I was able to actually see quite a few of them, and I was most happy with the fact that the Poundmates system doesn’t rely entirely on Yakuza cameos to work. While there are some (including the infamous Adult Baby Yakuza family), many of the Poundmates are rewards for long and involved substories.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love the cameos, but what I really liked about the Poundmate system was that it helped make doing some of the substories feel more rewarding and interesting, and it helped tie in the idea that Ichiban was making friends with and bonds with various people (and… animals?) that he met along the way. I initially expected them all to be cameos, but if you’re starting the Yakuza series from this game, you’ll find that the Poundmates are all unique and while some are indeed cameos from previous games, you don’t need to know anything about them to enjoy the game!
New Series, Who Dis?
And, actually, that was one of the biggest surprises for me: That Yakuza: Like a Dragon doesn’t rely on the previous games to succeed. From what I played, I didn’t feel like I needed to know anything about the previous games at all in order to enjoy it, which is perhaps one of the best things someone can say about a “new” direction in a beloved series. While Yakuza characters, names, and events sometimes get mentioned, I actually found them pretty rare, and instead was able to start learning about Ichiban and his group without ever feeling like I needed to compare them to previous game protagonists. Even though I’ve been dropped into the early portion of the game, the storyline was unique and different enough for me to notice that a lot of the Yakuza charm was here, but it didn’t come with a requirement of knowing various characters and alliances from previous installments.
Yokohama makes for an interesting new home for the game, changing things up from the streets of Kamurocho quite a bit. While Kamurocho always felt like a neon-lit noir home, Yokohama appears as a city in crossroads, with homeless camps and soaplands down the street from bright ferris wheels and touristy Chinatown. In some cases this new city, with new NPCs and minigames, really helped quell any worries I had about whether I would like this installment in the series or not, because even though all of the changes are interesting, there’s always a worry that they may not be… well… good! But to my surprise, the new minigames in Like a Dragon feel very fresh and interesting, and in some ways I get a sense that this game took a lot more from Yakuza 0 than it did other games in the series; the real estate minigame returns on steroids, essentially, and even comes with its own chicken! The biggest minigames available to me during this preview were Seagull Theater (where Ichiban is tasked with staying awake through movies), the Vocational School (where I had to take actual tests, some with questions that were pretty challenging!) to improve my personality ranks, Business Management (the real estate game from Yakuza 0, but more complex), and Dragon Racer.
Oh boy, Dragon Racer.
You know how during a lot of talk of Sonic & Sega All-Stars talk, people joked about Kiryu joining the game? Well, Dragon Racer is basically Yakuza Mario Kart, so your wish is… granted? The Dragon Racer storyline is absolutely bonkers, and the gameplay itself is very fun and a solid kart racing game that replaces things like red turtle shells with… a bazooka?! Yeah. It’s basically like that!
The final mini-game I enjoyed was the Can Game, which tasks Ichiban with picking up as many cans as possible and then trading them in for various rewards to Kan-san. I think the best possible way to describe the Can Game is that it is sort of like Pac-Man. Ichiban pedals a bike around the map, picking up cans, avoiding other can hunters and the dreaded garbage truck, while looking for power-ups that allow him to fight back. Getting hit by an enemy can hunter steals 50 cans from you, but if you manage to use a speed boost and ram them instead, you can gain an increasing amount of cans (20, 30, etc.) in a combo! Just don’t ram the garbage truck. It doesn’t matter how fast you pedal. It is still a garbage truck, and you’re gonna lose that battle, bud.
Ichiban is a really lovable protagonist. To get any comparisons to Kiryu out of the way, Ichiban is basically everything Kiryu isn’t. He’s expressive, hot-blooded, temperamental, and a little bit childish even with his wonderment and glee for certain things. I never got a sense that his love of Dragon Quest was as major a facet of his personality as some people feared; it came up perhaps once during my time with the game, and felt pretty natural, especially when considering how popular and ubiquitous Dragon Quest actually is in Japan. I think in my first hour or so of the game I found myself talking to my partner about how I felt about Ichiban in comparison to Kiryu, but after that hour I stopped thinking about the comparison at all. Ichiban is a very strong and distinct character, and the game does a very good job of selling his personality to the player and making him an appealing and distinct person to play as.
With that, the characters that join Ichiban are equally as interesting. Something I think will be explored more in the main game is that all of these characters are damaged, sad, down on their luck individuals. Compared to Kiryu, who dealt with people like the Florist of Sai, high-ranking Yakuza leaders, government officials and international government agents, Ichiban’s concerns and contacts are far more local and, honestly, a bit more realistic. One of the big antagonists I encountered in the game was a puritanical group called Bleach Japan who used obnoxious bullying and violence tactics to harass “grey” businesses like soaplands, and I felt more distaste for these characters than I did for some of Yakuza’s biggest villains. A side-quest having me beat up an abusive boyfriend or help a homeless man build a bookcase felt pretty normal and almost cozy, in an odd way, that helped make Ichiban’s worldview and life in Yokohama make more sense.
Ichiban can’t rely on notoriety to get things done, and he’s a nobody, helped by and surrounded by other nobodies. Like a Dragon does a great job making Ichiban feel more realistic than Kiryu, maybe because it’s easier to believe in someone down and out than it is someone as almost supernaturally stoic and strong as Kiryu. As I got to know Ichiban’s party, I started to appreciate each of them more, and their deep flaws made them far more relatable than I’d actually encountered in the series before. I don’t want to spoil any of it, but I’ll say that I really enjoyed getting to know these characters, especially Saeko, who has emerged as maybe my favorite woman in a Yakuza game so far, and probably my favorite character in the game other than Ichiban.
I never expected to love this game as much as I did right away. I really, honestly thought I’d have to work at it for a while to get into it and get over the changes that Like a Dragon brought to the table, but instead I found myself falling in love with everything going on here in no time at all. Honestly, I don’t even know why I was concerned that the RPG mechanics wouldn’t be fun or interesting (I mean, really, I LOVE RPGs!), and I don’t really miss the action based combat as much as I thought I would; I really expected to be more torn on this, but something about Yakuza: Like a Dragon just works, and I can’t wait to play the full story of Ichiban Kasuga and find out everything I can about him and his friends, and see how their story ends.
When I do get a chance, I’ll be sure to let you all know what I think of the full game; in the meantime, I want to say a huge thank you to the fine folks at SEGA for giving me a chance to preview the game and talk about it! And for those of you on the fence about Yakuza: Like a Dragon, either as a returning Yakuza diehard fan or a newbie, I think there is A LOT to be excited for here. Yakuza: Like a Dragon launches on Xbox Series X | S, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Windows 10 and Steam on Nov. 10th. And if you’re getting a PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4 owners will receive a free upgrade to the PlayStation 5 version, both physical and digital when that version of the game releases on March 2, 2021. We’re likely going to end up with 2 copies because both me and my partner want to give the same amount of time, love and attention to this very addicting game! Make sure to pre-order a copy and get yourself ready for questing, Yakuza style!
Until next time! ✨
What’s got you curious about Yakuza: Like a Dragon? Are you skeptical of the game going RPG or are you ready to dive into this addicting quest? Sound off below in the comments!