Title: Yakuza: Like a Dragon
Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio
Release Date: November 10, 2020
Reviewed On: Xbox One
Genre: Adventure RPG
The Yakuza series is highly regarded amongst action fans for its unique gameplay systems and surprisingly deep narrative. Over the years, we’ve grown used to the returning characters and the evolution of the various features, but I don’t think any of us were ready for such a departure. Still, developer Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio has ripped the bandaid off with the release of Yakuza: Like a Dragon, which introduces us to a new main protagonist and plenty of new features. Thankfully, as much as it’s a departure from what fans expect, this entry shows that this series has many years of fantastic Yakuza stories to tell.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon stars Yakuza member Ichiban Kasuga who aspires to be a strong arm of the Arakawa family. He owes a lot to Arakawa, and that debt makes him loyal beyond means to his requests. This leads Ichiban to take the blame for a crime to save the family’s face, which finds him in prison for 18 years. However, when he gets out, Ichiban finds out that a lot has changed and not just the times, but also his previous family.
Introducing a new main protagonist this late in a series is a bold move, so much of the opening game is spent in cinematics. The narrative focus is impressive in this entry as each character receives decent exposition and a backstory for the low down on who they are and their relationship with Ichiban. What’s more surprising about it all is how deep these connections go and how complex these characters are.
As Ichiban learns more about the events that happened while he was in prison, he teams up with an ex-detective and a few others who join him on his quest. Players are then taken down the narrative rabbit hole and Ichiban’s discoveries play a significant focus on the entire experience. Sadly, this may turn away players expecting more hands-on time with the new character because much of the first three chapters are cinematics, so understand that this is an investment. Sure, it helps us get to know this original cast, but it’s almost like watching an episode of a Yazuka television show.
During gameplay, players will find a new battle system that changes the action-centric brawl fest that the series is known for in exchange for a more RPG turn-based fight fest. When in battle, players can do standard RPG actions such as Attack, Guard, Skill, or use and Item. As much as this sounds like an insane system for this series, it actually ends up working. Unlike Kazuma Kiryu, Ichiban is a Dragon Quest fan, which is why in battles, he pretends that he’s in a turn-based RPG. As the player, we are mostly just seeing his fantasy play out.
As more party members join your group, the battle system becomes a bit more complex. However, there are times where the battles can last a little longer than they should, but I felt that they make the series accessible to a different type of player. The length often comes when enemies are taking a little longer than usual to take action. That’s not to say the system forgets about series’ fans, as it flows swiftly enough when you’re selecting actions, but it is an entirely new experience. For those not totally into the system, there is a reasonably competent auto-battle mode.
The battle system’s more unique moments include abilities that require a button prompt to add extra damage. You’re also able to guard against attacks to decrease the effects. An additional component is added during attacks near an object, where the character will pick up something and use it as a weapon. After fights, the party earns rewards and experience, which completes the entire RPG experience. If that wasn’t enough there are special scenes with your party member to get closer and build your bonds with them.
Exploration is also a considerable part of Yakuza: Like a Dragon in which we get a whole new area to explore here, Isezaki Ijincho. This is pretty exciting for long time fans who were used to the setting of Kamurocho. However, Ichiban is not the top dog and needs to rise to fame through any means possible. This is an incredible juxtaposition compared to the opening chapter and gives us the perspective that we are truly building something.
The best moments of the game revolve around learning more about Ichiban and his way of thinking. He brings these traits to this new setting and changes everything, and his sense of loyalty is admirable and pure, which makes it hard not to love him. He takes these small simple tasks so seriously like collecting cans and taking on side missions. What’s more surprising is the subject matter that the story can touch on, which doesn’t always play it safe. It’s these moments that really flesh out these new characters, and I couldn’t get enough of it.
Like previous entries in the series, there’s plenty to do here when you aren’t taking on the primary mission. However, it’ll be a few hours before you’re truly able to get off on your own. The side-missions are incredibly fun to pour time into, but sometimes it’s tough to take breaks from the campaign. However, this pacing can be a big problem as Ichiban finds his place in the world, and if the player isn’t entirely on board, things can get boring quickly.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a beautiful game and can be seen in its environments and character designs. The enemy designs can get repetitive, but that’s no different than any fantasy RPG. What’s even better is just how well the voiced audio works for the game’s appeal, whether you play it in English or Japanese. The animation work during cinematics is terrific, making it easy to sit through the long story segments. This extends into the in-game animations while walking around town or in battles; everything looks great.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon makes for an excellent new entry in this long-running series. The developers took a chance on a new protagonist and battle system, which forces fans out of their comfort zone for a very different yet, familiar Yakuza experience. Although the opening exposition can be a bit overwhelming, this is a standout video game on its own with plenty of emotional story beats, insane sub-stories, and plenty of ways to spend your time around Ijincho.
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