A perfect example of how to modernize an aging RPG format
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is the perfect example of how to modernize an aging RPG format. While you could argue that games like Persona stand out for its aesthetic flair and epic story, Yakuza chooses against epicness and grandiose scale in favour of something more grounded and human; a game that absolutely knocks it out the park while still remaining true to its roots.
The Yakuza series has been going since the early 2000’s and most follow the same format, with real-time battling and an increasingly epic story. Like a Dragon then completely changes tact, taking a diverting path to something that not only reinvigorates the series, it also manages to produce one of the best protagonists in modern gaming as a result. Oh, and that’s before mentioning the excellent story and addictive gameplay!
Like a Dragon takes a while to get going and across the 45+ hours you’ll spend with the story alone, you do need some patience through the prologue and early chapters before everything opens up. Here, we’re introduced to Ichiban Kasuga, a low-level Yakuza member who’s left for dead by his former boss.
When Ichiban is forced to start over from the ground up, this 30-something ends up teaming with a motley crew of misfits as they work together to rise from rags to riches, all while uncovering the truth about Ichiban’s past, and the truth behind his betrayal.
There’s Adachi, a rogue cop, homeless nurse Nanba and hostess Saeko who make up the main group but then there are several other characters you unlock along the way that add an extra dimension to battling and your party skills (more on this shortly!)
The main story has a couple of really nice twists but largely sticks with simple human drama, leaning into the idea of this being a story about loyalty, betrayal, family and honour. These themes are toyed with constantly and they’re echoed across with the other characters too, each of which you can choose to learn more about through the game, uncovering side quests that sometimes tie into the main story.
The mechanics and general gameplay patterns are largely similar to what you’ll find in other RPGs but the way Like a Dragon takes that and twists it into something fresh and original is one of the more endearing parts of this experience.
You still have the “Safe Rooms” where all the characters hang out, but here it comes in the form of a bar where you can have drinks with your companions, which in turn unlocks extra relationship levels. In doing so, that stronger bond can actually benefit you in battle, unlocking specific skills or neat stat bonuses that can make the difference.
Battling here is largely different to other Yakuza games and plays out as turn-based across the board. While this could become repetitive quickly, the developers have wisely added an array of components and additions to freshen things up. For one, there’s a side quest you unlock very early on where you have to “catch ’em all” and record 150 different enemy variants you come up again by beating them in combat.
In terms of battling though, you have your usual HP and Action Points (the latter of which serving as this game’s version of magic), but each character has their strengths and weaknesses. Likewise, enemies will also have this and an array of status effects can sometimes mean the difference between winning and losing.
Further still, the enemy design is absolutely bonkers and equally hilarious. Boss battles become more outrageous as the title progresses, with a monstrous digger one such example. Similarly, the individual enemies range from coat-wearing street flashers and simple mob grunts through to glowstick-wielding hipsters and sign twirlers. There’s a surprising amount of creativity that’s gone into this too, with each having their own set of moves and quirky animations to boot.
Speaking of which, your party members have a fair amount of depth as well and their move-sets – while complying to the usual RPG archetypes of tank, healer, mage and warrior – can be changed through the Job Center, switching over to a completely different style if you so wish. Personally, the base jobs work perfectly and I saw no need to change them other than for gaining the achievements, but those who like tinkering with the best set-up for their party is likely to get a lot of joy here.
The game’s story is broken up into different districts which largely feel like alternate biomes of a world map you’d find in more high fantasy settings. You can explore a good chunk of the map from the get-go and there are also two other areas you can travel to via taxis (this game’s version of fast travel points) later on down the line.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon has a good amount of customization to it but even if you choose not to go for that, the amount of content the game boasts is staggering. Unlike in Ubisoft open world collectathons, what’s here feels very organic and in-keeping with the theme and tone of the game.
There’s a separate kart-racing minigame where you compete against colourful characters and mob bosses, while there’s over 200 different side-quests ranging from simple deliveries and killing a certain amount of enemies through to more specific and in-depth quests for your companions or fighting waves of goons in the battle arena.
Even if you choose to ignore all of that, Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s story will still take up a good amount of time but it’s a journey that’s absolutely worth taking. There’s a lot of heart and emotion put into this but there are also tranquil and poignant segments that help you to really connect with Ichiban and his group.
Tonally, this game absolutely nails its mix of more somber and dramatic beats with amusing and outright hilarious set pieces. That’s not an easy balance to get right but somehow Like a Dragon not only nails it, it exceeds all expectations with the way it plays out.
While the Japanese original audio is going to be the more preferred method going into this, the English dubbing is actually not bad either. The actors give it their all in both languages and whichever way you choose to listen, you’re going to get a good experience. And the same goes for the soundtrack too, which is excellent across the board.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon doesn’t necessarily reinvent the RPG wheel but it does take the familiar systems in place and adds a new layer of polish and makes it feel unrecognizable. There’s a lot to like with this game, which tonally shifts between incredulous humour and more somber, melodramatic beats.
Ichiban’s journey is an epic tale of loyalty, love and honour, and this is likely to be an experience you’ll remember for years to come. Like a Dragon is a must-play.
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Verdict - 9.5/10