Yakuza: Like a Dragon is an opportunity for a fresh start for the franchise. There’s a new protagonist! There’s a new battle system! It’s time to shake things up! But in most of the ways that matter, Like a Dragon doesn’t take this opportunity. It’s confident in its history, and while it experiments with new ideas, it doesn’t cut ties.
First things first: the big differences. Yakuza: Like a Dragon‘s new hero, Ichiban Kasuga, is inextricably linked to the shift to JRPG-style combat. Kasuga is a longtime fan of Dragon Quest and adheres to a strict heroic code. It’s why he admires principled yakuza bosses and believes they’ll do the right thing if he just talks to them. It’s why he happily goes to prison for almost two decades in someone else’s place to pay his patriarch back for saving his life.
In this context, it feels like Yakuza: Like a Dragon will be different. After all, Kasuga willingly, eagerly heads to prison. He isn’t framed or forced like Kiryu. Two factors derail that: a fight that adds three years to his sentence, and how he’s greeted upon his return. We won’t spoil too much here, but suffice it to say that those three years turn out to be pivotal, and Kasuga finds himself without the base of support he anticipates.
Kasuga missing 18 years is convenient for the game’s attempt to become a new jumping-in point. Since he missed the events of most Yakuza games (and clearly didn’t try to keep up with any world events from prison), he needs things explained to him as new players would. The world may reference old events, but they’ll never be crucial without Kasuga asking about them explicitly.
Kasuga’s childhood passion is also why the game’s now an RPG. You see — and it’s weird to say this — but Yakuza: Like a Dragon has an unreliable narrator. The game doesn’t have to justify all the genre tropes, because it’s all in Kasuga’s head. All the varied “enemy types” and “special skills” in the game? They’re the imagination of an unrelentingly quixotic self-styled hero. His companions constantly react to these delusions, but they quickly concede that they’re harmless.
We didn’t necessarily hate Yakuza‘s old combat system. Still, it’s easy enough to get tired of it if you’ve played all the games until now. It’s in this context that the turn-based scheme is a breath of fresh air. Rather than pure button-mashing, you’ll think through your pieces and consider the best way through an encounter.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon‘s combat isn’t totally static, though. There are active button presses for extra damage, Paper Mario-style, and slow enemy movement around the area makes you consider timing for area attacks. You’ll deal more damage by hitting foes when they’re down, making for quick-response combos. There’s also an attempt to bring in the environmental attacks. Default hits will incorporate crates and other elements, if they’re found on the way. It’s never explicit about when it will do this, though, so it’s not clear or intentional like all your combat choices.
The battles aren’t the only taste of the JRPG experience. Shops now sell equipment and weapons for your party. The big set-piece story battles are now full-fledged dungeons with corridors, chests and lots of rooms of new, tough foes. And the theme extends beyond even these segments. You’ll fill your “Sujidex” of creatures for a peculiar professor. You’ll manage an elaborate job change system at the city’s temp agency. (These jobs serve to break up combat monotony, which is nice, but if you want to stick with the jobs you’ve already leveled and save time and effort, you’ll probably get along just fine.) This absurd conceit does take a bit of the bite out of the hard-boiled main story moments, if you’re less bought-in to the concept than Kasuga. Which is everyone! He’s very committed.
But even with the new things, this is still the Yakuza you know. Kiryu is gone, but in his place is… another old ex-yakuza with a signature suit he never takes off and an unshakeable moral compass. You’ll run around a downtown area. You’ll trigger substories and play old arcade games. You might be ambushed by random thugs on your way to trying quirky minigames and eating beef bowls. Outside of the new gameplay, Yakuza: Like a Dragon makes you feel right at home.
The localization in Yakuza: Like a Dragon is, as always, top-notch. There are some nice touches, like the fun Sujimon names and the S-E-G-A battle menu. You can trigger optional party conversations as you walk around town, and some of these are genuinely funny. This is hard to do in games generally, much less ones with a language hurdle. The English audio seems fine for those who don’t like subtitles, though we still spent most of our time with the Japanese tracks to which we’ve become so accustomed. It’s a lot of effort to do things twice and give everyone what they want, though! Like a Dragon is the gold standard for modern game localization.
Yakuza games are often only as good as their most compelling minigame, and Yakuza: Like a Dragon certainly delivers its suite of attempts. The Management game feels like a new take on Yakuza 0‘s real estate one, with some added difficulty without the growing economy of that era. It’s still fairly straightforward and the appeal lies in how in-game characters make cameos in your business, but the real-time action of the shareholder meetings does bring in some variety.
Dragon Kart, the racing minigame in Yakuza: Like a Dragon, is… well, it’s not Mario Kart, and it’s not Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. It controls fine, feeling a bit rougher than Judgment‘s drone racing, but with a simpler approach that constrains your movement and leads to less frustration. Neither of these games will scratch the itch of those looking for something like the popular cabaret game, and the included arcade lineup is the stale slate of Sega classics we’re used to seeing with nothing fresh or interesting. Still. These don’t feel phoned in.
It should be noted that our review is an assessment of the old-gen experience. We reviewed the game on Xbox One (and previewed on a mid-range PC). This version of the game is full of low-res textures, low frame rates and long load times. It’s certainly still playable, and there’s not a lot of performance the game needs to work right, but the ideal experience will definitely be the Series X and eventual PS5 builds.
Much like Kasuga’s dragonfish tattoo feels like a quirky but faithful successor to Kiryu’s dragon, Yakuza: Like a Dragon rebuilds the franchise by leaving a lot of it in place. The new protagonist doesn’t feel like he has seven games of story in him, but his eagerness to join the fray could carry the next few entries. And hey, if you want another game with the classic combat style, there’s always a chance of a Judgment sequel.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon will release November 10, 2020 on Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PlayStation 4 and PC. The PlayStation 5 version is set for release on March 10, 2021.