|Developer||Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios|
|Platforms||PC, PS4 (reviewed), PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S|
|Release Date||November 10, 2020 (PC, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)
March 2, 2021 (PS5)
If there’s one word that could briefly summarize the absolute mess of a year 2020 has been, I’d say it’s “change”. At the very beginning of this year, many of us ushered in the New Year the same way we always have: we hugged our loved ones, set off a few fireworks, and cheered raucously as the seconds ticked away before midnight. This celebration is meant to mark the changing of seasons and the beginning of something new, but if we’re being completely honest, not too many of us expect things to significantly change in the new year, right? Sure, we make resolutions to work off that excess weight, read more books, or finish that project that’s been sitting in the basement for weeks on end. But as the year winds on, those often fade into the back of our mind as we settle into another 365 days not too different from the last time around. For many folks, all of that changed this year.
Jobs that felt secure suddenly became places of fear and uncertainty, school decisions turned into matters of life and death, and through it all, the news cycle droned on and on in an endless hurricane of negativity. It’s in places like these that we often find ourselves turning to our “security blankets,” places of comfort that provide a degree of certainty when each day seems less stable than the last. Like young children crawling into their parents’ bed after a nightmare, we cling tightly to the few things we know are true and good. For some, these security blankets are found in their faith, in hours spent on their knees or poring over the pages of the text that provides them with what they need to keep going day by day. Sometimes, though, that security is found in simpler, more material things. No matter how old we get, everyone has a childhood stuffed animal, a comfy chair, or a movie that somehow makes you tear up every time no matter what because it’s just SO BEAUTIFUL.
I say all this because, as I’ve felt the stress and pain of this season weigh on me, the Yakuza series has become my security blanket in some ways. Like many people, I use gaming to escape into a world that’s wholly different than my own, and these games provide one that is equal parts exciting, beautiful, and comforting. As I watched America become more and more divided outside my walls, I found something so simple about large Japanese men with soft hearts that couldn’t resist helping orphans or going on whacky sidequests. In the world of Yakuza, problems are solved through chaotic battles that ended with everyone coming to an amicable agreement. It is simple and, most importantly, consistent. But of course, Yakuza had to change just like everything else this year. For the first time in the franchise, a mainline game was going to deviate from the Streets of Rage-style combat and instead make its best effort to be a competent RPG. Like a lot of fans, this change made me nervous, especially considering the backdrop of 2020. As I nervously started my first playthrough, suspiciously eyeing the brand-new protagonist, I had to wonder: “Is my security blanket still as warm and comforting as always? Or is it time to put it away and grow up?”
Violence: Yakuza: Like a Dragon contains similar amounts of violence to previous entries in the series, with a shift toward RPG-style combat. You control a small party of characters as they kick, punch, shoot, stab, and generally barrage enemies with attacks. These are not excessively graphic or gory and tend to lean heavily towards cartoonish violence, with no blood displayed. Like prior Yakuza games, there are special moves that activate small cutscenes of your characters attacking enemies, but that these are less violent than in previous games. Since battle sequences are meant to take place within the main character’s imagination, they tend to be very lighthearted in tone, with enemies simply vanishing after being defeated, and shown to be alive when combat concludes. However, the game’s cutscenes do not shy away from depicting graphic violence, including stabbing, beating, shooting, and violent torture, all with blood on display. This violence is treated seriously and can often be disturbing, especially when women and children are involved (although children only witness these acts and are not harmed themselves).
Sexuality: Sexual content is present, but the game contains no graphic nudity and most segments involving this content are optional. Some female characters wear revealing clothing that shows cleavage or legs. A significant amount of the game’s plot involves a group that aims to shut down Japan’s red-light districts, and the main characters by and large oppose them. At one point, your party works for a brothel and live in a space used to house prostitutes. However, nothing explicit is seen and the work they do for the brothel involves investigation more than anything. One of the classes that female characters can adopt the “Night Queen”, a scantily clad BDSM mistress with a move set that revolves around whipping and humiliation. Choosing this class is optional. The main character and one other can watch old movies, and one of them is an innuendo-laden film about a spouse cheating on her husband. There is some suggestive dialogue in this sequence, but the screen cannot be seen. Some sidequests and dialogue involve innuendo and/or sexual situations, but not to an extremely graphic degree, and mostly played for comedy.
Language: The game contains fairly frequent uses of f**k, d**n, s**t, b***h, etc, along with taking the Lord’s name in vain. While not overwhelming in its frequency, it still tends to pop up fairly often in dialogue, just like in previous entries in the series. Notably, this is the first Yakuza game in some time to offer an optional English dub, so these swear words are heard in English rather than Japanese if you choose to play with that setting on.
Spirituality: Not particularly present. There are some instances of using magic to heal characters, bring them back from the dead, or brainwash enemies, but like most things in the game, this is treated comedically. One of the available classes is a fortune-teller, who presumably consults with spirits to use their powers, but this is not made explicitly clear.
Substance Abuse: Characters in your party can drink alcohol at bars which will make them slightly intoxicated and provide certain status effects. Occasionally in cutscenes, characters will be visibly drunk. Drugs are mentioned occasionally but don’t play a major role in the main plot.
Negative Themes: The protagonist is a former yakuza whose family was associated with murder, money laundering, theft, and other criminal activities. However, he holds to a strong moral code and does what he can to avoid harming any innocents.
Positive Themes: The game focuses strongly on the bond between the party and what true friendship looks like. Even when characters disappoint or even betray him, the protagonist is incredibly forgiving and loyal to those he considers friends. He generally has a very optimistic outlook on life, and everyone in the main party seeks to fight for justice and do what they can to help innocent people. Overall, Yakuza: Like A Dragon puts a refreshing emphasis on loyalty, friendship, and giving people a chance even when they let you down.
ESRB Rating: M for Mature
If I’m being completely honest, a big reason why I was averse to the changes coming to the Yakuza franchise…is that I really struggle to enjoy JRPGs. Don’t get me wrong, I adore a good narrative, and there are so many titles that I would love to play through to get to the real meat that I know lies just beyond the surface. However, the one thing that I really can’t stand when it comes to JRPGs is the combat. I play videogames in large part because they provide excellent stimulus. I’m an extraordinarily restless, ADHD-riddled person, with hands that move around so much you would think that I’m conducting an orchestra 24/7. Games help give my fingers something to do, and engaging them helps me stay focused on the narrative at hand. Unfortunately, JRPG combat tends to be a tad less stimulating than many games, especially in contrast to the fast-paced action normally seen in the Yakuza series. I struggle to stay engaged when combat consists solely of selecting from a menu of actions and watching moves play out, and you completely lose me when grinding gets excessive. I have a lot of thoughts on how JRPGs could work to improve combat, but luckily, I found an excellent video that highlights the topic pretty well. Suffice it to say that I was uncertain about how the whacky, fast-paced style of the Yakuza universe was going to adopt a combat system that I considered to be uncharacteristically slow-paced.
Given all that I’ve written above, I mean it most sincerely when I say that Yakuza: Like a Dragon defies the odds and provides some of the most enjoyable combat I’ve played period, much less in a JRPG. It’s almost as if the good folks over at RGG Studios somehow looked into my mind, took my grumpy and cynical whinings about why RPG combat is bad, and used them to make a system that is, at risk of using a cliched term, dynamic. There are so many things about its combat that truly impressed me that I could probably write an entire essay on that alone, but let’s start from the top and work our way down from there.
One inspired aspect of game design that really plays into the combat’s favor is the game’s unique framing device. We’ll get into specifics more later, but basically, the game takes place in an entirely modern setting with no magic or giant monsters to speak of. Rather, every element you might associate with a typical RPG is the product of the main character’s overactive imagination. This is cute on the surface and works well for narrative purposes, but it also does wonders for the combat by providing an actual space for it to take place in. Many, if not most, JRPGs transport you to a kind of “combat space” as soon as you encounter an enemy. These tend to be static spaces with minimalist backgrounds, and your characters really only move when you tell them to. Otherwise, they stay neatly lined up in front of whatever eldritch abomination or group of bandits you may be facing off against. There is an aspect of this “combat space” in Yakuza: Like a Dragon, but with a few key deviations.
For one thing, the world continues to move around your characters. Maybe this battle against knife-wielding thugs is the most important thing to you, but everyone else has to get to work, so cars will frequently weave in and out of your combat space and it’s kind of your fault for starting a fight on a major thoroughfare. Cars aren’t the only things that move, though; both your party and the enemies you’re facing will pace around eyeing each other and vying for ideal positioning. This isn’t just an aesthetic effect either, as the characters’ positions can affect combat in significant ways. Enemies will charge at you and try to cut you off if they see you attacking one of their friends, certain attacks can affect multiple enemies at once if they’re in the same space, and even the environment can play a role in turning the tide. During one particularly memorable fight, I desperately threw an enemy onto the pavement only for my jaw to drop as he was sent flying to his doom by a passing car. These aren’t scripted events either, which means every combat encounter can play out wildly different than the last. But we’re just getting started.
If it sounds like a dynamic “combat space” is an entertaining concept, but not quite enough to dampen your hatred of RPG combat, I’m inclined to agree. However, RGG studios, as usual, has a few more tricks up their sleeve. As I mentioned earlier, one of my biggest complaints about RPG combat is that it frequently reduces down to pushing a button and waiting for your characters to perform an attack, without much input from the player. Yakuza alleviates this problem significantly via the implementation of carefully timed button presses that enhance your attack or defense. Basically, whenever you pull off a special move, you’re prompted to either mash a button or press it within certain timing, and successfully doing this increases the attack’s power. Similarly, you can pull off “perfect guards” by pressing a button as soon as an enemy attack makes contact, which reduces the amount of damage inflicted on your character. Finally, you can pull off “opportune strikes” by knocking an opponent to the ground with one character and quickly attacking with another. These might sound like minor features on their own, but when combined together, combat shifts into a symphony of carefully orchestrated attacks, follow-ups, and desperate last stands. Rather than helplessly watching my characters suffer a fatal blow, I often found myself with beads of sweat running down my face as I fought to perfectly time my parries, their very life in my grip.
All these little bells and whistles do a lot to make the combat enjoyable, but it wouldn’t be nearly as fun without the game’s delightfully inspired class system. As mentioned previously, all of the fantastical elements of the game’s combat take place entirely within the protagonist’s imagination. Beyond that, all of the main characters are real people doing what they can to make the most of their lives in the big city. Given the realistic setting, your classes are not assigned through some apprenticeship to a great champion of yore. Rather, you go to the local unemployment office and take up some new work. And to think we play games to escape from reality. There’s a wide range of jobs to choose from, including musician, rapper, security guard, chef, office clerk, and hostess. Though they might sound rather pedestrian in contrast to classes like rogue or necromancer, the good old Yakuza makeover renders a measly office clerk into a scissor throwing warrior in no time. Each of the jobs has unique traits and special moves that are so oozing with character I had to force myself not to constantly change jobs just to try out new moves. Yakuza has always been somewhat campy in style, but Like a Dragon takes it to the next level, with attacks that range from smashing a cake over an enemy’s head to summoning a gigantic chicken that wreaks havoc upon your foes. Between the enrapturing combat and the absurdly fun special moves, I actually found myself seeking out enemy encounters, a far cry from previous JRPG experiences where I would do everything in my power to avoid them.
Now, you might have noticed that up to this point, I’ve avoided talking about Like a Dragon‘s story. This is a bit abnormal for me, since the Yakuza plots are usually my favorite part of the game, and I like to address them first. However, I make an exception here for two reasons: first, combat is an essential element in an RPG, and I wanted to emphasize to any fans on the fence what a fantastic job RGG has done of executing what could have been a disastrous shift away from a tried-and true-format. I immensely respect their willingness to step out and try something different, and it really paid off in the end. Second, I came to the conclusion as I was writing this that the less said about the story, the better. This is not to say that the story was forgettable or minimally impactful to the game as a whole. Rather, I make no exaggeration when I say that this is one of the most masterfully crafted narratives I have ever experienced, and I think everyone should go into the story knowing as little as I did. It blew my expectations out of the water in so many ways it’s almost difficult to find the words to properly describe it. However, I do want to touch on a few points for anyone still uncertain about whether this is the right game for them, especially longtime Yakuza fans.
Almost more so than the RPG elements, I went into Yakuza: Like a Dragon extremely hesitant about the introduction of a brand new protagonist, Ichiban Kasuga. The series had survived thus far with narratives chiefly driven by the stoically powerful Kiryu Kazuma. Both protagonists are ex-yakuza who served a lengthy prison sentence for something they didn’t do, but that’s where the resemblance stops. Compared to the intimidating figure Kiryu cuts, Ichiban looked like a complete clown with his frizzy hair and childish attitude. It was a stark departure for sure, especially with the phasing out of nearly all series regulars except in minor roles. But I gave him a chance, and within a few hours, the bright collection of new characters completely captured my heart. In many ways, the shift in narrative direction mirrors the change in gameplay style, and both of them work together perfectly in tandem. While Kiryu tended to win battles via his own strength, Ichiban is extraordinarily aware of the fact that he needs to keep his friends close if he wants to win at life. Ichiban’s boyish “Life is an RPG, and I’m going to be the hero” philosophy confuses many of his friends, but it slowly becomes the foundation the party is built upon. Each new character starts off world-weary but is quickly as charmed by Ichiban as I was, and it creates an incredibly wholesome group chemistry rarely seen in other games. To paraphrase Rosa Diaz from Brooklyn Nine-Nine: “I’ve only had Ichiban for five minutes, but if anything happened to him I would kill everyone in this room”.
This all adds up to create a story that I could only describe as “cozy”. Playing as a motley crew of friends going on adventures and telling stories at their favorite dive bar hit just the right spot to remedy this year of loneliness and missed experiences. And the gameplay once again reflects the narrative in an impressive display of interconnectivity. As you fight with characters in your party or pursue activities with them, your bond with them grows. To level up this bond, you have to talk to them at the group’s main hangout spot, where you slowly uncover more of their life stories. As your bond grows, they gain more XP, are more likely to execute bonus attack actions, and unlock new jobs. This incentivizes you to really develop your relationship with each character and organically enhances both the narrative and the gameplay. Considering that the Yakuza series is one that already has so many fans dedicated to well-loved characters, RGG took a leap of faith in introducing new ones. Thankfully, the combination of a compelling narrative and incentivized group bonding makes for an experience that will have you nearly as emotionally invested as if these were your real friends.
Remarkably, I’ve gone all this time and have barely touched on the side content. Well, rest assured that Yakuza: Like a Dragon delivers on all that fans have come to expect of the series and so much more. There’s go-karting, running a sweet shop, endless amusing sidequests, a minigame where you try to keep from falling asleep in a movie theatre, and so much more. I easily invested more time in my first playthrough of Like a Dragon than I did for any other Yakuza game and I still feel like I barely scratched the surface when it comes to the extra content. There’s so much to explore that it’s incredibly easy to become immersed in one minigame or another and then slowly realize that you’ve spent four hours trying to successfully handle shareholder meetings. The only major critique I have for the side content—and in fact, the game as a whole—is that RGG falls into a familiar trap common to this series. In many situations, directions can be so unclear or cluttered that you run the risk of having no clue how to play a minigame, or just missing it on the map entirely. I failed a portion of the business minigame numerous times because of how confusing the instructions were and I eventually had to ask for advice online to have any hope of beating it. Perhaps this comes about because Yakuza: Like a Dragon has too much good content.
And there you have it. Much like Yakuza 0, I feel like I could write for a hundred pages and not fully do this game justice. I barely touched on the brilliantly written substories, the numerous minigames, and the absolutely astounding English voice cast (Including George Takei and the voice of Solid Snake!!!). But to me, it’s okay that I haven’t been able to get to all of that yet. This game was such an impactful experience that it almost feels like it goes against its own philosophy to overanalyze each component of it. Breezy and optimistic Ichiban Kasuga would probably chide me for it, and tell me to enjoy life and appreciate the friends around me. And of course, he’s right. This isn’t the kind of game that should be rushed through, but that’s oddly perfect for the weird season we’re in right now. Yakuza: Like a Dragon lives up to its predecessors, and feels like a warm hug from people that deeply care about you. Take my advice, and a page out of Ichiban’s book, and pick it up when you can.
The Bottom Line
Yakuza: Like a Dragon lives up to the monumental legacy of its predecessors but isn't afraid to strike out and carve a bold new identity of its own.