Like other people, I was a late arrival to the Yakuza series. Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio's oddball crime-drama series has been popular for some time, but it never really "clicked" with me until 2017's masterful Yakuza 0. Its mix of comedy, action, and over-the-top flair had some serious heart, and having found it, I craved more.
Yet I was soon hit with what fans will probably prescribe as "Yakuza fatigue." Each game in the series tells its own story, but functionally, they bleed together. The first Kiwami was solid enough, but by the time Yakuza 6, Yakuza Kiwami 2, and even the spin-off Judgement arrived, it was too much. It made me wonder if I had started at the top of the mountain.
Thankfully, while Yakuza: Like a Dragon isn't quite enough to dethrone Yakuza 0, it is certainly enough to cure my Yakuza fatigue. Fans who might have been apprehensive about a new protagonist, a new combat system, a wider focus, and a story that takes place in largely a new locale don't need to fret; Yakuza: Like a Dragon tears down the systems of old, and finds the right mix of newfound innovation and old habits (for better or worse) without losing what makes the series so special in the first place.
Rather than longtime series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, Yakuza: Like a Dragon follows Kasuga Ichiban, a fairly low-level grunt working in the familiar city of Kamurocho. Ichiban idolizes his clan's patriarch, who got him out of a pinch at a young age; so when a situation goes awry, Ichiban takes the blame for a murder and goes to prison for 18 years.
When he's let out of prison though, no one from his old life is waiting for him, and very soon, he realizes he's been betrayed or forgotten by everyone from his former life. Soon enough, events conspire to land him in the city of Yokohama, where he has to scrape by and survive just to find out why everything went wrong while he was away.
Previous Yakuza games centered themselves around the monolithic Kiryu, who never seemed to find a power ceiling he couldn't break. In that sense, the change of perspective to Ichiban might be one of the best aspects of this story. Ichiban starts the story weak, alone, and out of his element, yet his unyielding passion and drive to do good in the world (emphasized by his obsession with the Dragon Quest series) is infectious. He's easy to like, root for, and takes up the mantle of Yakuza protagonist well.
Yet Ichiban isn't the sole protagonist of this game. Yakuza: Like a Dragon is not a beat 'em up action game like previous installments, but rather a turn-based RPG, and that means party members. Over time, Ichiban draws in various characters that join his travelling band of misfits: the key members being former detective Adachi, cabaret club hostess Saeko, and the homeless doctor who saves Ichiban's life, Nanba.
Having a party around you means they interact and form bonds over time, resulting in their own quest lines and stories. There is some notable Persona influence in Yakuza: Like a Dragon, and it works incredibly well for the storytelling; it's a joy to watch the different personalities of the group play off each other, each bringing their own baggage to the table. While it gets a little bro-like towards Saeko at times, I found each character to be additive to a greater whole; this wasn't one lone yakuza against the world, but my lovable band of disaster adults.
And let me tell you, these folks are a wreck (in the good, endearing way). Yokohama, and especially the red-light district of Ijincho, is framed as a net that catches wayward souls. Most of your time, both in the substories—of which there are many, and substantially good ones at that—and roughly the first-half of the main narrative, is spent working with Yokohama's forgotten folks. This is a story about vagrancy, homelessness, sex work, and crime that keeps people moving ahead towards a better future, and the only place where they can start over.
It's genuinely heartwarming, even in moments that could've used a little more nuanced approach. A lot of RPGs position their protagonist as working for the greater good, but Yakuza: Like a Dragon makes you one of the downtrodden, so you can experience what it's like to do good deeds on the same level. Every side-story about helping someone get over the loss of their wife or rethink their worldview is a little moment of kindness, and Yakuza: Like a Dragon is full of them.
Of course, to fund all the things you'll need to do, you'll need to make money. Yakuza: Like a Dragon is replete with side activities that both progress your character and expand your wealth, including a can-collection side game, part-time "hero" work, a Mario Kart-alike racing championship, and a surprisingly robust property management sim. Seriously, I've never been so invested in investing.
Through it all, Yakuza: Like a Dragon never loses its heart. Yes, Ichiban takes his shirt off to reveal his back tattoo, which obviously gives him strength and power. There is heartbreak, betrayal, and multiple points I felt a lump in my throat as revelations unfurled. I also helped an old lady cross the road by giving her extra-spicy kimchi and supported a disillusioned masochist in his quest to feel pain again. At one point, I promoted a chicken to a senior director position in my holding company; that chicken proceeded to defeat a financial bigwig in a debate during my company's quarterly shareholder meeting. Omelette has never, and will never, let me down.
Running around the city, doing various side activities and substories, all the while earning more money and items, is what feels familiar in Yakuza: Like a Dragon. It's the combat level where things have received a massive shake-up, going from real-time action to turn-based battles. What's more, it manages to really shine at times, even when it's still in an imperfect form.
Iciban's party can consist of up to four people, each with their own job. In Yakuza fashion, this is a blend of the real and surreal, as at one point Ichiban begins to hallucinate that enemies are actually fantasy trope versions of their real selves. Different characters can pick up new professions at the local work placement company, Hello Work, to gain job ranks and master new skills. Jobs like Bodyguard, Host, Chef, and Idol all have their real-world tasks translated into combat skills, like restoring party health with a rejuvenating song, or flambéing an enemy with a blowtorch. It rules.
In combat, you can use these abilities (metered by MP), basic attacks, or call in help from a pal you've met in the story through fighter-delivery system Poundmates. Combatants go in a turn order, and there's a Paper Mario-like response system in place, where abilities can be enhanced using timed or repeated button presses, and attacks can be "Perfect Guarded" with the right press of a button. (My sore, cramped hands and wrists would like you to know that you can turn off the attack button prompts in the options menu if you so choose.)
Everything falls neatly into various RPG standards, with certain elemental types or attack types being extra-effective or completely ineffective depending on weaknesses and resistances. Identifying enemy patterns and adapting is important, as well as making the most of powerful follow-up attacks that you can perform after knocking an enemy down. The system is easy enough to learn, though the storyline takes its time in handing you every tool that will eventually be available. And if you're worried about the previous spectacle found in Yakuza's boss battles dissipating, don't be; Yakuza: Like a Dragon still finds a way to make big fights both cinematic and difficult, with a few acting as some pretty serious walls to progressing through the story.
Yet combat is also where I hit the most friction in Yakuza: Like a Dragon. Many attacks are based on positioning, yet you have no control over where you stand on the field. Everyone paces around, dancing a careful circle around each other, so sometimes the difference between landing a full-group Giga Swing or just hitting one bad guy depends on how generous the game feels. During one tough boss fight, two of my characters backed themselves into an archway for some reason, and got repeatedly wailed on as a tandem unit because of it. Other times, characters will fruitlessly jog into obstacles before magically zipping in front of their target. Enemy groups also stay frequent throughout the story even if you outlevel them, leading me to toggle the Auto-Battle function pretty often in certain areas.
Keeping the job swapping options located solely within Hello Work in Yokohama also means having to go back there a lot to move around skill sets, costing either time or, at least early on, precious cab fare. Even just having the option to swap to previously-held jobs on the fly would've encouraged me to spend more time swapping around, rather than specializing in a select few. Also, job options are gender-specific as well; for Saeko, this means often getting stuck in certain roles until I could find alternatives in the guy's skill sets (there is also an optional second female party member, recruitable through one of the minigames).
Many of these are nitpicks of a combat system I largely enjoyed, but it also very much feels like the first iteration of this system. Some of the problems I've listed aren't even specific to Like a Dragon; plenty of times I would attempt to avoid encounters in other Yakuza games. They are, still, the biggest wrinkles in my time with this entry.
Combat issues aside, Yakuza: Like a Dragon feels like a new start for Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio. They've done more than just make a capable or adequate RPG; they've made a Yakuza entry I'm eager to keep diving back into, fatigue be damned. The change of pace is welcome, and it works so well, I'm hoping this becomes the basis for more RPG adventures in this universe.
Universe is really the key word, as one big takeaway from me is what Ichiban and Yakuza: Like a Dragon represent for Yakuza as a whole. Even through different side-stories and additional playable characters, Yakuza has kept its focus on Kiryu, on Kamurocho, and on the journey of the Dragon of Dojima. The nods to previous Yakuza games are not subtle, either; Yakuza is developing the kind of immortalized legacy that's not wholly unlike the Fast and Furious movies.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a first run at this sort of game, and Yakuza 0 still rates as my favorite of the series. But after so many entries using the same formula, this game is the first in a long time to feel fresh and innovative. Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a gigantic step forward for the series, and it lands with all the confidence and self-assuredness of Ichiban himself.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a new frontier for the Yakuza series, and the life and crimes of the series feels right at home in this new setting. Ichiban is an instant addition to the pantheon of Yakuza legends, his party an endearing band of ruffians, with the combat doing just enough to make everything familiar feel new again. Where Yakuza goes from here is anyone's guess, but mechanical friction aside, this is a step in a fun and compelling new direction.