Crafting Lofty Expectations
Long-running video game franchises tend to reinvigorate themselves by having most releases be blank-slate starting points for all prospective players. It’s a reliable way to ensure you appeal to established and new fans since anyone can jump in at any point, and you have colossal freedom in what you wish to depict. Still, some series instead choose to adopt a continually overarching narrative to varying extents, with one of those franchises being Like a Dragon.
Formerly known as Yakuza in the West, the newest release, Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth, is a standout mainline entry that takes more from the past than ever before, with the old and new age protagonists sharing the spotlight. Evident ambition was pursued here, consequently crafting lofty fan expectations. So, the natural question is whether it has lived up to those hopes. Alas, the answer isn’t a definitive yes or no.
Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth occurs after the events of Yakuza: Like a Dragon, initially just featuring returning protagonist Ichiban Kasuga. Now known as Yokohama’s Hero, he has turned his life around with stable employment and a reliable social circle. However, following an ultimately failed date with a certain someone and an eventual ceasing of his work contract for reasons beyond his control, Ichiban finds himself tasked with traveling to Hawaii in order to locate his elusive mother. While there, he, of course, gets entangled in a new treacherous conspiracy, makes new allies, and reunites with the familiar hero Kiryu Kazuma, who’s facing severe straits of his own.
Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth is an oddly paced game, to say the least, for various reasons. While the adventure begins quite strongly by taking its time establishing the cast’s lives and their newly tumultuous circumstances, the late game suffers from rushed events and a somewhat lacking conclusion. Still, I’m getting ahead of myself. The plot of this entry has two sides, so to speak. While Kiryu is first with Ichiban in Hawaii, certain matters eventually require him to visit Japan, creating two perspectives you swap between as you progress. As a result, this also gives rise to two seemingly disconnected stories that interweave plot elements in the later hours.
Ichiban becomes involved with the local gangs, corrupt individuals in power, and a search for his mother that has far more global consequences than he could have ever conceived. On the other hand, Kiryu reflects on his life and legacy while confronting past demons he has unwittingly defined. The tones here are highly distinct, ensuring that neither Hawaii nor Japan overstay their presence and potentially become dull. Speaking of, variety has always been king in this franchise, but Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth amplifies that philosophy tenfold. This is most evidently seen in Hawaii, which is quite massive compared to previous maps of the series. It has no shortage of shops, sub-stories, and minigames that can collectively take several hours to peruse thoroughly. Admittedly, a prominent concern I had going into this title was whether Hawaii would feel needlessly large, and thankfully, it doesn’t; the marketing drastically overhyped the size and scale of this locale. It feels approachable to explore fully without coming across as a chore, so I was relieved in that regard.
[Hawaii] feels approachable to explore fully without coming across as a chore.
Side Activities — Varied, Addictive, and Sometimes a Miss
As for the avenues of content themselves, they’re typical fare of the franchise, with terrifically wacky yet endearing sub-stories and over-the-top minigames that, at this point, don’t feel as jarring as they once did as a newcomer. Between a Crazy Taxi-esque minigame where you deliver food while performing tricks to a surprisingly fleshed-out Pokémon-like minigame called Sujimon, where you catch human creatures to battle other trainers, Infinite Wealth is more unabashed with gameplay diversification than any other entry in the franchise. Of course, the fan-favorite karaoke is back, too, with a pretty high number of playable tracks.
The most substantial of these activities is undeniably Dondoko Island, which can be understood as a lite iteration of Animal Crossing. Having engaged with everything in this game to significant extents, I can assure prospective players that all of these side activities are straightforward and not at all complicated, despite how overwhelming their premises seem. Granted, I don’t really recommend time-sinking into any of these minigames one at a time since their simplicity can become monotonous, but that’s why there’s also so much else you can do. For the most part, they’re all entertaining side-ventures that fans will be at home with.
…the battle system of Infinite Wealth is a remarkable improvement over its predecessor.
Now, given the vast number of tasks you can partake in, not everything will be a winner. For example, I’ve never enjoyed Shogi, though that’s simply because it’s not for me. However, there is a side task in Infinite Wealth that I find easily the worst in the series: the optional dungeons. After making enough headway into the main story, you eventually unlock labyrinths in both Japan and Hawaii that are required for a brief while before becoming non-compulsory. The primary issue with these areas is that they’re shockingly lengthy and devoid of any and all substance, as they’re entirely comprised of identical box rooms with enemy encounters and randomly strewn-about items. Aside from depicting itself as apathetic game design, these dungeons being arguably the best method to gain more character and Job levels at an accelerated pace made them stand out quite negatively. The dungeons in Yakuza: Like a Dragon were one of the weakest facets, so seeing that carried over here in a more considerable manner is disheartening.
Still, on the opposing side of that token, the battle system of Infinite Wealth is a remarkable improvement over its predecessor. Each character now has a limited range of free movement during their turns, enabling more transparent usage of environmental tools. This also has the side-effect of making character positioning crucial in several bouts, especially given the efficacy of back attacks that produce more impactful knockback and damage. Plus, the Job system is more meaningful, with the various options at one’s disposal having more weight attached to them, partially attributed to the permanence of abilities that can be carried over alongside the Jobs themselves having greater distinction in gameplay application. Even at the cost of what I believe is an easier experience, these coalesced factors made combat fathoms more enjoyable than the previous title. Still, it can feel too easy to rather questionable extents. Save for a boss battle near the end of the main story, the other fights only ever required basic strategies.
Rewarding Franchise Veterans
Exploration is also more pronounced in Infinite Wealth, with Hawaii having the bulk of optional material. Aside from finding littered consumables, fishing spots, and safes to unlock, you can also swim in the vast ocean by the beach. To be fair, there isn’t much to do here other than diving spots for random items, but there’s still plenty to find. As for Japan, Kiryu’s character is the crux of almost everything you do here regarding both the main story and non-required tasks. Now in a position in life where thorough self-reflection is more than understandable, Kiryu can encounter several individuals from his past and reach specified spots on the map to ponder on the events of prior games. These scenes actually tie into a gameplay mechanic that enhances Kiryu’s combative prowess, though the real rewards are the scenes themselves. Veteran fans of the franchise have plenty to look forward to here, as countless explicit references, cameos, and exchanges call back to the Dragon of Dojima’s multi-game legacy.
These factors also emphasize how Infinite Wealth, more than any other game in the series, highly benefits from you having played the prior entries. Knowing what Kiryu has gone through firsthand is necessary to properly perceive the emotional weight of his arc throughout this game, so if you’ve only played Yakuza: Like a Dragon and have a cursory understanding of the other titles, I heartily advise putting Infinite Wealth on hold until you’re entirely caught up. Even though I’m not a fan of Kiryu’s ending in this particular entry, Infinite Wealth is a genuinely rewarding adventure for dedicated players who have come to know this protagonist.
Character interaction is also a significant highlight in this entry. Drink Links from Yakuza: Like a Dragon have returned, where you can converse with the characters at their hub bars. And this time around, both Kiryu and Ichiban have their own Drink Links with their cast of party members, so there’s much more to experience on this side of matters. When taking the exploration exchanges with both parties into account, too, the cast of this entry boasts terrific dynamics, propelled by the most minute mundane facets and profound inner strife. Unfortunately, a few party members join the adventure much too late to make a grand impact, even if they’re familiar faces from the previous title.
A Mixed Yet Heartfelt Narrative
I’ve danced around this topic, so let’s address the narrative. Discussing the story of Infinite Wealth without diving into spoilers is more challenging than with other titles due to the vast history encompassing it. Still, I’ll try to summarize my thoughts succinctly. Firstly, Kasuga’s arc and journey here are the high points, chiefly thanks to his charming naivete taking centerstage and acting as excellent foils to the antagonists he faces. The confronting of his past regarding his mother sadly isn’t pushed as far as I would have liked, as the goal is sidelined heavily in the late game. Still, the necessities are approached with appreciated finesse. Additionally, Ichiban’s ending scenes in Infinite Wealth are some of my favorite in the franchise, and, at least personally, the new allies he makes stand near the top of the league with fan favorites, so fans of him have plenty to look forward to on those fronts. Unfortunately, the returning Saeko is, bar none, the worst character in this title, with the irritating resolution of her conflict putting a damper on an otherwise pristine Ichiban story.
As for Kiryu, it’s all a bit more complicated. The best way I can describe it is that its concept is exceptionally moving, with the clear focus on his humanity and repressed loneliness and emotional strife being fantastic changes of pace. I honestly wish that all of the optional scenes with him facing and reflecting on his past were required because they’re all stellar at showcasing how the passage of time hasn’t been as equal to him as it has been for those he has saved. However, Kiryu’s conclusion in Infinite Wealth is exasperating and frustrating. While the ideas driving it forward are effective, it’s only half-heartedly embraced and committed to, ultimately presenting an unfulfilling ending that feels like it was more for shock value. Of course, the reception will wildly vary from player to player, but it just missed the mark for me entirely, being a sour spot I can’t overlook. Regarding playtime, completing the story and most of the side content took me between 65-70 hours, so it isn’t much longer than the other games if you’ve played them rigorously.
One final critique that stood out to me throughout Infinite Wealth was its pacing. Just about every entry throughout this franchise tends to introduce select side activities in the midst of the main story, disrupting the course of the primary narrative in favor of informing players of other tasks they can perform. Honestly, these have never been a major detractor for me since they’re only a handful and don’t overstay themselves. Yet, the way this design philosophy is approached in the latest entry takes it much too far. The introductions of Sujimon, Dondoko Island, and the labyrinths in the main plot take far too long to establish themselves firmly, eventually becoming unwelcome distractions that insensitively negate some of the dire tension the cast was previously enduring.
Kasuga’s arc and journey here are the high points…Kiryu’s conclusion in Infinite Wealth is exasperating and frustrating.
It’s impossible to please all fans of a franchise spanning multiple decades, and Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth embodies that notion fully. This ambitious title is impressive in its execution of the old and new, with a respectable balance between two protagonists facing demons and angels of their pasts. Sadly, some of that ambition is misplaced, resulting in a multi-faceted story that boasts poignant messaging and character arcs at the expense of shoddy pacing and a rushed second half that inelegantly tries to tie up as many loose ends as possible. Still, the gameplay is more enjoyable than ever, thanks to essential combat improvements and mostly delightful side tasks that expertly take advantage of the contexts of Hawaii and Kiryu’s characterization. If you’ve been a fan of the Like a Dragon franchise up to this point, Infinite Wealth may not check all the right boxes, but it’s undeniably full of heart that celebrates the struggles and triumphs of the past while determinedly walking toward the thrilling future.
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