If you’ve been reading this blog, you probably know by now that I’m a big Yakuza mark. Love the games. I love the deep social conspiracies, I love the badass manly drama, I love the big dumb crazy sidequests, I love the action, I love the tone shifts, I love the gameplay, I love the world, etc. A new Yakuza game came out a few weeks ago. And it reflects a big shift for the series. So much so that the localized version completely removes the sequel number from the title, opting to be released as Yakuza: Like a Dragon rather than having it a proper Ryu ga Gotoku 7 as it’s called in Japan. Yakuza 6 provided a soft end to the saga of Kazuma Kiryu, meaning this game introduces a new lead character for the series and with it a whole new story thread. And the gameplay’s been changed up so significantly it’s not even in the same genre as the rest of the series anymore.
Well, with such a monumental step for one of my favorite series, I felt it only right that I give my esteemed judgement on how well they did. Because who else understands and appreciates this series more deeply than I do? Nobody I know, that’s for sure. My word on this is pretty much the bottom line. I play through these games pretty slow, though, take my time, explore every inch of it until I am satisfied, so if you want the full review, that’s going to be a while off. But here’s my impressions of this new Yakuza not-7 from my playtime so far.
With Kazuma Kiryu out of the main event picture, Yakuza: Like a Dragon has us in the shoes of new series protagonist Ichiban Kasuga and his hair. I like Kasuga. Not so much his hair. For the most part, the Yakuza series has been really reliably good with the characterization, writing, and design of their player characters, and Ichiban Kasuga is no different. He’s got a heart of gold and an ass of dumb, and he’s very outgoing, kind, and earnest, and seems not to let setbacks bring him down. He’s a very likeable character, and with the depth and development they gave him, particularly in the early stages, it’s clear how a lot of facets of his personality developed. Kasuga doesn’t always make the most sensible decisions, but I found myself really understanding him and his thought process in the decisions he was choosing to make, which is something that’s really not easy to establish with a fictional character. And for as charmingly dumb as he is, Kasuga has a great gift for insight, and it’s a really common plot factor wherein someone is acting brusque and off-putting in an attempt to hide their intentions but he’s able to understand what’s really going on with them.
With the developers seemingly intending Kasuga to take Kiryu’s place as the game lead for future titles, it’s really interesting both how many parallels he has to Kiryu as well as the very clear ways they approach things differently. The basic backstory is the same for both men. In order to protect someone they considered family, they took the blame for a murder they didn’t commit and spent long years in prison, only to find out on release that the person they sacrificed huge chunks of their lives for changed drastically in the time they were gone and now act very much against the values and yakuza family they once held dear. Both believe very strongly in the romantic ideal of the yakuza, and that forms the basis of a plot-long struggle against the reality that these are organized criminal who do horrible things to innocent people for personal gain. Kiryu’s back is tattooed with a dragon, while Kasuga is emblazoned with a dragonfish. Both model themselves after father figures who are in deep with yakuza leadership, and admire the high ethics and nobility they display in their roles. Their backstories are very similar. Yet their approaches from there are very different. Kiryu, through his building of alliances and his just being harder than everyone else was very effective as a yakuza. Kasuga was a horrible yakuza, being too nice to earn much. Kiryu was very well-respected before his fall from grace and infamous and reviled afterwards. Kasuga was unpopular among his fellow yakuza beforehand, and utterly forgotten afterwards. Kiryu was stoic and reserved. Kasuga is expressive and a giant dork. Kiryu’s largely self made, whereas Kasuga relies on the assistance of others. Kiryu made things go right by having a highly developed moral code and being strong enough to crush whatever goes against it. Kasuga, at least so far, makes things go right by using his background to understand others and taking bold action to bring them around to his point of view. Kiryu was laser-focused, whereas Kasuga rolls with changes and takes a more short-term mindset. It’s starting out with the basics of a similar story, but their divergent personalities end up making them approach it in very different ways.
The storytelling of Kasuga’s backstory too is several steps above the way they told Kiryu’s origin. Given they’ve got 15 years of practice since then, I’d certainly hope so. Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s tale opts for a very slow start, exploring and building Kasuga and his life pre-incarceration before letting the hammer drop. The first Yakuza jumped straight into it, with the origin climax happening soon after pressing start for the first time, and as a result, up until the prequel game and remake came out and fleshed things out you ended up knowing the guy Kiryu sacrificed so much of his life for more as the power-hungry dick he was after the time skip rather than the dear friend and brother he was for most of his life. Yakuza: Like a Dragon plays things out a bit better. Kasuga’s origin I described above? It plays out over the course of about four hours. The game opens on the tragic childhood of the guy Kasuga sacrificed himself for, then spends a fair bit of time setting the groundwork for Kasuga as a Yakuza, talking through the bonds he has and his way of doing his work, before spending a fair amount of time showing how Kasuga and the guy at hand interact with each other, demonstrating that they do have a lot of care about each other. Even as Kasuga starts the process of taking the heat, you can see a lot of care and respect between them. It gives a lot more meaning to Kasuga’s sacrifice, and it makes the guys heel turn and the subsequent betrayal 19 years later sting all the more.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon also feels a little more down to earth, a bit smaller in scale in its storytelling, at least from what I’ve seen so far. There’s of course plenty more time for the plot to really get going from where I am. But, fitting for a game where you play as a party rather than a singular character, the plot here is a lot more focused on individual characterizations and stories than it is on the greater criminal drama, at least as far in as I am. There’s still the greater conspiracy of the betrayal against Kasuga, the cold war that’s been brewing for almost the entire series between the Tojo Clan and the Omi Alliance going hot without Kiryu’s moderating influence and leaving the Omi on top, and whatever’s going to end up happening with the three way crime battle Kasuga finds himself in, but overall, it’s spent a lot more time on lighter subjects in what I’ve seen so far. Kasuga’s still driven by the betrayal and the mystery he found himself in, but he kind of spends a lot of time getting sidetrack from that first by measures of basic survival and second by just trying to help out the people he has in front of them. You get a cast of allies, each with their own strongly fleshed-out backstories and characters, and you’ll get a lot of content from each of them moving things forwards. Even minor characters have a very strong characterization to them, giving them a good level of personality and roundness, even if most of them are rather static. In later games, the Yakuza series has done really well at writing fleshed out characters, and it’s looking like the plot here is allowing that skill to shine very well.
Setting-wise, of course series mainstay Kamurocho gets a return here. Those streets are so familiar to the Yakuza series it makes for its own character, by this point. But Yakuza’s explored many locations around Japan in addition to Kamurocho, and this time around, it seems we’re getting a good long look at Yokohama. Isezaki Ijincho, the red light district of Yokohama, seems to be the game’s main location, and… it’s described in game as the place people end up in when they can’t fall anymore, so it gives off a really downtrodden sense. Homelessness and being out of place in society seems to be the big social themes this game is touching on, and much of the game’s real estate in terms of content and setting seems to be devoted to that. So yeah, big homeless district. Ijincho is also the site of a three-way power struggle going on between a Japanese yakuza family, a Korean geondal gang, and Chinese triad syndicate that has been so primed to explode that none of the larger criminal groups in Japan have been able to make any sort of move on the area for fear of it blowing up in their faces. Criminal manipulation on average citizens run rampant, and it’s hard to find any civilian in town that isn’t been taken advantage of by some criminal gang or other. You catch a lot of ruined businesses and lives strongly held down by the organized criminal activity. I have to admit, I’m kind of having a harder time picking up the character of Ijincho than I am of many others of Yakuza’s towns, but that desperation and economic depression, that’s coming through rather clearly. Although that could just be because all the PCs themselves are unemployed.
Very famously, Yakuza: Like a Dragon marks a huge gameplay shift for the series. A surprising gameplay shift. A very risky gameplay shift. One that the developers have been clear they wanted to try, but they’re willing to walk back on in future games if this doesn’t work out. Traditionally, Yakuza games are open world action adventures through and through. Yakuza: Like a Dragon is not, however. Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a turn-based JRPG.
And I’m putting the gameplay discussion last because I wanted to lead in by talking about what I liked about the game. So gameplay is here. At the bottom. And let’s be clear here. I’m not one of those “I hate it ‘cause it’s different!” kind of guys. I’m a fan of variety. And I like turn-based JRPGs, even. One of my favorite series is one of Yakuza’s sister series under Sega in fact, in Persona, and Yakuza: Like a Dragon even seems to take some inspiration from Persona 5 in a couple of subtle ways. And even has some cameos from Persona 5’s soundtrack to bring me right home.
So no, I don’t dislike Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s gameplay because all of a sudden it’s a turn-based JRPG now. I dislike Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s gameplay because it’s not a very good turn-based JRPG now.
Which, to be fair, it’s not a bad turn-based JRPG, either. Its battle system is kind of bog-standard for the genre. I’m not a fan of the Dragon Quest series because of how simple the game’s battle systems are, and Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s system is even more simple than that. Which is fitting, because the whole system is presented in universe as Kasuga being this massive Dragon Quest nerd with an overactive imagination and thus just seeing his fights playing out that way in his head. To be fair, the battles themselves can move pretty fast and may look dynamic. The base controls are ripped straight from Persona 5, so you’re not just navigating through menus straight away and instead have all your first level options assigned to different buttons, and making your selections take no time at all, so it does do a good job of carrying through some of the pulse-pounding action of fights from earlier in the series. You’ve got your basic attacks, special skills, a guard (that I guarantee will be used single-digit amounts of time throughout the game), and an etc. Function that houses other things you can do, like call in your summons. So kind of the standard stuff you’d see in a classic JRPG. Your special skills will cost MP, and do the standard things you’d expect. You got some abilities that do extra damage of various types, some that heal, some that buff or debuff or do status effects, etc. There is a bit of a timed hit system, wherein most of your aggressive skills will have a minor button mash or quick time event associated with them or you can press a button with the right timing to guard against an attack, but even that is so aggressively simple.
There’s two things I can point to that are unique about Like a Dragon’s battle system, and neither of them really make for much. The first is that sometimes, an attack will knock an enemy down, and if one of your party members comes up next in the turn order and you act before they get up, their basic attack will do significantly more damage. Which, fine, it’s pretty benign. But the problem is that the chance to knock someone down is dependent on how much higher the attacker’s level is than the defenders. Which means the biggest effect you’re going to see from this is against enemies you can likely beat with your basic attacks anyways, while you’re going to have a much harder time against enemies that are already higher level than you anyways. It just serves to reinforce power differentials and cause you more problems when you’re punching up. The second factor is the importance of positioning, which is kind of a mess. Nearly all your skills are single-target attacks, and the few that are multi-target will only work if your targets are next to each other. Moreover, Kasuga can pick up weapons in the environment and attack with them if his target happens to be near an object, and enemies will stop you from attacking if they happen to be in between you and your target. Problem with all of this is that everyone is constantly moving throughout the fight, and you have nearly zero control over any of it. They all walk around and shift position as part of their idle animations in between turns. Attacks have people charge and stay near, before drifting back. Which, fine, that could add some dynamism into the fight, an uncontrolled element to play and adjust to, but for the most part, everyone just drifts apart, so none of it ends up mattering outside of making multi-target skills useless after the first turn. And outside of those two factors, everything else is bog standard. There’s flash in the presentation, but as far as substance goes, the only things it does are things nearly every JRPG was doing more that two decades ago. The plot and characterization of this game are a fine, multitextured stew with a lot of ingredients working in harmony. The gameplay is lukewarm broth with nothing else added. And criminally, the encounter rate is really high in this game, and although there is an autobattle function, it doesn’t actually speed up the fights so it saves you almost no time whatsoever. The game’s pacing gets dragged down to the abyss when you’re just trying to get from point A to point B by just how frequent these incredibly simple fights are.
Although, to be fair, there are a couple of things that I just unlocked in my game that could add some much needed complexity to the gameplay, but I haven’t had enough time with them to tell. At about 15 hours in (although I was doing all the sidequests as they arose, if you skip those, you can get to it faster) you unlock both the ability to change your class and the ability to craft equipment. So far, that’s both in the battle prep sphere of gameplay rather than the actual operation of it, so I have my doubts that it’d turn this game’s fortunes around in my eyes, but there’s been many JRPGs that have proven very good based on their nuanced character building systems moreso than their in-battle gameplay. There does seem to be at least a bit of ability to mix and match skills across jobs, so hey, maybe you can really make something out of this.
The focus on JRPG style combat also has some odd side effects on the rest of the game too. The biggest is the tone of the game. Yakuza has always had some wild shifts. Sometimes its super serious, sometimes its really silly. Usually, each has their place. Silly stuff goes in the side content. Serious in the mainline. You can drop between them mostly at your leisure. Except now with Yakuza: Like a Dragon, even the serious stuff is silly when it comes time to fight. I can be staring a triad boss in the face, murder his eyes and righteous fury in mine, tension building to a dramatic peak as the blood on the floor only drives us forward against each other… and then the battle actually starts and all of a sudden Kasuga’s wearing a full suit of plate mail and beating his enemy with a giant sex toy after summoning a big manbaby to scream at everyone and… the drama has just fled the scene like an eligible bachelorette after a bad pickup line. And your rank and file enemies are often just plain goofy. Used to be you had a couple dozen basic enemy types differentiated by pose and style of dress, but with the game being a JRPG now, you need much more enemies, and you need them to be a lot more visually distinct. So now you get jumped by garbage bag men and hairdressers run amok and stereotypical kung fu goons and it really stretches the framing device of this all being in Kasuga’s imagination to the breaking point.
I can’t say I’m hating the game. Again, I’m loving the characters, I’m into the plot, and the major minigames of this game are actually rather fun to play. But man, that core gameplay is… not bad, but kind of disappointing. It’s standard when a series explores a new genre to make a relatively simple game in that genre so you don’t make it unapproachable for the fans who aren’t experienced with it, but… I’m already really into turn based JRPGs. You don’t need to make ‘Baby’s First Fight Option’ for me. The fact that you did is kind of disappointing. I’m sticking with the game for now. I want to spend more time with Kasuga and see where his story goes, and the gameplay’s not bad enough to drive me away. It just makes me turn my brain off, and I really don’t want to be doing that. And frankly, it’s disappointing. I was hopeful for this game, and although I don’t hate it, it’s not giving me the Yakuza goodness in turnbased form that I was expecting.