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I’m a weak man. Every time I try to hold my ground on principle, I inevitably fold like a cheap long chair under the pressure of a 600 lb desire to play new games. I thought I had it this time, I really did. Turns out, I was wrong. Sometimes it’s a good thing as standing firm on your principles is mostly overrated and incredibly stupid anyway. Pride is a term used to build your own self confidence, who needs it? For example, I was just as mad as everyone else with 505 games when Control didn’t get free next-gen upgrades. Then it went on sale. You can figure out the rest. At the end of the day, as long as you’re happy, nothing else matters. When Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios announced Yakuza: Like A Dragon, I immediately started doing somersaults (in my head obviously as I’m notoriously out of shape) in anticipation of the next entry into one of my favorite series. That lasted about 15 seconds until I saw that they turned my beloved franchise into a turn-based JRPG. What’s more, it looked ridiculous and introduced a new protagonist that I couldn’t care less about. How could you do this to me? There was no chance I was going to pay money for this. I’d be lucky if I played it at all. Fast forward to this very moment. Let’s just get this over with so I can get back to finding what little dignity and self respect I had left.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon follows Ichiban Kasuga, a low ranking member of the Tojo Clan in Kamurocho (modeled after the entertainment district of Tokyo) . Veterans of the series will immediately be familiar with the setting and there are several shout outs to the previous series. For newcomers, it won’t take too long to get comfortable with their surroundings. But that comfort doesn’t last long as after a few hours, you’re whisked away to an entirely new area, Isezaki Ijincho (modeled after the red light district of Yokohama) , where the bulk of the game takes place. This will be your home for the journey ahead. One of the best things about the Yakuza series is that the developers provide you with wonderful locations to explore. They’re just big enough to keep you busy while not becoming overwhelming. The streets are always full of people and things to do including batting cages, arcades, hidden casinos, restaurants, stores, and a ton more. There’s no shortage of things to do. It’s one of the best aspects of the series. If you get tired of plowing through the story, head over to the go-kart track and take part in a Mario Kart inspired mini-game that is surprisingly fleshed out. The city is its own character and just as important as the actual people who inhabit it.
The decision to move to a turn-based form of combat was a bold choice. If I’m being honest, I had no idea what to expect and I wasn’t sure why they went this route. As a fan of the series, I wasn’t happy. Yakuza has traditionally been a beat ’em up style game. It worked, but after eight games (including Judgement) the developers wanted to try something new. So let me eat some crow and say they kind of nailed it. It’s not without issues, but for their first foray into the genre, it’s very well done. When I think of a turn-based JRPG, my mind goes straight to the older Final Fantasy games. This is not that. As you progress in the story, you unlock more party members to join your squad, eventually filling out all the spots. I’ll get into this more specifically in a bit, but let’s focus on the combat system for now.
Everything is fluid during combat. Your party is constantly in motion, positioning themselves around the battleground. Simultaneously, your enemies are doing the same thing. You have no control over where either go. This causes a few issues. There were several instances where I hit my own party member or I wasn’t lined up right for an AOE attack. The movement is very random as well. Sometimes you run into walls or posts too which can be frustrating. Let me give you an example. Each individual’s initiative is determined by their speed stat. You generally know, given what party members you are rocking, who’s going to attack and when. One of my party members has an attack where he drinks some hooch, takes out a lighter, and spews a cone of fire out of his mouth. Several times I had multiple enemies in the path. Note that there isn’t a template that you can see to know who will be affected, it’s kind of a guessing game. Once the attack was set and executed, he ran up to the enemies and attacked. During that short time, two of the three guys shuffled out of the way. Not because they were anticipating the attack, but because they just decided to move that way. At the same time, one of my other party members stumbled into the area and literally got lit up. Nothing I can do about it. This matters way less during your garden variety encounters, but during boss battles, particularly later in the game, it’s critical. Some aspects are also interactive. During specific special attacks, there are opportunities to give you a little boost by hitting a button at the right time. It keeps you on your toes and could be the difference between victory and defeat. Again, it’s the first time out for this development studio, so I get it. A few minor fixes and they’re going to have a solid foundation going forward.
The JRPG aspect of the game is handled in a unique way. Ichi is a huge fan of the Dragon Quest series, and the game borrows from the series regularly. There are even dungeons scattered throughout the different locations. Every character has a specific skill set, or job, to start the game. These jobs level separate from your main level. Each character has several to choose from. They range from chef to a dominatrix. Yup, that’s a choice, and it’s as fantastic as it sounds. Each one has its own specialty. The idol (pop singer), for example, will act as your healer for your group. The “homeless” job, specific to one character, will be your mage and so on. It benefits you to assign these early on. As you level up the job, more skills become available. But be aware, if you decide to switch one job mid-game, you’re in for some grinding to raise it up for the late game battles. The other issue is that several of these jobs are unlocked by building your relationships with your party. You may not unlock that job you want until later on. Speaking of later on, you’ll eventually unlock an arena that will help you gain the necessary levels. It goes fairly quick, but it’s a little monotonous. It’s going to come down to personal preference in the end. Here’s a warning for you though, after chapter twelve, the boss difficulty spikes. Again, the arena is your friend in this situation. You’ll know it when it happens too, as it’s pretty unforgiving.
There’s a “Pokédex” that allows you to record the weaknesses and strengths of all of the different enemies. It’s obviously not called that, but that’s what it is. There are a ton of weapons to choose from, a lot of which are upgradeable through a specific NPC you will meet. Most correspond to a particular job, like the whip for the dominatrix, or the giant “massager” that is the size of a baseball bat for the hero class. Like the Final Fantasy games, you unlock “summons” where people you’ve helped during the game will show up and help you in battle. They range from a guy that can feel no pain and buffs your defense, to a crayfish that you rescued from being the main course for a homeless man. They’re equal parts hilarious and effective. There’s a lot more that you’ll find during the game of course, like fighting a giant Roomba, but I can only remember a certain amount of information given my aging brain capacity.
In previous Yakuza games, you would control different characters throughout the story. While Kiyru was always the main character, depending on the game, you would play as one of two to four different people. That’s always been my biggest gripe with the series. Here, you are Ichiban. Everyone else a support character. However, each one is incredibly fleshed out with a backstory that you can explore as you see fit. Each time you level up your relationship with one of these people, you gain various benefits and unlock new jobs. Some are tied into the story more than others, but each is unique in their own way. These relationships help drive what might be my favorite Yakuza story since the first game. Typically the tone is very serious, and this game is no different. If you are familiar with the series, Ichiban is a mixture of Kiryu and Majima from the original series yet at the same time, his own persona. He is fiercely loyal and driven, while still being able enjoy life and have fun.
Yakuza has always been a mixture of that serious tone and absolutely absurdity. This game follows suit. Most of the absurdity is found during the numerous side missions and mini-games. One mission that really encapsulates this is where you are tasked to keep an eye on a persimmon tree that has one piece of fruit left on it. A little girl is using it as inspiration to keep her spirits high before major surgery. What unfolds over the next few chapters is Ichi dealing with different people messing with the tree in some way. There’s a sumo wrestler using it as a punching bag at one point, and a sniper using the last fruit as target practice in another. Each of these encounters are hilarious on their own, while at the same time holding important meaning to the little girl and by extension, Ichiban. That’s just one of several. There are also several mini-games to pass the time like the aforementioned kart racing. The king of the mini-games is the business building game. I say game, but it became a lifestyle. You encounter a woman who owns a business and you need to help her out with getting it competitive. Invest enough time into this enterprise, and you are running your own empire. It’s a ton of fun and I would buy it separately if I could. Aside from making money, it also provides several benefits to use during the main campaign. I probably sank ten or more hours into it alone, it’s that good. No shame. There is no shortage of these kinds of scenarios so you certainly won’t get bored.
There is definitely too much to cover in a short review. This is the “everything else” paragraph, so pay attention. Let’s start with the bad, because there’s not much aside from what I’ve already said. The biggest fault of the game is that you really have to pay attention to how these systems work. There’s a codex you can go back to if you miss something, but the tutorials for these systems are depressingly vague for the most part. You kind of stumble upon how things work as you play, but initially they’re either poorly explained or just flat-out nonexistent. This goes for several parts of the game from how the jobs work, to basic combat. There were too many “Oh crap, I didn’t know I could do that” moments during my playthrough. Even towards the end of my journey, I was finding small details of the systems that initially escaped my attention. I would normally chalk it up to old age, but I can’t use that excuse every time. I played it on the Series X and it runs great. I opted for performance mode because I’m now spoiled with the high frame rate. Resolution be damned just give me my FPS! And to be honest, resolution mode is a mixed bag anyway. It’s not enough of an upgrade to sacrifice the frames in my opinion. If you are playing on the Xbox, turn off your idle screen that pops up on your screen when you step away. I was spoiled with some achievement art of all things. There are also some call outs to the old series so tread carefully.
So here we are, the end of a review that I never thought I’d write. I’m turning into a curmudgeonly old man who has no patience for change to my favorite game series. What Like a Dragon has taught me is to not judge a book by its cover. It also taught me that these developers can take a system, do a 180 on it, and have it work in a way you didn’t think possible. Sure, you’re still going to see games make arbitrary changes (‘cough’ Valhalla ‘cough’) that do nothing to move the series forward, it’s inevitable. What Ryu Ga Gotoku has done however, is nothing short of spectacular. It’s almost like passing the torch but they’re passing it on to themselves. I’m always going to be critical towards my favorite franchises, it’s just who I am. The game isn’t perfect and there are a few issues that can be easily corrected in the next iteration. But what they have here is an amazing foundation for the future of the franchise, and I’m glad I buckled under the pressure. If I hadn’t, I would have missed one of the best games of the year and of the series itself. I don’t know what’s coming next, but there is no doubt I’ll be there until the end.