After years of being a big hit in the East, the Yakuza series has been finding its feet in the West as a bonafide role-playing experience that is always worth a look. Following the conclusion of Kazuma Kiryu’s story with Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, fans were predictably worried about just who was going to fill his giant shoes. Thankfully, developer Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio (RGG Studio) has once more defied the odds and delivered a stellar debut for new protagonist Kasuga Ichiban with Yakuza: Like A Dragon.
It is not just a new character that fans will have to get used to though, as the development team has gone all out in creating something new for this entry, eschewing the action-brawler roots of the franchise, and pivoting to a turn-based experience.
Not only that, but the reinvention goes further with the addition of true party members that stay with Ichiban for much of the story. The party dynamics paves the way for narrative openings that enhances the already powerful storytelling that many have come to expect from the Yakuza franchise. The power of friendship and unity is represented powerfully through the innocence of relationships, albeit wrapped in a violent world.
Despite its status as a new start of sorts, Yakuza: Like A Dragon is still a game that embodies everything fans have come to love about the series. If you’re ever lost with the plot twists, there are tons of exposition, crazy and fantastic fights, and of course, an almost never-ending list of side quest and activities to get up to, throughout a city brimming with life.
The story of every game has always revolved around the protagonist and his motivations, and it is no different here. Surrounded by an increasingly deeper and tangled web of secrets, alliances, betrayals, and power struggles, the player gets the front-row seat to the evolution of Ichiban as our hero.
The Tojo clan member has a familiar backstory, coming from nothing before getting swept up in the yakuza due to his benefactor, Masumi Arakawa. After taking the fall for a family crime, he is released into an unknown world and left for dead after 18 years in prison. Suffice to say, Ichiban’s burning need to find the truth is exactly what will drive players into a series of world-changing revelations and the true nature of the Japanese criminal underworld.
Yet, Ichiban’s charm is more overt than Kiryu ever was. The Dragon Quest loving gangster is loud, goofy, and suitably naive for someone who has not seen the outside world for quite some time. It provides him with plenty of room to grow and develop as a protagonist, as he comes into contact with the essential characters that flesh out Yakuza: Like A Dragon.
The likes of Adachi, Nanba, and Saeko all have their own reasons for accompanying Ichiban on his quest and it is a wonder to see how these individuals come together and grow as a party, turning friendships into deep, emotional bonds that can inspire and motivate.
All of the Yakuza games have never shied away from that, but unlike Kiryu, Ichiban is no loner. His strength comes from embracing the people that are there for him, and adds another layer to the deft storytelling from RGG Studio.
Throughout your time in Ijincho, Yokohama, you will learn more about the life stories of everyone, where there are problems to be solved, conversations to be had, and the unique events called Drink Links, which is exactly what the name suggests, as there’s nothing quite like getting to know someone’s true nature over drinks. Using it to improve bonds, social stats, and unlocking combat perks are just the icing on the cake.
That is not to say the characters outside of our main party are there to pad the numbers. The dynamics of the city are equally intriguing, with the Japanese Seiryu Clan, the Korean Geomijul, and the Chinese Liumang all playing their part in crafting a story worth pursuing.
There are definite moments that showcase each of the gangs’ parts to play, and a more than competent representation of the cultures at play. Much work has gone into ensuring the most nuanced performances for these different cultures, and it shows.
Outside of the gang-related stuff, there are broader themes on which Yakuza: Like A Dragon finds the time to shine the spotlight on as well.
The right-wing organisation that is Bleach Japan allows the game to speak to the creators’ obvious rejection of anti-immigrant rhetorics, as well as prejudices against sex workers and the poor. Just as Ichiban and his crew learn and grow from their experience in-game, it also allows the players a chance to realign their values.
It can come across as heavy-handed drama, but that is exactly what fans have come to expect from the series. Yakuza: Like A Dragon definitely makes the mark in every respect, even if not all of the story beats hit as hard as the home runs.
For those that prefer the more wacky nature of the games, then you will be glad for Ichiban’s love for Dragon Quest. This is where the turn-based combat of Yakuza: Like A Dragon comes to life, as enemies get transformed into foes you would find in a game, while allies assume their roles with bombastic panache.
Players get the options of standard attacks, special moves, and a variety of spells at their disposal. By ensuring you are always in an advantageous position and targeting your enemies’ weaknesses, it is this core cycle that makes the combat in Yakuza: Like A Dragon so fun, just like the RPG it draws inspiration from.
The craziness also gets ramped up during combat, as over-the-top moves become the norm. Ever wanted to see rabid fans trample all over your enemy as you perform a musical act? Yakuza: Like A Dragon has you covered.
Combat also gets a healthy sprinkling of puzzle elements, with battles asking you to figure out the best way to come out victorious. Your turns matter, as well as how you go about dispatching the opposition, and the game is at its best during gauntlets of fights or against the big bosses.
As another layer of strategy, all of the combat in Yakuza: Like A Dragon is driven by the job system. Characters are able to change classes that each come with special abilities that can complement the perfect setup. By making your party a well-rounded one with strong attacks, competent healing, and useful buffs, you are setting yourself up for success.
However, just like some RPGs, Yakuza: Like A Dragon may require a little bit of grinding towards the end of the game. As fights get more drawn out and tougher, you might find yourself on the losing end if you are not prepared and while combat is fun, this might not be the way everyone wants to enjoy it.
When the fists are done talking, you might want to explore the city and get up to other fun stuff. Yakuza: Like A Dragon has that in spades as you explore the much larger Ijincho in search of wild adventures.
Ichiban can attempt to sing the best karaoke of his life, or help run a family business that grows into a commercial powerhouse. If you prefer the high-octane stuff, there is also Dragon Kart, the racing minigame that is worth a title of its own with its challenges and side-story. The optional content in the series has always been gems, and this is no exception in Yakuza: Like A Dragon.
The power of the PlayStation 5 is apparent, with all the bells and whistles you would expect of a next-gen upgrade. If you think you are enjoying the game on the PS4, the PS5 version will blow your mind with how good it looks and play.
It can be hard trying to dissociate Yakuza: Like A Dragon from the shadows cast by Kazuma Kiryu, but Kasuga Ichiban is a giant of his own. Throughout the entirety of his journey alongside friends and enemies, there is an undeniable growth that not only will players acknowledge, but also see through the eyes and reflections of our hero.
For the debut of a new character, this is a rare feat and an impressive one at that. RGG Studio has outdone itself by fleshing out Ichiban in a way no one could have imagined, while shifting the franchise into the RPG territory with stellar results. The game manages to amplify all the merits of the Yakuza series, while carving out new paths for the future. If this is the passing of the torch from Kiryu to Ichiban, consider it a bright future ahead for the beloved franchise.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon is available on the PlayStation Store for $74.90.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
A fantastic new entry into a critically acclaimed franchise, Yakuza: Like A Dragon is everything you would want in a Yakuza game and then some.
Gameplay - 9/10
Story - 10/10
Presentation - 10/10
Value - 9/10