Close your eyes and imagine a JRPG. Maybe you’re thinking of high-fantasy adventures with knights and rogues, or modern-day high schoolers that summon spirits. Whatever you’re thinking, it probably isn’t anything like the wonderful fever dream of Yakuza: Like a Dragon.
This pseudo-reboot of Ryu ga Gotoku’s flagship franchise has that signature Yakuza flair in a completely new package. On the surface, you’ll still find the macho bravado of men beating each other in the streets, but the mechanics are more cerebral than past iterations. The newly introduced turn-based combat takes a page right out of the Persona notebook and runs with it.
Longtime fans of Kazuma Kiryu might scratch their heads at the drastic genre change. However, after spending eight or so hours with a preview build, I assure you: That unique, over-the-top, frankly insane charm is on full display in Yakuza: Like a Dragon. In fact, it just might be one of the funniest games of the year.
Same Yakuza Charm, Different Genre
The Yakuza series gained traction in the West only within the past few years, and its diehard fans can attest to why. These ridiculous games tell all-too-serious stories that revel in moments of masculine melodrama, punctuated by the levity of karaoke bars and telephone clubs.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon proudly carries the torch for these wacky traditions. There’s no shortage of arcades, karaoke bars, and mahjong parlors to find. I couldn’t stop laughing when I found a minigame about collecting recyclable cans, but if a garbage truck hits you, it steals all your cans. It’s a modern twist on the Pac-Man formula that can only be found in a Yakuza game.
Furthermore, Ryu ga Gotoku applied its insanity through the lens of a JRPG. Because of this, longtime Yakuza fans will always find a new way to experience the series, even if they don’t particularly like JRPGs. On the flipside, JRPG connoisseurs have a new, twisted story to explore that playfully jabs at their favorite genre.
Take the job system as an example. Old-school Final Fantasy fans will recognize it as a system that gives players the freedom to change their characters’ classes. Typically, these jobs include Warriors, Monks, and Mages.
In Yakuza: Like a Dragon, the job system works similarly from a mechanical level, but in the universe, your characters literally pick up new part-time jobs—the kind you or I might have. Titles like Chef, Musician, and Bodyguard are just a taste of what you can find.
While this concept puts the Yakuza spin on a classic game mechanic, I can see this bothering some of the genre purists out there. Generally, if I add a Warrior to my party, my 25-year-old gamer brain has built the mental models to know how to use a Warrior. How does a Chef fit into the equation though? You’ll have to look at the job’s skill set to determine what role it fills, and that can be daunting amid the list of all the other jobs.
Luckily, Yakuza: Like a Dragon doesn’t seem too strict about party formation. You aren’t chained to a typical tank-DPS-healer setup. Each character feels equally important, and most jobs do double duty with support and offensive skills. In other words, there’s enough leeway to encourage experimentation.
The JRPG Within Yakuza: Like a Dragon
Luckily, you’ll definitely want to experiment with the combat in Yakuza: Like a Dragon for two distinct reasons. Firstly, trying out new abilities is how you piece together the battle system. While not overly complicated, you’ll still need to understand how the different damage types work and how you can impact the flow of battle.
Secondly, you’ll want to see every single animation attached to these abilities. While other JRPGs set out to wow you with progressively cooler animations, Yakuza: Like a Dragon goes for gut-busting hilarity.
Nanba, whose job is literally “Homeless Guy,” throws beans at enemies, attracting a swarm of pigeons to peck the living hell out of them. Instead of epic summons like Ifrit or Bahamut, protagonist Ichiban Kasuga calls up a 50-year-old man in a diaper, who cries so loudly that it debuffs all the enemies.
That isn’t to say it’s all for jokes of course. Most of Kasuga’s skills have that straightforward swagger you’d expect from an ex-yakuza member with a baseball bat. However, sometimes that baseball bat will be replaced by a comically large Hitachi magic wand, which has a chance of paralyzing enemies on hit.
Underneath the playful coat of paint, you’ll find a rock-solid JRPG system in Yakuza: Like a Dragon. You have to worry about elements and damage types, like Blade, Bullet, and Fire. Different jobs provide different stats, giving characters more of an edge with physical attacks or magical attacks. If you’ve played a JRPG before, the actual mechanics at work here won’t surprise you—they’re just wrapped in Yakuza’s skewed take on reality.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon - The Streets of Ijincho
Unlike past titles, Yakuza: Like a Dragon doesn’t take place in Kamurocho. Instead, we go to Ijincho, a large district broken into many neighborhoods. Each neighborhood has a threat rating, which determines the danger of the random encounters you’ll find.
The big world of Ijincho still works like it does in previous titles; squads of enemies will roam the streets, and if you get too close, combat starts. The turn-based combat actually flies by pretty quickly, especially in these quick random encounters.
If you’re worried about the change in genre slowing down the pace, I didn’t feel that in the eight hours I spent with the game. Granted, I’m generally a fan of turn-based combat, but the speed and charm of the attack animations helps everything flow smoothly. If anything, the battle music might get a little grating for some. It just doesn’t have the charm of some of the better JRPG soundtracks of the year, like Persona 5 Royal or Final Fantasy VII Remake.
Additionally, the preview build gave me a taste of the first dungeon in Yakuza: Like a Dragon. Without spoiling anything, the dungeon really fits into the world and storyline at that moment, and it comes with the JRPG tropes you’d expect. You need to find a break room to save and replenish health (via a minifridge full of drinks), and silver safes act as treasure chests full of loot. And yes, some of these safes spring enemies on you.
However, that experience with the dungeon felt like the weakest part of my time with Like a Dragon. After a while, the charm of the combat can only hold your interest for so long. It inevitably boils down to your average JRPG dungeon-crawling experience. There’s only one way to go, with the occasional dead ends full of loot, and an army of enemies are in your way.
On the bright side, this dungeon provides a great moment for Kasuga to show off his love of Dragon Quest. Yeah, the same Dragon Quest series you’re thinking of, with the slimes and all that. He’ll break the fourth wall, calling dibs on treasure chests and acting like the leader of his party—and he means that in the JRPG sense of the word. It adds a meta, relatable sense to his character.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon has a New Leading Man
Most western Yakuza fans probably have another big question: What’s Ichiban Kasuga like? After all, replacing a longtime protagonist isn’t an easy change to swallow. It’s not a stretch to say Kiryu is one of the most beloved parts of the original games. Despite the craziness around him, his stone-cold expressions emit a calm gravitas that’s impossible to hate.
Kasuga doesn’t quite share those traits with Kiryu, but in my time with him, I’ve found him to be an equally likeable protagonist. Instead of Kiryu’s calm demeanor, Kasuga emits an earnest charisma. He’ll jump into anything headfirst as long as he thinks he’s helping someone. He’s the kind of person you want in your corner.
After all, that synergizes well with the kind of game Yakuza: Like a Dragon is. Kasuga isn’t the Dragon of Dojima; he’s not a one-man army who cleans the mean streets of Kamurocho (although he probably could if he tried). Instead, he’s a leader who rallies his party behind him, encouraging them to help him make Ijincho a better place.
Kasuga’s charm is undeniable. He might not replace Kiryu, but that’s not his goal; he’s here to lead a new story in the Yakuza universe. His tale sparks intrigue, and anytime a new cutscene played, I was eager to find out what would happen next. A grand conflict is at play in Yokohama, and somehow, our heroes are tangled up right in the middle of it all.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon really shakes up the franchise that’s lived off the tattooed back of high-octane, beat-’em-up action. It’s hard to say whether it’s better for that, but it’s definitely not worse. The different direction has me more curious than ever about what Ryu ga Gotoku is doing, and I can’t wait to sink more time into this new chapter in the Yakuza saga.
TechRaptor previewed Yakuza: Like a Dragon on PC via Steam with a code provided by the publisher. The game will launch on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and PC on Nov. 10. It will come to PlayStation 5 on March 2, 2021.