Yakuza: Like a Dragon Breathed New Fire into the Series

Welcome to Save State, where we’d like to request that you don’t stare at us when we’re like a dragon. I’ve always been a fair weather Yakuza fan, only really having experience with Yakuza 3. I had great memories of the game, but due to playing it over twelve years ago, I recall very little other than some pretty absurd moments and fun minigames. Yakuza: Like a Dragon is the current entry in the series, and was on sale not long ago, so I thought I’d pick it up to reintroduce myself to the series. Interestingly, the game was no longer a kind of beat ‘em up game, and more of a traditional RPG… which was probably one of the best surprises I could have hoped for.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon is the seventh game in the mainline Yakuza series, but it differentiates itself from its past iterations by utilizing a completely different main cast, as well as a completely different combat system. While many other Yakuza games were spectacle-style beat ‘em ups with flashy moves and funny attacks, Like a Dragon has a turn-based battle system… with flashy moves and funny attacks. Kazuma Kiryu, the protagonist most fans of the franchise know and love, takes a backseat to a newcomer known as Ichiban Kasuga.

The new main character of the series named Ichiban is a thug with a heart of gold, and his overactive imagination and impetuousness can get him into trouble quite often. The first few hours of Like a Dragon inform you of Ichiban’s personality, as well as those around him. You immediately learn that he’s fiercely loyal, perhaps even to a fault, as the first chapter closes with him taking the fall for a murder he didn’t commit just to protect his yakuza family. The game then continues with Ichiban getting released from prison eighteen years later. With no one waiting on the outside for him but an ex-police detective, Ichiban learns that the world changed quite substantially during his time behind bars.

During the almost twenty years Ichiban spent in prison, yakuza essentially became an endangered species, and the family of yakuza he went to prison for was essentially run out of town in his absence. Yakuza: Like a Dragon begins with Ichiban’s demands for answers, but he quickly collects an eclectic cast of characters around him who each have their reasons for being in the group. Like a Dragon references Dragon Quest quite often, with the game even doing silly things like a “sword in the stone” King Arthur type moment, only with an old baseball bat stuck in the sidewalk.

The cast of Like a Dragon is absolutely full of fantastic characters. For the main party, Koichi Adachi is a driven ex-police detective who wants to take down the current police commissioner by exposing his crimes, and he figures his best way of doing that is to get close to Kasuga, who has connections to the yakuza boss that might have the information Adachi needs. Yu Nanba is a former nurse, current homeless man who nurses Kasuga back to health after he gets shot in the chest, tagging along because good things seem to happen to him when Kasuga’s around (although lots of bad happens too, of course).

Going too far into the various party members might spoil some of the events that take place in later chapters, but it’s great and refreshing that each part of the ensemble cast has their own reason for joining the party, and each has a character arc that gets resolved in some way as you play through the game. For many of these characters, their arcs aren’t side content or throwaway lines of dialogue- for all but one of the characters, their arcs intertwine in the main plot in a realistic, but dramatic, way. The shift of scenery to Yokohama Ijincho and the new cast of characters works very well with the criminal conspiracy storylines that Yakuza is known for.

The combat system of Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a big departure from what the series usually does. Possibly due in part to the Dragon Quest references, Like a Dragon utilizes a turn-based combat system for battles, and it works out way better than it has any right to. You select your actions from a menu and watch your characters take their turns, pretty much, but the battles still feel quick and involved because that many special moves have action commands where you need to mash a button or precisely time a button press to increase damage. Knocking an enemy down can let you follow up with big damage if you input your actions quickly enough, and pressing a button to block as damage is incoming can result in substantially less damage taken. Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s battle system has all the visual dynamics of a modern game with the finesse of an older turn-based game like Super Mario RPG. Timed hits pretty much automatically make a turn-based battle system better, and Like a Dragon is no exception.

When it comes to character customization, Like a Dragon excels in this category too. There is a job system that lets you change your party to fun archetypes that largely conform to fantasy classes, but with fun new names and attacks. Ichiban’s Freelancer and Hero classes, which are a couple examples of the jobs for this character, are mostly damage dealers with some useful support moves, while one of Nanba’s jobs known as Homeless Guy is more akin to a black mage with some support spells thrown in. One of the jobs that female party members can have is known as Idol. This is one of the best support classes in the game with great healing capabilities and includes useful buffs for your party and debuffs for your foes.

Each job levels individually and has a pretty big impact on your stats, and some attacks can be carried over from one job to another. It can sometimes be a bit punishing to experiment, especially late game, but leveling up all jobs is something you’ll eventually want to do, especially if you’re going to take on the difficult post-game content. It is worth noting that job selection for non-Ichiban characters will mostly depend on their bond level with him, so you’re incentivized to get to know your party members so that you have additional options for jobs, which in turn means more attacks and spells at your disposal.

All that being said, however, for a Yakuza game trying out a new battle system for the first time, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio did a phenomenal job in transitioning Yakuza gameplay to turn-based combat. The Dragon Quest inspirations are plain to see in Like a Dragon, but the battles still feel dynamic, like you’re playing a previous Yakuza game through a menu system. The characters all move and adjust while you take your turns, so combat doesn’t feel as static as it might in other games. This visual flair actually extends to a lot of other parts of the game, too. It’s always a treat to get a cutscene in the middle of battle where Ichiban and the boss basically start fist fighting, jumping off of walls and kicking each other in midair, then it rebreaks back into the turn-based battles again. Like a Dragon doesn’t have the graphic design sensibilities of Persona 5, but in a lot of places where it counts most, the seventh entry in the Yakuza franchise really hits home.

Like most of the Yakuza games, Like a Dragon is a really funny time. Wandering down the street and getting jumped by a group of trenchcoat-wearing flashers, or seeing a homeless man with a special attack of throwing beans at someone to make pigeons attack his foes is equal parts ludicrous and hilarious. The humor, the action, and the side content are all really on point here, in almost equal doses. There’s a full on Mario Kart style minigame, various gambling games from poker and blackjack to koi koi and mahjong (and many more games I hadn’t even heard of before). There’s a business management minigame that could easily soak up multiple hours of those who want to chase the #1 spot in the rankings, plus it has nice monetary payouts as well. There’s so many minigames with these really just being the tip of the iceberg.

The only real drawback to Yakuza: Like a Dragon is that there are some parts toward the end of the game where it’s like the game balance was thrown out the window. There’s a portion where you’ll need to grind up a considerable amount of money before you can continue with the story, which normally wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but the story actually hits a very interesting point before forcing you to cool off and do minigame activities to earn cash. There’s also a pretty wild difficulty spike in the 12th chapter where, if you hadn’t been grinding up to this point, you might find yourself 14-15 levels under the bosses you’re fighting. The difficulty spike isn’t anything too insurmountable, but it does come out of nowhere considering there’s a very real chance you were clearing random battle foes in one or two turns.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon is definitely one of those titles that can be recommended to most people open to turn-based RPGs. Even if not a fan of turn-based gameplay, you might enjoy the absolute absurdity of seeing someone call in a satellite laser strike on the streets of Yokohama, plus all of the drama in the story can get you really invested no matter how preposterous the story or plot twists become. Yakuza: Like a Dragon is just a fantastic time from beginning to end, and I had a great time with it over the last couple weeks.

That being said, we can safely bring this installment of Save State to a close before the local gangsters make this column swim with the fishes. Join us again in a couple weeks when I will, once again, gush about a random video game or two.

Until next time!

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