The Yakuza series is one that has been around for a number of console generations, offering up an ongoing crime-saga-serial set in modern-day Japan filtered through the absurdity and heart of the talented team at Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio. As we usher in the dawn of a new console generation, you might expect to find Yakuza: Like a Dragon as nothing more than the next chapter in the saga.
The next intricate tale of honour and betrayal in a long-running story that has packed in as much action as it has bouts of karaoke and dating.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is different, not only from the position of featuring a new cast of characters, a new main protagonist, and a story that shifts the urban setting to the Yokohama district of Isezaki Ijincho, it also presents its tale in the guide of a traditional turn-based RPG. One modelled after the classic Dragon Quest series, or Final Fantasy games from the 16-bit and 32-bit era.
Taking even the most passing of glances at any of the pre-release trailers
and seeing real-world jobs like chef or bouncer or pop idol or musician re-imagined as RPG character classes, or witnessing crustaceans swarming enemies in what looked like mage abilities (aka spells), you could very easily chalk it up to the Yakuza team indulging in their absurdist tendencies.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is different... [its] modelled after the classic Dragon Quest series, or Final Fantasy games from the 16-bit and 32-bit era.
In reality the opposite is true, and like all great over-the-top art, Yakuza: Like a Dragon is grounded in humanity. Humanity that is personified in the new and wonderful protagonist Ichiban Kasuga.
As an orphan growing up playing games like Dragon Quest his devotion and sense of honour is backed up by approaching each and every thing from the perspective of ‘the hero’ - the helping hand, the saviour, the friend to all. Also, the quick-to-act before finding out what truly is happening. Ichiban is perhaps one of the greatest RPG heroes we’ve seen in the modern era, honest, brash, quick to temper, but always positive. Even when he’s left for dead, wounded, and homeless.
It’s his world-view that serves as the foundation for the RPG insanity that follows - creating a party of outcasts and loners, fighting the good fight, sticking up for brothels, and bringing a sense of belonging to once shunned corners of the world. From there, real-world characters as RPG monsters, hallways and sewers as dungeons, and calling up a friend on the phone to help out as a Final Fantasy Summon, can just as easily be seen as Ichiban’s interpretation of the world and the events depicted.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon, like many JRPGs and even other titles in the series (you don’t need to be a Yakuza vet to jump in here), is a slow burn. We’re talking 10-15 hours or more before things like exploration and a robust suite of side-quests and activities open up. This is not a bad thing in and of itself, but it points to some indulgence on behalf of the developers. Especially when long cinematic sequences featuring character interaction and even action are presented as mini-movies or episodic serials sans any real, well, input from you other than to sit back and watch and occasionally ‘Press A’.
Even though you end up racing karts through city streets in a very clear homage to Mario Kart, and end up managing a business empire in a strategy-game-within-the-game that is borderline genius, Yakuza: Like a Dragon still maintains the series’ focus on narrative. Where the criminal underworld of modern Japan and concepts like honour, betrayal, and family frame it all.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is grounded in humanity. Humanity that is personified in the new and wonderful protagonist Ichiban Kasuga.
On that note the switch to a traditional JRPG setup works hand-in-hand with Yakuza, calling on the grand episodic nature of genre classics like Skies of Arcadia or Grandia II where you could imagine them existing as a long-form serial or Netflix series. Albeit in a package where a Jazz bar serves as your party’s camp offering respite, a drink, some entertainment, and a moment to explore the past and present.
The only area where Yakuza: Like a Dragon really falters is with the ease of combat, where ‘overworld’ encounters that trigger the RPG Battle Theme rarely present a challenge. Which is a shame because battle transitions are seamless, wonderfully animated, and offer up a heightened version of reality that is wonderful to watch as it is to command. As are the jobs as a class structure where a visit to an employment office serves as the party customisation screen to match abilities with gear and skill.
In the end though even in the form of a traditional RPG, Yakuza: Like a Dragon feels remarkably fresh and delightful to a fault. The story is as engaging as the wonderful cast and the blend of modern-day Japan with videogame sensibilities reinforces Ichiban’s positivity and outlook as something to strive for.