Yakuza reinvents itself for a new generation.
Long running franchises often run into the trouble of repetition and familiarity. As the years pass and more and more installments release, the structure, story, mechanics, and rhythm of how those games are supposed to play get set in stone, leading, often, to a sense of staleness, or conversely, escalation that gets increasingly over the top and ridiculous.
Yakuza never quite got as stale as several other franchises that have needed a dramatic reinvention in the past, but it did certainly start to feel a bit repetitive, a bit familiar – the same protagonist, the same mechanics, even the same locations in a lot of cases. Sometimes, even a lot of the side activities and minigames were the same across multiple installments. Each Yakuza game was good, because the games are fundamentally well designed and compelling products at their core – but a sense started to set in that if you had played one (preferably Yakuza 0, which fans consider to be the best of the bunch), then you’d seen most of everything the franchise had to offer.
And so, in the vein of so many popular, long running franchises in the past, Yakuza got its own reinvention. A new protagonist – Ichiban Kasuga; a new location, with the old stomping grounds of Kamurocho (mostly) making way for the new Yokohoma district; new players in the story, that mean that characters, their loyalties, alliances, and motivations can sometimes surprise the player; and, of course, a brand new battle system that completely changes what Yakuza is, turning it from a brawler/action-adventure game into a turn based RPG.
"Fans of Sega’s Persona series will notice that the battles seem to look a lot like Persona 5’s battles."
That change is absolutely the most dramatic. Unlike previous games, where Kiryu would take on goons, grunts, and anyone else who stood in his way, in real time brawls, Yakuza: Like A Dragon has Ichiban battling in turn based battles. These are proper, full-fledged turn based RPG battles – you take turns picking from your basic attacks or special abilities, you can inflict (or suffer from) various status conditions, you get buffs and debuffs, and in a series first, you even get to control other characters as party members in battle.
Fans of Sega’s Persona series will notice that the battles seem to look a lot like Persona 5’s battles. And that makes sense – Persona 5, in mapping attacks and actions to simple button presses, made turn based combat feel so fast and effortless, going back to the old menu-style turn based combat that used to be the norm feels jarring now. So Yakuza: Like A Dragon adopting its sibling’s UI style is definitely welcome, particularly since that keeps battles moving at a brisk pace.
The actual battle system, however, leans more into established Yakuza tropes and mechanics than replicate Persona’s 1-More battle system. For instance, if you’re near an object in the environment that you can interact with, attacking an enemy will automatically see you picking up (or kicking, or throwing, or whatever the appropriate action is at the time) said object at the enemy, also dishing out more damage in the process. If you try to attack someone who’s standing behind other people, those other people may try to stop your attack. If you have a lot of people bunched up around you, a single special attack can be used to devastating effect. In case you haven’t picked up on it, positioning is important in these battles – though you can’t actually move Ichiban yourself, and he moves when executing whatever action he is supposed to be that turn. This, of course, adds another layer of strategy and tactics to proceedings (though to be very honest, battles are extremely easy, and don’t really ask for much from you with few, if any, real exceptions).
It’s honestly fascinating how incredibly well Yakuza mechanics have been contextualized and rethought in terms of an RPG battle system. Drinks you can get at vending machines can have various effects, jobs you unlock give you entirely new stats and attacks, and your party members and you get better at working together as a team the more time you spend with them and deepen your bond – hey, I said the battle system is more Yakuza than Persona, I didn’t say there’s no Persona in it at all.
"It’s honestly fascinating how incredibly well Yakuza mechanics have been contextualized and rethought in terms of an RPG battle system."
You can deepen those bonds by engaging in a whole lot of minigames and activities (which gives you another incentive to engage in those, though given how fun Yakuza’s side content tends to be, more incentive was hardly needed). Bonds and battle UI aside, Persona fans will pick up on another similarity between the two franchises – Ichiban has a whole bunch of social stats, such as empathy or wisdom, that you level up in Yakuza’s vaunted sub-stories (yes, they’re back, and they’re still great) (with the response you select deciding what stat sees growth). In a lot of ways, Yakuza: Like A Dragon feels like a Persona game, which means fans of that series will definitely find a lot to appreciate here.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the game’s mechanics, because there are a lot of changes (and there are also a lot of mechanics), but long time series fans often tune into an installment as much for the story and these characters’ exploits as they do for how they play. In that regard, Yakuza: Like A Dragon is a breath of fresh air – though not because of the story, as much as because of Ichiban himself.
The actual story is structured fairly similarly to Kiryu’s at first: orphaned kid who ends up owing a debt to a Yakuza big shot and joins his family to be able to repay said debt, and learn more from the man he idolizes. As you can expect, things go wrong at some point, and Ichiban is asked to take the fall by patriarch Arakawa and serve the prison sentence instead. When Ichiban is finally released, he finds himself back in a world that has changed a lot – and an Arakawa who seems to have betrayed the Tojo Clan, and cut himself off from Ichiban, whom he previously treated as a son, entirely.
It’s here that the story starts to diverge from what you’d expect based on previous Yakuza games. We won’t go more in detail mostly because we want to avoid spoilers, but suffice it to say, while Ichiban understandably wants to figure out what exactly happened while he was in prison, and why he was sent to prison in the first place, upon being abandoned by the man he so idolized, he decides to become a hero. Ichiban is a goofy, optimistic, loudmouth kind of person. To invoke Persona again, if Kiryu was Joker, then Ichiban is Ryuji, prone to impulsive decision making and being abrasive, but with his heart absolutely in the right place, who wants to do right by others.
"Long time series fans often tune into an installment as much for the story and these characters’ exploits as they do for how they play. In that regard, Yakuza: Like A Dragon is a breath of fresh air – though not because of the story, as much as because of Ichiban himself."
It’s this disposition more than anything else that makes the story in this game feel so different from past Yakuza games. It’s not a crime drama as much as it is a drama that happens to involve some crime-related plot points, and that makes for a pretty substantial difference. It, to repeat myself, feels a lot like a Persona story in terms of structure and progression (complete with a lot of characters repeating what they had already discussed not two minutes ago multiple times, and a lot of plot threads that don’t come together until much later in the story). This isn’t a bad thing, given Persona stories are ambitious and engaging, but it does mean that there is a lot to get through, making for the longest Yakuza game to date – no, nowhere near as long as Persona, but still substantially long (made even longer by all the minigames, substories, and side activities that you’ll want to partake in this time around, given how they tie into the central progression mechanics).
One way that Like A Dragon diverges from Persona is in terms of polish and production values. Persona games feel polished to a shine, with nary a bug or glitch in sight, and an effortless style and aesthetic of storytelling that makes them feel like a comic or an anime come to life, in motion, right before your eyes. Like A Dragon… isn’t quite like that. There are rough edges galore all over the place here. Frequent loading screens (that can sometimes last up to 30 seconds) break up cutscenes and dialog all too often, which can completely ruin the flow and rhythm of the scene, and dull a lot of the impact that events otherwise might have had. These loading screens are actually a big annoyance. While the city itself is seamless (meaning you can run from one end to the other, and in and out of buildings, without triggering a loading screen), any time there is a cutscene (so any time you reach your main objective) or transition from one cutscene to another, you can expect frequent interruptions by the loading screen.
There are other smaller issues that by themselves don’t quite amount to much, but collectively do seem to indicate a lack of polish: for instance, objects and NPCs pop in and out of view quite frequently and alarmingly, there is frequent object clipping and some pretty low texture objects, and lastly, dialog scenes lack a lot of the cinematic flair the older games in the series had, with abrupt jump cuts from one character to the other (or often, from one action by a character to the other) with no transition a lot of times. This, again, isn’t a deal breaker – but a lot of the charm of Yakuza games comes from character interactions, so something like this definitely is a bummer.
In a first for a Yakuza game since the very first one, Like A Dragon has an English dub. It’s a good dub, and prospective players who have been meaning to get into the series but stayed away due to it being subtitled with a Japanese voice track only now have no more excuses. I will say, it feels jarring and weird to me to play Yakuza in English, and personally, I do find a lot of the atmosphere and immersion that the games can achieve with their Japanese track missing in the English dub – but this is a more subjective thing, given the fact that I have played all previous games with the Japanese dub, and so I find it hard to palate a new Yakuza in English. Newcomers will almost certainly not have that problem (like I said, it’s a good dub), and even long time fans might prefer it – though if you don’t like whatever dub you chose at the start of the game, you can switch to the other freely at any time.
"There are other smaller issues that by themselves don’t quite amount to much, but collectively do seem to indicate a lack of polish."
Yakuza: Like A Dragon is a massive game (series producer Nagoshi promised the biggest game in the series yet, and he delivered). It is also a fresh start for Yakuza in a lot of ways (there’s a reason they dropped the numbering from this one’s western release). A new protagonist, new location, new genre, even, and a new story independent of the long Kiryu saga, all come together to make it feel like a breath of fresh air. It lacks polish, and can be absurdly easy, but otherwise, it’s astonishing how much it gets not just right, but perfect, on its first attempt with things, while also maintaining the traditional Yakuza charm and quirkiness that endeared the series to fans in the first place.
Long time fans of the series are likely to enjoy Yakuza: Like A Dragon as much for how it rethinks series conventions in the context of a turn based RPG, as they are because of how much it is still like older Yakuza games in all the best ways. Meanwhile, the change in format (bringing it closer to the mainstream success Persona enjoys) and addition of English voice acting, means that this is the most accessible Yakuza release we have seen in years, if not ever. The flaws that exist don’t take much away from how compelling it is overall – and for the first time in years, I am actually interested to see what they do with the next Yakuza game. Bring it on, Sega.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
New characters, location, story, and mechanics help reinvigorate the franchise; The battle system is great; Arresting story and compelling characters; An incredible amount of content.
Some graphical bugs and glitches; Battles are generally extremely easy; Frequent (and long) loading screens break the flow of gameplay and story far too often.
Yakuza is reborn in this brilliant and compelling new addition to series canon that recontextualizes series tropes and mechanics for an entirely new genre, delivering one of the best outings the series has ever seen.