Yakuza is changing. The long-running action-RPG series has been steadily catching up with its global releases and now the rest of the world is pretty much caught up with all of them.
The latest from Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio presents a new beginning for the series. You are playing as a new protagonist, in a new setting, and an interestingly new RPG system.
So, how does it fare? I’m still fairly early- only past the first 15 hours. But I’m glad to say that it’s still a Yakuza game, but now as a proper JRPG.
Like A Dragon Quest
Yakuza: Like A Dragon has you in control of Ichiban Kasuga, a grunt of the Arakawa Family aligned to the Tojo Clan. A wild turn of events have this low-ranked Yakuza member goes to jail for eighteen years, learned that he’s basically not a Yakuza anymore and ended up in Isezaki Ijincho, Yokohama.
He’s also a big fan of Dragon Quest. The JRPG series is so ubiquitous in Japan that even Sega has no problem referencing it all the time. Kasuga’s obsession of this video game is the basis of the new JRPG combat system. He imagines life is like an RPG.
Like A Dragon is not like past Like A Dragons, as Kasuga fights with up to three party members in turn-based combat. The developers have clearly put a lot of effort into it.
Your party members have stats like strength, magic (don’t ask) and agility, and they can later on switch jobs- which not only changes their attire but also their available skill. You also gain stats as you rank up a job just like when you level up, so switching jobs can help you develop a character’s stats to your liking. And this too is explained in-game- Kasuga and his buddies spent a long time in the early game being in-between actual jobs.
Combat is also reactive. Some skills allow you to mash square or press triangle at the right time for a damage boost. In addition, you can also block incoming attacks by pressing cross at the right time, just right when the attack starts.
Parts of the environment can be damage dealers too. Traffic cones and bicycles can be kicked toward an opponent if they are nearby, and cars can run over people who are knocked down. However, you can’t control your party’s positioning, all the characters are just shuffling about throughout each battle.
The combat system even has summons. What started as a joke substory about a special delivery escort service leads to Kasuga being able to summon special “Poundmates” (yeah, don’t ask). They come in, do a flashy attack and charge you money for their services.
They even added dungeon crawling- which is as a hit-or-miss as the usual JRPGs go.
It does feel kind of weird that the series’ action-based combat has been removed for this entry, but rest assured, if you give it a chance, it’s actually pretty fun. In fact, this move lets Yakuza’s inert zaniness shines brighter than before. And you really have to see how wild things can go before it all comes back down to its main plot- a serious crime drama.
It’s Called Like A Dragon 7 In Japan
Outside of the combat changes, Yakuza: Like A Dragon still plays pretty much like a Yakuza game. If you’ve played Yakuza 6, Kiwami 2 or the spin-off Judgment, you’ll be right at home with how the game flows. Very long story beats that changes from mo-capped cut-scenes to cut-scenes using in-game assets to text prompts. Dozens of mini-games to distract you from the main plot. Substories that are equally wacky as they are heartwarming.
Expect a slow burn. Chapter 1 and 2 is all about establishing Kasuga as a character. You will slowly learn his past backstory, how he got into Yakuza and be running around in good-old Kamurocho, the main setting of past games.
Around ten hours or so in, by Chapter 4, is when the game truly opens up, giving you access to the three main companions and the job system.
The whiplash of tones that is the hallmark of a Yakuza story is still here. One scene can be played as a joke, and then turn into an important story beat that relates to the core plot, and then proceeds to a clash of words that also explains to you the different perspectives of dubious Japanese business.
It’s a wild ride, and the tonal shifts are even more apparent than ever. Yakuza have different playable protagonists before, but Kasuga as a replacement for Kiryu is great.
He can be as boneheaded as Kiryu (which leads to the amazing heroics in the main plot and wacky hijinks in the substories). But he stands apart as his own character. I’ve seen that it’s possible to romance someone, for example.
And you know what, the slow burn of the story where you really don’t know what’s happening so you unravelling it as the hour goes really feels like JRPGs of years past. Those Dragon Quest references are not just for show, Yakuza has always been a JRPG but with character action combat. And the shift to the JRPG combat now feels more fitting than expected.
Should you get Yakuza: Like A Dragon? If you like the Yakuza series, go get it. In the first 25 hours it feels right at home with the other past entries.
New to the series? It’s okay, Like A Dragon is a clean break that may have references to past games, but no prior knowledge is required to enjoy the story or the game.
Do you like JRPGs especially turn-based ones like Persona? Absolutely check it out. It can shift from being badass cool to comedy wacky to proper emotional to an intriguing thriller in a heartbeat. But other than that, it delivers what you’d want from a game of its genre.
Impressions based on PS4 version played on base PS4. Review copy purchased by the reviewer.