Yakuza: Like A Dragon – Quest Love
Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, PlayStation 4
With the tales of Kazuma Kiryu brought to a close in Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, developer Sega set Yakuza: Like A Dragon a monumental task; introduce a new protagonist, setting and radically different combat system without alienating the legions of fans in both East and West who have followed the series for going on 15 years. While I held a lot of scepticism in the lead up to its release, Yakuza: Like A Dragon has obliterated any doubts I held as it embraces JRPG tropes to become not only one of the finest Yakuza games overall but a love letter to fans of Japanese gaming history and popular culture.
No Yakuza game would be complete without revenge, romance and dramatic set-pieces, all of which Yakuza: Like A Dragon has in spades. The setup remains familiar – a mysterious betrayal motivates the protagonist in his quest for answers – but a shift from the comfortable confines of Kamurocho to the noticeably larger area of Yokohama reinvigorates many parts of the game, encouraging exploration and providing a more diverse array of locations to visit. Perhaps most relieving is the fact that new protagonist Kasuga Ichiban absolutely shines, his personal quirks facilitating many of the elements that make Yakuza: Like A Dragon not only so enjoyable but also extremely cohesive, especially when it comes to JRPG tropes playing out in the real world. While Kasuga may be much goofier than Kazuma Kiryu, he retains the core ideals of loyalty and honour than made his predecessor such an endearing character.
Easily the most defining characteristic of Kasuga is his deep abiding love for Enix’s early Dragon Quest games, a series which popularised the JRPG as a genre and remains relevant to this day. Forget allusion either; Dragon Quest is mentioned by name numerous times throughout Yakuza: Like A Dragon and is even used by other characters to help Kasuga relate to concepts or ideas. This borderline obsession shapes not just his character but the world around him to become a prism through which he experiences reality. With this angle, many of the JRPG concepts that would otherwise seem out of place in such a gritty, urban setting mesh wonderfully and create a sort of feedback loop – the further Kasuga retreats into his delusions, seeing himself as the Hero questing with his party against a great evil, the wilder things can get.
Because no good hero is an island, the supporting cast of characters in Like A Dragon counterbalance Kasuga in a number of ways thanks to their distinct backgrounds and personalities. Homeless ex-nurse Nanba, disgraced police officer Adachi and cabaret hostess Saeko each take a specific role in combat and within the group itself, forming their own bonds whilst playing off Kasuga and one another with later additions expanding the pool of playable characters significantly. The palpable sense of comradery is aided by side activities and missions that integrate much more effectively into the main story than they have in previous games. As usual, these side missions range from truly touching to comedically absurd, often mixing in references to JRPG tropes and Japanese popular culture.
Battles are smooth and stylistic, echoing elements of Persona 5 in its modern approach to turn-based combat with a touch more interactivity in the form of minor QTE elements to boost attacks or reduce damage taken. Playing into JRPG tropes, Like A Dragon features a literal ‘job’ system – players switch roles at an employment agency – which provides a level of combat customisation that simply didn’t exist in the series up to this point. Whilst each character starts out in a fairly generic role, there are a number of ways the party can be shaped to suit a particular playstyle via the job system and the steady drip of dopamine borne of numbers slightly increasing after each battle ensures that random battles feel much less of a chore. As a consequence, weapon and equipment loadouts are much more vital to success now that Yakuza lacks a difficulty selector; instead, certain missions will recommend a minimum level or simply prevent a player from attempting them until they are better equipped. Some fan favourite characters from prior Yakuza games are given surprising cameos and call-backs through the battle system via Poundmates, a new menu option that allows Kasuga to pay for particular devastating attacks in return for a substantial amount of yen. Best saved for the tensest of boss battles, it’s a fun way to approach the ‘Summon’ system standard to most JRPGs.
Building on top of the Dragon Engine which debuted in Yakuza 6 and was further developed in Judgment, Like A Dragon’s Yokohama setting is the largest virtual space found in any Yakuza title to date and yet lacks some of the finer details found in mainstay location Kamurocho, no doubt a virtue of the latter being refined over multiple years and Yakuza games. There is novelty in exploring an unfamiliar Yokohama rather than the metagame of spot-the-difference that later forays into Kamurocho became, but it takes quite a while for the city to truly feel like home and strips Yakuza of yet another ‘comfort food’ element alongside the new cast and combat system. I suspect a few sequels will solve this issue in due course. Playing Like A Dragon on an Xbox One S serves as a slight reminder of why the promises of the Series X and PS5 – instant loading and higher framerates – are generating as much excitement as they are. While performance isn’t terrible, the framerate does tend to drop in busy scenes and loading screens are frequent which break engagement and immersion in such a dramatic and story heavy title. Controlling Kasuga can also feel stilted at times as he lurches to and fro from a standing position making finer movements sometimes required to interact with chests or objects in the world difficult. If it’s any console-ation, I’m very much looking forward to firing up Yakuza: Like A Dragon on a Series X to see how it improves and streamlines the overall experience.
With the release of Yakuza: Like A Dragon, I’m forced to rescind my previous statements around Yakuza 0 being the unquestionable starting point for newcomers to the franchise, especially if there is any fondness held for the JRPG genre. Like A Dragon is a tried and true Yakuza experience through and through in terms of story and characters, improving on side mission elements and party integration so much so that it would be a shame to lose these changes should the series revert to real-time combat. It was a gamble on Sega’s part to make such major changes to a tried and true formula, even more bewildering given its recent meteoric rise in Western markets. If Yakuza: Like A Dragon proves anything, it’s that fortune does indeed favour the bold.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon was reviewed on an Xbox One S with code kindly supplied by Five Star Games PR
It was whilst toiling away in the bowels of the now mythical Australian Gamer forums that Stephen’s attempts at writing were recognised by then up-and-coming Matt ‘Hewso’ Hewson as “not terrible”. Since then he has contributed to such sites as The Age’s now defunct Screen Play, the now-long retired Black Panel and currently serves under Editor-in-Chief Hewso for Player2.net.au, at least until the pattern of decline obvious in his previous engagements is picked up on by Hewso and he is exiled from games journalism forever.
Writes on Yugambeh land.