Yakuza: Like A Dragon Review – Essence Of JRPG
The seventh entry of the long-running Yakuza has arrived, and it’s not called Yakuza 7 in English. Sega is doing a Resident Evil VII Biohazard with the name, but for good reason.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon marks a fresh new start for the series, as a good place for newcomers to start on. There’s a new protagonist that completely replaces the hero of the past mainline entries. A new story arc separate from past games begins here. And most prominently, a complete change of the tried-and-true combat system.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon makes dramatic changes to the franchise, with some faults. Thankfully it’s just as serious and stupid-fun as it has ever been. Maybe even more.
The Dragon Engine, first introduced in Yakuza 6, is still used here. It looks mighty impressive at times. The models of the main characters look impressively detailed you might not notice in some scenes it’s using the in-game models rather than CG. The repeating pre-canned animations, once you noticed them, will break that pretty convincing illusion, however.
And the faces are amazingly expressive, which helps sell you on the more emotional scenes.
But if you’re playing on a base PS4, you can clearly see the game engine pushing the hardware to its limits. Environments in the background had to be overly dialled down on detail. And textures are jagged in most places if you stare at them close enough.
Thankfully, the framerate is pretty stable throughout most of the game. You’ll only see the noticeable sub-30fps frame drops during specific special attacks with heavy special effects. And when the cut-scene needs to render a crowd. On both occasions, they don’t affect gameplay.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon is already on Xbox Series X|S and PC (unless you’re in Asia), and will be on PS5 in March as a free upgrade if you have the PS4 version. I’m pretty sure the game will be in its best shape with more beefier hardware. But if you’re stuck on a PS4 for now, it’s still playable.
Dub Or Sub?
For Yakuza: Like A Dragon, developer Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio has brought in English dub, the first time for the mainline Yakuza series since the first game 15 years ago. You have access to English VO (with proper lip-sync) as well as Japanese VO.
The English dub is handled well, the voice actors did an amazing job in bringing the characters to life. Don’t expect all-around stellar vocal performances while doing karaoke, however. But that, and the English dub in general, has its own charm.
On that note, I have to give props to the localisation team. They’ve managed their best to preserve the Japanese-centric flavour of the game.
The fact that they managed to find a way to make the innuendo from the summoning system even more apparent for overseas players that may not get the original Japanese joke is just one example of many excellent changes in the localisation effort.
The original name Delivery Help won’t mean much to us, but Poundmates? Yeah, that’s so stupid it totally works for Yakuza.
If you’ve played a Yakuza game before, you’ll know what to expect from the soundtrack. Like A Dragon continues with its strong soundtrack of certified bangers. Most of the battle music are hard party tunes you can play in a night club, and really gets you pumped up. And there’s also tunes for when things get melancholic, tense or outright goofy.
There’s also a selection of songs from other Sega games you can collect and listen to while taking it easy at a bar. And yes, a selection of the jazzy tunes from Persona 5 makes that list.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon centres on new hero Ichiban Kasuga, a Yakuza grunt sent to prison to take the fall of his higher-ups. A time skip to his release in present-time 2019 and another turn of event later, he’s now stranded in an unfamiliar town of Isezaki Ijincho, Yokohama, with nothing on his back.
Now he’s making friends and slowly crawling out of the rut, only to find himself thrust into a bigger Yakuza crisis. In short, your typical Yakuza game story, but this time you have your nakamas by your side.
Like A Dragon Quest
Like A Dragon is not like Like A Dragons of the past. Instead of a brawler/beat’em-up/character action battle system, you have a turn-based combat system. And party members that fight alongside you.
Kasuga and his party can attack, use skills and items, and even call in summons. If it sounds ridiculous- it is. In-universe it’s justified as Kasuga’s vivid imagination (and obsession on Dragon Quest) where he imagines fisticuffs as a JRPG battle.
This reasoning allows normal men with face masks to turn into awful scum like oiled-up dudes fresh out of a soapland, drunken dudes with trash can lid shields, and mad scientists injecting questionable needles into you.
Yakuza has always had a wild side in contrast to its serious crime drama front. But now the limiter has gone off for its enemy variety thanks to the JRPG-style combat system.
JRPG To A Fault
The combat has all the trappings of a JRPG system. There are three different attacks types, three elemental attacks, and there are buffs, debuffs and status effects that can change the tide of battle. Everything you would expect from a traditional JRPG is faithfully recreated.
The combat has its faults, however. You cannot control positioning- your characters and the enemies will just shuffle about as they wait for whoever’s turn to act.
But positioning is important- try to attack an enemy in the backline and the enemy at the front will attempt to block you. There are skills that hits in an area, targeting multiple enemies. The environment also can be pivotal to combat- props like signs and bicycles can be used for extra damage, while barrels and oncoming traffic can be hazards.
This is where the combat system feels like it could have done more. When you know you could use the environment and enemy position to your advantage, but in reality, you can’t.
For example, a lot of enemy encounters in the open-world will clump up in one area, so it’s always a race to activate the skill with area-of-effect before they shuffle out of position.
You can do extra damage on a downed enemy, but there will be times you need to mash through the battle info prompts so you can get to attacking the downed enemy that’s rising up in real-time.
Occasionally, there where will be moments where an attack didn’t land because an environmental object (or your own party members) get in the way. And sometimes, your characters will just be stuck in the environment, which either results in them respawning to a more appropriate place then continue the attack.
The Dragon Engine was designed for seamless, open-world brawling, and the turn-based combat isn’t utilising that to maximum effect. Which does sucks a bit of fun.
Another issue I have with Like A Dragon is how it presents the many items and skills. In the first 25 hours or so you will feel like the skill variety are not enough. Halfway through the game, you will end up with a long, long list of skills and items you need to sort through which grinds the pacing to a halt.
The game tries to assuage the issue by having tabs that splits the long lists into different categories, and also assignable hotkeys. I’d argue if that’s enough, but at least the developers made an attempt to address this issue.
I Need To Level Up
With all the complaining away, let me tell you this: the over-the-top madness you’d expect from a Yakuza battle encounter is still here, but amplified tenfold.
You’ll start off with skills that do epic bat swings, and it just escalates from there. Summon a flock of attack pigeons. Hurl a big hammer round and round. Throw a bunch of thumbtacks that one-shot enemies to their doom. Douse enemies with ice-cold champagne that can get them sick. Grab a person by the head and legs, and roll around as makeshift tyre of doom that transitions into a suplex.
Skills essentially replaces Heat Moves in Like A Dragon, and the extravagant flair and ludicrousness of the moves will make you get hyped and laugh out silly at the same time, it’s great.
Again, since it’s a JRPG now, they just went wild with the moveset. Most of the moves also has you do QTE-style button presses for extra damage. Some requires mashing Square, or press Triangle at the right time. Or both. There’s no way to toggle the button-mashing off, unfortunately, though these presses are made easier depending on high the character’s dexterity stat is.
You can also block attacks at the right time, reducing the damage done. While you can just simple put autobattle on and let the battle resolve themselves, these minor touches rewards you for still engaging the combat system. It’s not completely action-less.
Why Don’t You Get A Job?
Another JRPG aspect new to Like A Dragon is the job system. Kasuga and his allies can all switch jobs by going to a job centre, which I find amusing. Each character has their own unique jobs at the start, but can be switched to other jobs depending on how you want your characters to grow or how you want to build your party.
The jobs are gender-locked, and I know some folks are not happy with this kind of portrayal in this day and age. But to the credit to the developers, the result is more job variety. At least three jobs that have a sort-of male and female equivalent (Hostess/Host, Idol/Musician, Dealer/Fortuneteller), but their movesets are varied apart that they play differently, which is cool.
What I have to complain about the job system is that the ladies have less selection than the men have. Your only job option to make your female party members be damage dealers is being a dominatrix that will step on fallen men. I’m okay with that, but c’mon, it would’ve been better if there’s at least one more attack-focused female job. And tank-based females jobs.
And no, I don’t like the idea of paid DLC jobs. There’s already one for male and female being sold separately right now.
Persona, But With Middle-Age Folks
Outside of the big departure in combat, Yakuza: Like A Dragon plays like a typical Yakuza game.
You have an open-world to explore. The new Ijincho location is massive compared to usual haunts of Kamurocho. It has packed alleyways and wide streetways around downtown. It’s fun to roam around the world, and then get into a random encounter every now and then, but if you’re no fan of open-world, I’m sorry to say that there is a lot of that happening (there’s a way to disable it but it requires a rare item).
The first half of the game will have you see Kasuga slowly making friends (and enemies) with the folks around Ijincho, but by the second-half, your party members don’t really matter much within the story, they’re just there as Kasuga’s entourage that helps him beat up a bunch of gangsters.
But thankfully, the developers added a lot of opportunities that let Kasuga and his party bond together. And most of it is done through open-world exploration. Get some grub at the local restaurants and you may trigger some table talk where the party members banter or genuinely teach you about food facts. Stop by some special spots around the open world and they’ll have a party chat- like when companions in a western RPG banter but not randomly triggered.
Heck, you can even build personal bonds with your party members, making them stronger with each level. Once you have them around long enough you can share a drink with them at gang’s bar hideout. It’s called Drink Links, and if you’ve played Persona, it’s exactly like Social Links.
On that note, Kasuga also gets to improve different facets of his personality. This can be done either through completing in-game challenges, choosing a response during conversation, or going to vocational school. The personality system is also something the developers took inspiration from that other Sega-owned franchise. And there’s at least one other feature too that they took from the stylish JRPG.
Come to think about it, Yakuza: Like A Dragon feels more like Persona with middle-age folks. It has a different style, of course, but on a fundamental level it now has similar mechanics. There’s no time limit though, so you can take the game’s main plot, side quests and mini-games at your own pace.
You are looking at a 60-hour game in Yakuza: Like A Dragon. It’s a slow-burn kind of a game, where it only opens up in full right at Chapter 4 or 5- which should be around the 15-20 hour mark. So you’ll be spending a long, long time getting acquainted with the characters, story and world before you are off the chains. I’ve finished the game with all its substories done (but not 100% complete) around the 90-hour mark.
It doesn’t end there. There’s New Game+ and a post-game dungeon you can play through as well.
As for the story, it begins with a kabuki theatre show, which is a good metaphor of what to expect. There’s a lot of melodrama that raises the stakes higher as the story develops. That is complemented with excellent character moments and not-so-excellent long plot dumps that tell (rather than show) the story. From a pacing perspective, it’s done well. And from an entertainment perspective, I enjoyed the wild ride it took me on.
The main story also has well-handled nuance to it. I come out of the game having empathy on marginalised people, from ethnic minorities to folks that cannot return to normal society like homeless people and undocumented immigrants. I loved that.
The story not only does it prod for quite the long while, but it also can be hokey at times. And it’s made to cater to the Japanese audience. This is something to keep in mind for newcomers. If you don’t like the melodrama, it’s going to be a struggle to get through them to reach the wacky bits that are being marketed or memed about.
There’s tons of mini-games in Like A Dragon. Its main mini-game, Management Mode, is similar in concept to what’s in Yakuza 0, but it’s far more streamlined. The min-maxing management bit is all done within the mini-game. And there’s also an RPG battle in the form of the shareholders’ meeting. Management mode is frantic and overwhelming at first, but as you progress through the ranks you’ll snowball up high to the point of it being mindlessly easy.
For fans of racing games, there’s two vehicle-based mini-games. Can Quest is basically Pac-Man with tricycles and garbage trucks and is a fun distraction.
Dragon Kart, however, is a pretty competent Mario Kart clone, but the karts have actual machine-guns bolted on. Dragon Kart also has a wild cast of rivals you need to beat. There are scenes of the rival smack talking you, which makes this one of the more elaborate (and fun) mini-games to sink time in.
Smaller but series staples like mahjong, shogi, various kinds of gambling and good old karaoke are here as well. Oh, and you can play arcade versions of Virtua Fighter 2, Virtua Fighter 2.1 and Virtua Fighter 5. And you can enable two-player mode straight from the main menu too.
It would be a disservice to the Yakuza series if I don’t mention about the substories. These are side quests where, unlike the main plot, don’t take itself that seriously. So things can be stupid, hilarious, or stupid hilarious.
Some of substory themes may feel like a retread from past games. But it’s still a great pleasure to see them all to completion. And most of them still continues to give great life advice that you can take out of the game, which I always find endearing.
Despite all the nitpicking I’ve gone through here, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Yakuza: Like A Dragon. I love the series’ trademark whiplashing tones. It can be a serious crime drama when it needs to, but it can still not take itself seriously because hey, it’s a video game.
This is even more apparent in Like A Dragon. You see the goofier side of the series up front, and it just never stops.
The many mini-games also hit me in the right way. I can’t for the life of me make an earning from gambling. Good thing there’s two vehicle-based mini-games I can sink time in.
The story, with all its twists and turns, is what I want my local TV crime drama to be. Removed from all its theatrics the plot may be stupid, but it’s so well-delivered I enjoyed the emotional ride I strapped myself on to.
The only low-point for me is the long dungeons. Yakuza: Like A Dragon faithfully recreated the JRPG experience by making sewer dungeons dull and boring.
That said, the new JRPG combat absolutely works well with the Yakuza formula, as it’s kind of a JRPG already to begin with. It has rooms to improve, but the open-world exploration and side activities just blend so well with the new combat system. And I love that we get copius amount of party banter while exploring the world.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon makes a fresh new start for the series, and a great place to jump in for newcomers. It still has the charm and quirks that made the series a cult hit.
The bold shift to JRPG combat is decently executed but with a lot more room to improve on. The systems in place gets the fundamentals right, but not enough for it to stand as its own, unique experience just yet.
If you want a long, meaty experience that has more than enough stupid-cool moments to balance out its serious story steeped in Japanese culture, Yakuza: Like A Dragon is an amazing game you don’t want to miss.
Reviewed on a base PS4. Review copy purchased by the reviewer