That magical time is here, y’all: Yakuza: Like a Dragon has arrived! And what a magical time it is, because Like a Dragon cast a captivating spell on the masses that has them hooked on the game. Even when I went to Target to run some necessary errands, they were sold out of the game, which is something I haven’t seen any other Yakuza game do (at least in my neck of the woods). Everyone’s hooked, and there’s a convincing reason for that: the game’s just THAT good! I’d already played a bit of the Japanese copy I picked up, but having the game finally translated made things a lot easier. And when I got to preview the game ahead of its release date, I was really, REALLY hooked on it; I played it for over 15 hours! So when my full game copy was provided to me by SEGA, I jumped at the chance to finally learn about Kasuga Ichiban from the very beginning and dive right back in.
So what did I think of Ichiban’s Quest to be the hero he always dreamed of? Well… like most things, that quest, and this game, isn’t so black and white. Yakuza: Like a Dragon has a lot of areas where it shines brightly, and some areas where it really doesn’t, but for the most part I think fans scared off by the RPG elements should feel relieved: this game is great, and the fact that it’s an RPG makes it shine. And, frankly, this might be the Yakuza we always really wanted. “But Elly,” you might ask, “what makes you say that?” Well, read on and you’ll find out why!
The Hero’s Journey, Sort Of
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is as much about Ichiban as it is about everyone else in the game, with Ichiban filling the role of a lovable dope who is miles above Kiryu in terms of emoting. If you’re coming to Yakuza: Like a Dragon from the previous games, it might even feel shocking at how expressive Ichiban is, and I’m positive that’s on purpose. Every way that Kiryu is dry and stoic, Ichiban is exuberant, hot-headed, and a little bit of a dim bulb. Yakuza: Like a Dragon makes its name literal: You are like Kiryu, but you really aren’t him. The early parts of Ichiban’s story almost feels like the anti-Kiryu narrative, finding you used, abused, belittled, and betrayed before being dumped in the literal garbage. From the moment Ichiban winds up in Yokohama, his and Kiryu’s paths are totally separate.
Ichiban really stood out to me as I progressed through the game as a much more likeable protagonist, though. Kiryu is fun, but a lot of the fun of Kiryu is the juxtaposition of him against the weirdos that surrounded him, especially in sidequests. Ichiban, on the other hand, is a far more personable character, and as a protagonist, he oozes a likeable, rough charm that makes you want to see him succeed. Perhaps the first, big change between Like a Dragon and the previous games is that Like a Dragon really doesn’t seem to think very highly of the yakuza in general, and their shift to modernity (which involves their involvement in politics and societal manipulation) feels far less “fun” than the mobster style attitudes of previous games. Yakuza are never really portrayed as good people in this series, despite its name, but the pulpy, “honorable” yakuza of previous installments that seemed to fall right out of classic crime noir cinema are replaced by criminals of far less style and grace: gangsters dealing with the police and politicians, worrying less about “being a man” and more about living cozy, almost comically extravagant lives.
This also brings the game to one of its biggest themes: shades of grey. Like a Dragon really likes to harp on the fact that people, in general, don’t exist in either “black” or “white”, “good” or “bad” ways, but instead live in a “grey” mix of personal compromise. The yakuza of previous games sacrificed their supposed morals and codes to survive, while politicians and law enforcement cozied up to criminals to win elections and public support. The yakuza and police work to keep other “bad” (read: foreign) criminal elements down, while ignoring each other’s activities and behaviors.
For Ichiban, this extends to the personal way in which Bleach Japan, a puritanical movement that targets the “grey zones” of Yokohama (prostitution, soaplands, etc.) is, itself, a tool of ruling elites. Ichiban, of course, also exists in a gray zone: he was a yakuza, and while he is desperate to get back to that, his life as a fall guy and criminal makes it hard for him to do anything “normally”, instead leading him to meet the cast of characters that choose to roll the dice in with him on his quest for answers. Although everyone else compromises, Ichiban isn’t interested in that: he does what he thinks is right, whether it is or isn’t the correct thing to do at the time. While playing, I was left realizing that Ichiban is the opposite of Kiryu in a lot of ways; instead of not punching someone out of honor, Ichiban just simply hauls off and knocks someone’s lights out, and then worries about it later.
Quests Available, Inquire Inside
Like a Dragon is very aware of the fact that it’s an RPG. In the preview, I noted that the references to Dragon Quest didn’t seem so common, but when I played the full game, my tune on that changed a bit. It’s certainly cute to hear characters say things like “Life really is like an RPG”, but I do have to admit that it got a little bit silly after a while. I don’t think I minded it in the long run, because Like a Dragon is a little silly and self-aware, but I would say that the game could probably have done with maybe 20% less of “haha, isn’t this just like an RPG?!” dialogue. We get it. You became an RPG. We know this; we’re playing it!
That being said, Like a Dragon is a damn good RPG. I have to be honest: I haven’t enjoyed many JRPGs in a while, and find that many of them are pretty tedious and take forever. This isn’t exactly something that Like a Dragon escapes (the first few hours seem to be more talking than they do gameplay), but there was something about the combination of Yakuza game concepts and RPGs that really grabbed me and kept me wanting to keep playing. The game is fairly simple, too, and even someone who has never played a turn-based RPG before will likely find themselves picking things up pretty easily. The added quick time boosts to attacks and parry system to reduce damage keep the battles from being totally passive, but they aren’t a huge deal breaker either if you can’t pull them off; I found that while the damage reduction from the parry could be really helpful, I never got the sense that I needed to use these things or I’d lose.
The quests in the game are fairly similar to those you’d find in previous Yakuza games, and in some ways the RPG style of the game made most of these substories feel a little bit more natural, at least from a meshing of the gameplay to the game system. A caveat the game throws at you in Chapter 3 is that a lot of the weird enemies you see in battle are Ichiban’s imagination running wild, and if you extend that to the job system and substories, the game’s somewhat fantastical elements feel a little bit more logical. You’ll find the usual assortment of storylines in these subquests, from simple fetch quests to more involved battles, and some of them take quite a bit of time to complete, but I did find myself really enjoying most of them. If anything, though, the substories seem to have become a bit “self-aware”: the game seems to know that you want to see silly substories, and boy, do some of these get incredibly silly! I think that in the next game, I’d like to see either a bit more straight faced approach to these stories, or maybe some experimentation, but Like a Dragon’s substories felt like coming full circle back to the original game. Instead of going “wow, that was wild, I didn’t expect that,” I found quite a lot of these stories making me go “okay, how weird is this going to get,” which means that maybe the joke is starting to wear thin.
Exploring the city can also be a little bit challenging. While the game doesn’t really gate off areas, you can easily find yourself getting beaten by tougher enemies if you wander into areas you shouldn’t be in yet. This wasn’t something I had to deal with in the preview build, so when I tried to go to Dragon Kart again, I instead got my ass readily handed to me and lost 50% of the money I was carrying, which was a pretty huge bummer. I get the idea this is going for, mimicking areas of an RPG where tough enemies would roam, but since you are only in one place for the majority of the game, it felt a little arbitrary and part of me wonders if scaling enemy levels would have been a better choice; by the time I could fight those enemies, other enemies in the game were so trivial that auto-battle became a must. Thankfully, taxis start to open up the option for fast travel and can make getting around to areas you don’t want to fight in a lot easier, but don’t try to rush for a taxi in an area you can’t survive; you’ll just end up broke more often than not.
What really sold me on Like a Dragon wasn’t Ichiban (although he certainly helped!), but the party. Previous Yakuza games sort of danced around having an expanding cast of main characters, but things always came back to, and generally focused exclusively, on Kiryu. Here, we get an ever expanding cast of party members and orbiting characters that flesh Ichiban’s personality out, but also provide a lot more depth than the previous games did. Like a Dragon has some of the best women in the entire series, and Saeko is maybe my favorite character overall, finally providing some cool women to a series that traditionally treated women solely as objects, even Haruka. Ichiban’s expanding party features an extremely ragtag band of people, but their interactions with him and each other help sell the idea that these are generally people who had nowhere else to go, and became the support each other needed to keep going. Family, especially the idea of what family means, is an apparent theme in Like a Dragon, and your party really resonates with that theme.
Something in Like a Dragon that I really appreciated was the humanized way it deals with homelessness. The homeless are a big part of Like a Dragon, and the game never patronizes or otherwise taunts them. Early on, you get the usual “why don’t you just get jobs” dialogue, which a character explains and puts an end to. I really found this interesting, because while homeless characters appeared in previous games, they never really got treated as anything more than occasional setpieces. Here, Ichiban has a serious reason to be interested in them, and the game’s themes of grey really resonates with the homeless, who exist in liminal spaces in the city and society.
The game does try to discuss issues like sex work as well, and I think these sections are a little hit or miss, but I actually liked them for the most part as well. Instead of trying to cover up or romanticize sex work, the game is pretty honest about what it, and the people who work in it, are up to, but it does tend to fall into some of the holes that writing about sex work brings. The biggest one is the way it trivializes it to a job only people in dead ends pursue, and while that may be true in some cases, isn’t really true in others. However, there’s also a bit of a cultural barrier here too that even localization can’t address. Attitudes towards sex work are obviously different everywhere, and Like a Dragon addresses it from a viewpoint dealing with that “grey” theme again: women who lack citizenship, for any myriad of reasons, turning to work in places that may exploit them, but also provide them employment and some sense of security. The game doesn’t really try to answer the issue, but it is a more thoughtful take than I initially expected.
This is fairly true for a lot of the substories, plot points and characters that deal with less than “ideal” people and situations, and while Like a Dragon is a little bit silly with all of the RPG trappings, the game is perhaps the most mature and honest of the entire series. These aren’t problems that being macho and stoic will fix, but issues that stem from decades of systemic poverty, racism, crime, and corruption. While Kiryu tended to deal with plotlines that were almost fantastical in how extravagant they were, Ichiban’s story, and the stories of his friends, range from things like being homeless, getting scammed while trying to care for a dying relative, burnout, and much more. These are realistic, human problems that exist outside of the realms of shadowy organized crime, and instead remind the player that sometimes problems aren’t represented by a mobster in a gaudy suit that can be punched to save the day. Sometimes, life really just sucks, and the people around you are all you have to keep you going.
Grinding for Fun
There are a few final issues I have with Like a Dragon. The beginning of the game is quite the slog, and it really felt like I had played nearly 10 hours before the game really started to actually open up. Perhaps I was spoiled by the preview build I played before, but it felt like it was taking a long time for me to get down to actually questing with Ichiban and co. and exploring Yokohama. Even when that started, the walled off nature of the game’s areas made exploring feel dangerous and restrictive, so I just found myself floating from plot point to plot point in order to advance a bit more naturally.
Also, some of the subquests and minigames just don’t land the way I’d like them to. I really love Dragon Kart, but the story that goes with it is kind of whatever; as mentioned above, a lot of the substories border on being too self-aware in how weird and wacky they’re supposed to be, and it feels like it is trying a bit too hard at times. Finally, the battle system, which I talked about in my preview, is great, but the weird little dance enemies and your party can do sometimes makes things hiccup; I had quite a few fights where characters got stuck on geometry and one time where I almost thought the game soft-locked. Thankfully nothing major ever happened, but it wasn’t as smooth as it could have been. The moving battles almost feel pointless, as while there’s some strategy and thinking to do with positions, you don’t really control it at all, meaning that it feels very arbitrary.
Assemble the Party!
Overall, though, I love Like a Dragon, and I’m excited to see if this is the future direction Yakuza games take, because I believe it’s the right one. The switch to RPG really helped make the game fresh and exciting in a different way than I was expecting, and in the future I’d love to see them start to rework some of the other systems in the game to go along with this experimental trend. The job system was interesting, and I think there’s a lot more to be done there, and the ‘dungeons’ that you explore feel like just the tip of an iceberg in terms of possibilities. Like a Dragon is a really interesting game, because it is both the “newest” game in the series, but it feels like the “first” game in a series as well. I don’t know if the next game will feature Ichiban again, but what I do know is that RGG Studios are showing they aren’t afraid to experiment, and I can’t wait to see what happens next!
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is now available on the Xbox Series X | S, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Windows 10 and Steam. And if you’re getting a PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4 owners will receive a free upgrade to the PlayStation 5 version of the game when it releases on March 2, 2021. What’s that? You want to play it, but you can’t get it at the moment? No probalo, my friend! I’ve got just the solution for you!
Thanks to the wonderful folks at SEGA, I’ve got a digital PS4 copy of Yakuza: Like a Dragon to give away! And like I mentioned before, if you’re getting a PS5, you’ll get a free upgrade to the PS5 version, so you won’t have to re-buy the game. Well, go on and try your luck at winning a copy of the game, click the link below to enter the giveaway:
The giveaway will run from today, November 18th through November 22nd at 11:59 pm EST. Keep in mind that the prize for the digital game is a NA code ONLY! Click through on the giveaway page and enter today! I’m sure you’ll want to set out on your quest and join Ichiban’s party! If you want the game on another platform, stay tuned, because this isn’t the end of the giveaways for this game. 👀
Until next time! ✨
What are you looking forward to in Yakuza: Like a Dragon? Let me know down in the comments!