It's weird playing an JRPG that's not about impossibly good-looking high schoolers trying to protect the fate of the universe. Yakuza: Like a Dragon is already a departure for the Yakuza franchise, leaving behind leading man Kazuma Kiryu and the beat 'em up gameplay that has defined the rest of the series. But even in terms of turn-based RPGs, this isn't the cast you'd normally end up with.
A Hero For the Forgotten
New lead Ichiban Kasuga isn't even technically a yakuza anymore: he's a former member of the Arakawa family, discarded after taking a murder rap for one of the clan's rising stars. When he tries to return to the family after his prison sentence, he's betrayed and dumped in Yokohama. This leaves him a 42 year old with no family, homeless and penniless in a new city he doesn't understand.
This idea of castoffs and outcasts extends to Ichiban's erstwhile group and the rest of Yokohama. In the section of the game I played, he's joined by fellow homeless man and former doctor Yu Namba; gruff former cop Koichi Adachi; and surly cabaret hostess Saeko Mukouda. Yakuza: Like a Dragon takes place in the red light district of Yokohama, with Ichiban, Namba, and Adachi having found a roof over their heads and temporary employment at a soapland, a Japanese version of a brothel. The death of the brothel owner is the driving force of Ichiban and company's adventures around Yokohama.
As with the primary cast, these adventures are all driven by folks that Japanese society has largely written off. One side-quest sees Ichiban helping a homeless man find his confidence in order to woo a young woman manning the local food bank. Another involves collecting scraps to help another homeless fella build a bookshelf for a young boy he's befriended. In still another sidequest, a pawn shop owner who lost his wife has let his shop fall into disuse, and Ichiban has to convince him to honor his wife's memory and reopen the store. All three stories hammer home what seems to be the main theme in Yakuza: Like a Dragon: you might not have money, a home, or friends, but you always have worth. Ichiban stands up for that worth, partially because he's one of those castoffs as well.
That's not to say that the wackier side of Yakuza isn't present. Susumu Gondawara, the gangster with a baby roleplay fixation, returns from his previous appearance in Yakuza 2/Yakuza Kiwami 2; he's key in a quest involving a salaryman struggling with a newborn child. One quest has Ichiban tracking down a serial public urinator, a man who ultimately wants to feel the unbidden freedom of… peeing in a river. In classic Yakuza fashion, all these stories are delivered with earnestness and heart, with a strong throughline of staying true to who you are.
Ichiban Kasuga is an interesting contrast to the stoic Kiryu though. He reacts to the weirdness more, he's quick to anger, and he's more likely to start a fight than Kiryu would. But Ichiban is also obsessed with this fictional idea of heroism, whose foundation is in the long hours he spent playing Dragon Quest in his youth. He carries that same steadfast heart of gold and willingness to help that Kiryu did. There was some worry that Kiryu couldn't be replaced, but to be honest, I think I enjoy Ichiban a little more.
That's partially because he's more reactive, but also because like other RPG games, Ichiban always has his friends with him. Kiryu had a supporting cast, but his adventures were largely solo affairs. Ichiban is never truly alone; he always has his party at his back. They travel with him from mission to mission, they appear in cutscenes and offer commentary, and there are even conversations between the crew that happen in response to crossing specific landmarks. Hell, when you take pictures, your friends will strike a pose.
I was worried about Yakuza: Like a Dragon's cast, but I like this crew. They bounce off each other in a really fun way, similar to the best RPG casts. They're all bound together by a sense of duty to a dead man who did right by them, but they're very different people. Namba is a little off, having been homeless the longest and taken quite well to the lifestyle. Adachi, voiced by Japanese Solid Snake voice actor Akio Otsuka, exudes old dad energy and has a strong love for drinking. Saeko is the one most willing to fight, despite also being the most proper and intelligent of the bunch. And Ichiban binds them together, the strong man who always keeps a promise, even if he realizes it's probably a very bad idea.
Get a Job (System)
What's surprising is how little Yakuza has changed overall. Cutscenes are delivered in the same manner, and while Yokohama is a new locale, you explore it in the same way Kiryu tromped around Kamurocho or Osaka. There are still shops to get food at, convenience stores, and a host of mini-games. During my time, I found karaoke, mahjong, shogi, and some classic Sega arcade games (Virtua Fighter 2, Fantasy Zone, and Out Run). There's also new mini-games, like Dragon Kart, a mini-Mario Kart that sees you racing on the streets of Yokohama; Can Quest, which has Ichiban pedaling a cart around to collect stacks of cans, and the Cinema, where you smack sheep men to keep Ichiban awake during "classic" films.
What has changed is what happens when you face random malcontents. Instead of getting into a beat 'em up fist fight, combat now plays out in turn-based fashion. You'll select standard attacks and special skills for your squad of four, or wild summon attacks called Poundmates, which are various characters you've befriended during your adventures. Yakuza: Like a Dragon leans on a system of compounding damage, as you do more damage to foes when you exploit their weaknesses to certain types of skills, or chain attacks based largely on your current party's friendly bonds. You can also use attacks of opportunity, where you do additional damage if you attack an enemy who's been knocked down.
The latter is only one aspect of timing in Yakuza: Like a Dragon. You can also wait for enemies to move into position to do maximum damage with area of effect attacks, or straight charge moves. It's a bit fuzzy, because you don't actually have control over the movement of your characters—the character you're currently controlling doesn't move, while everybody else just sort of shuffles around menacingly—leading to annoying moments where you're waiting a few second in the hopes that enemies will line up or get closer together. There are also timing-based moves like Perfect Strike, where you hit a button as a Skill hits an enemy, or Perfect Guard, where you do the same to minimize incoming enemy damage right when it hits you.
It's not my favorite turn-based combat system, but it's good enough to let you ride through Like a Dragon. In an acknowledgement of the number of fights you'll undertake, there's also an autobattle toggle, something that I honestly wish the other Yakuza games had. The new combat system keeps some of the action of the older Yakuza games present, while allowing you to walk away from the controller if you need to. Seriously, I walked away from the game at one point and returned to find that an enemy had walked up and started combat, and my first character was just waiting for my input. Poor Kiryu would've been face down.
The RPG-style combat is underpinned by a job system. Literally, Ichiban and his friends are out of work and they go to a job center to take on various professions. Each character has their own standard job, like Ichiban's wrestling-based Freelancer, or Adachi's protection-focused Detective, but there are also shared jobs they can unlock. The Musician is like the classic RPG Bard, singing to buff their allies or weaken their foes, while the Foreman uses strong attack with heavy wind-ups to crush enemies, and the Host uses his skills to charm enemies or steal from them. Saeko even has her own unique job classes, like the healing Idol or the luck-based Dealer. All the jobs have rough analogs to the RPGs of old, while still being rooted in the "real" world of Yakuza.
You can tell that Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio had a ton of fun thinking up all these jobs and the assorted abilities. The Musician lowers the attack damage of the entire enemy crew with the "We Are the Globe" singing skill, while Saeko's Hostess throws business cards that can leave the enemy bleeding or crushes them with glass ashtrays. That sense of playfulness also extends to the gear, which upgrades various characters' stats, but also has a bunch of enjoyable gear descriptions and implications. You can put on a gas mask to become immune to poison or don a comedy mask to prevent the rage debuff. The Thief's Mask is essentially a balaclava whose description states that it's a "shady-looking mask that should be worn when the right job calls for it."
I get the feeling that the studio was straining against what Yakuza had become, and Yakuza: Like a Dragon is just different enough to give them something new to play with. It's still clearly Yakuza, and if you have a hardcore attachment to skill-based fist-flailing combat, I can understand being disappointed. But the change in combat is welcome—I think RGG Studio should alternate between both styles of game having played this small bit of Like a Dragon. And nothing has been lost in terms of the detailed cities that the studio lets you live in or the interesting characters you run into.
Even more interesting is how Yakuza: Like a Dragon represents an ongoing change in Sega as a whole. I played this demo on PC, on Steam. This is a full version of Yakuza that looks pretty damned good on PC, and even has mouse-and-keyboard controls. (Though the key bindings are a bit weird, and the game openly states in the beginning that "real Yakuza use a gamepad.") But this is a Yakuza game launching on PC; jump back a decade and I doubt I would've ever thought to find us here.
So, I'm looking forward to this future. A different style of Yakuza, a wilder hero in Ichiban, and a cadre of close friends who are fighting right there alongside him the whole way. Yakuza: Like a Dragon carries forward the spirit that made me fall in love with the series in the first place, and now, you'll be able to play it on pretty much anything. Yakuza: Like a Dragon is coming to PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S/X on November 10, 2020, while PlayStation 5 owners will have to wait until March 2, 2021.