One of my best friends is a lawyer. As a practitioner of one of the old professions, she often tells me that there are a huge number of rules and traditions that she doesn't really understand, but is expected to rigidly conform to anyway. Role-playing games, being one of the "old genres," aren't so different; RPGs come in many forms, but at base, the category frequently constitutes a particularly crusty and conservative kind of gaming.
That's what makes Yakuza: Like a Dragon, USG's Game of the Month for November 2020, so refreshing. It adheres to plenty of the genre's traditional strictures, but it has a verve and a style that differentiates it from the Dragon Ages and Final Fantasies of the world. Even Persona, its closest point of comparison, is one more in a long line of coming-of-age stories—the favorite arc for JRPGs.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon doesn't have taciturn warriors, precocious teenagers, or any of the other fixtures we've come to expect from RPGs. Its heroes are defiantly middle-aged: ex-gangsters, junkies, and burnouts. It both lampoons the role-playing genre—one of its mini-games is a parody of a Pokemon-style collect-a-thon—and elevates it with thoughtful storytelling and smart gameplay (no, I don't care if you can't directly control your character's movement). While we've seen elements like its job system before, never has the title "Homeless Guy" been so compelling.
At the story's center is Ichiban Kasuga, who embodies the story's tragedy and absurdity in equal measure. He's an old-guard Yakuza who spends 20 years in prison, but is also a naive and charming nerd who treats a bat coiled up in barbed wire as a heroic sword from Dragon Quest. His empathy and bull-headed determination to succeed make him instantly likable; he's one of my favorite RPG protagonists in years.
It's Yakuza: Like a Dragon's distinct point of view that makes it so compelling, even if it isn't the first RPG to be set in urban Japan. It expertly mixes harsh realism and drama with absurdity, genre savvy, and a ridiculous sense of humor. It's a wonderful new turn for the series, and the best game to be released this month.
Of course, there was no shortage of strong choices. Astro's Playroom deserves mention as one of the best console pack-ins in recent memory, serving as both a tech demo and an amazing tribute to PlayStation's storied history. Bluepoint's Demon's Souls remake showed us a vision of the generation to come, and Spider-Man: Miles Morales remixed the 2018 game in a way that felt wholly fresh. All three will be on a multitude of Game of the Year lists.
Like its peers, Yakuza: Like a Dragon is the lead game on one of the new consoles, and it certainly benefits from improved load times on Xbox Series X, but that's where the similarities end. Unlike Astro's Playroom and Demon's Souls, Yakuza: Like a Dragon's appeal is not built on technology—far from it. Rather, it represents a new beginning not just for the Yakuza series—which recently retired the famous Kazuma Kiryu—but for RPGs as a whole.
If video games are worthwhile because they can generate empathy, then there's no genre better than the RPG category, which utilizes a mix of storytelling and mechanics to put you in the mind of its heroes. Yakuza: Like a Dragon's motley party doesn't consist of unapproachable superheroes; it consists of a multitude of adults who are down on their luck and trying to forge a path through a harsh and unforgiving world. Just its opening hours lay bare the frequent humiliations of being homeless: the grinding work of collecting cans, being denied a job because you don't have an address, the cold discomfort of sleeping on the pavement outdoors. When Nanba and Ichiban fall exhausted and delirious on to their smelly futons for the first time, you're genuinely happy for them. It's one of the few pieces of media anywhere to treat the homeless as human beings rather than gross inconveniences.
Flawed as some of its portrayals can be—some of the enemies are, shall we say, not great—Yakuza: Like a Dragon shows the way forward for what is often a hidebound genre. If you play one game over the rest of 2020, it should be this one.