No one will ever accuse Sega’s Yakuza games of being subtle. Part melodramatic soap opera, part literally kicking a knife into a thug’s stomach before giving the ruffian a curb-assisted dental rearrangement of his teeth, the series has been an over the top homage to crime and drama since the early 2000s. For the vast majority of the core series, Yakuza’s star has been the legendary Dragon of Dojima, Kiryu Kazuma.
Stoic, deadly, and proud, Kiryu’s story finally reached its conclusion in Yakuza 6: The Song of Life. Fast forward a few years, and it’s time for a new protagonist to run riot throughout the streets of Japan and set the tone for a new direction in the Yakuza series. Ichiban Kasuga fits the bill and then some, as this new face isn’t just a palette swap of Kiryu who sports the wildest of perms.
He’s a goofball, an idiot duped into taking the fall for a member of Yakuza family and spends the majority of his life in prison only to be released into an uncaring world where the rules of being an honourable gangster in the Japanese underworld have changed significantly. Cut off from the only family he ever knew and marked for death by the very secret society that he pledged to serve, Kasuga’s way in over his head and he doesn’t care. There’s a mystery to be solved, and heads that deserve to be smashed into nearby concrete.
It’s here where you’ll find Yakuza: Like A Dragon’s biggest departure from the core series of games. While Kiryu’s journey consisted of beat ‘em up action across the streets of Tokyo, Ichiban’s odyssey is more magical. A huge fan of classic JRPGs such as Dragon Quest, Ichiban sees the world in a fantasy turn-based perspective and it’s up to you to channel his abilities and skills into tactical attacks.
It’s incredibly accurate to the classic RPG games referenced, but it still retains the core of a Yakuza action experience: Attacks can be powered up by nailing the brutally-quick prompts on the screen, you can minimise damage with a quick block, and positioning your enemies before you attack can result in some crowd-clearing combos.
Along with your allies, former detective Koichi Adachi, hobo doctor Yu Nanba, and cabaret club hostess Saeko Mukouda, you’ve got a full party that fights the weirdest of enemies when filtered through Ichiban’s lens. It’s not uncommon to take a stroll down a Yokohoma street and kick off a battle with greasy sunbathers, hostile takeover businessmen, and drunk salarymen equipped with trash can lids for shields. And that’s just the start of the madness.
Where the combat system falters though is in its implementation. Characters mill about the screen waiting for direction and taking the strategic element out of the equation and the job system seems to be a touch on the temperamental side. Each job allows you to customise your characters so that their skills favour how you want to play the game, but in reality the definition of these jobs are ill-defined for what they actually bring to the table.
Each job also requires a lot of time and investment to level up so that you can add new skills to the party repertoire, and experimenting with them is better served for a New Game+ playthrough. Personally I stuck with what I had by default after grinding a lot of effort into leveling my characters up, and played around the weaknesses of my party.
In action though, these classes and characters are hilarious. As the mage of my party, Nanba could heal himself by taking a hobo-powered nap on the spot or he could swig a bottle of cheap hooch, flick a lighter, and blast his putrid alcoholic flame-breath all over a nearby enemy. Ichiban can wield bats like a knight of old, Adachi was a wall of power who could absorb attacks from psychotic hairdressers, and Mukouda slapped thugs into oblivion with thick wads of cash. Every fight is absolute madness and I never get tired of the spectacle of it all.
What I did get tired of were the mad spikes in difficulty. It’s not uncommon for chapters to be bookended by hellaciously tough boss fights and levels, requiring a crazy amount of preparation so that you can be well-stocked on supplies and gear to help you survive the gauntlet. Numbers do matter, and while you can use cunning to get past tough enemies who are one or two levels above your fighting pay-grade, being faced with opponents who are twenty freakin’ levels above you is a recipe for nothing but pain and misery.
It’s only by the time that you reach chapter 12 (out of 15) that you can even access the Sotonbori Fighting Arena to help you climb up the ranks, a dungeon with set enemy types and levels which eventually results in you fighting chump-change enemies instead of taking on a more consistent challenge to help increase your power. It’s not exactly the content that I’d dial in for a good time and it pads the game almost as badly as extra episodes in a Netflix Marvel series.
But here’s the rub: Yakuza games have never been just about the gameplay. You’ll spend just as much time engaging in the storyline of Yakuza: Like A Dragon as you’re running around cabaret nightclubs breaking limbs, and in typical fashion the narrative is equal parts bonkers and heartbreaking. Ichiban’s a brilliant successor to the mantle of protagonist that Kazuma Kiryu left behind, and in many ways, I love this dude far more than the original gangster who defined the series.
He’s an idiot with a heart of gold, a thug whose heart is in the right place, and he’s able to furrow his brow with maximum seriousness when he needs to throw down. A legend in the making, Ichiban’s story mirrors that of Kazuma in its setup, but he’s defined by a cast of allies and enemies who flesh him and his world out in stunning detail. There are small moments of interaction where you get a chance to see who Ichiban really is beneath a lounge suit that would make Larry Laffer jealous, stories to be told around ever street corner and bonds to be forged in the heat of battle.
The game also looks fantastic, maybe not in all the character models unless they have significant screen-time, but in how they’re animated. In typical Yakuza style, there’s a layer on top that you’ll regularly leap over, while some of the more ludicrous battle sequences will explode with power and ferocity when activated. The facial capture of Yakuza: Like A Dragon’s cast are also on point, highlighting nuanced acting and moments of pure heart-wrenching emotion when the story calls for it. You can switch between the original Japanese audio if you desire, or if you don’t feel like reading you can play the game with a surprisingly capable English cast voicing the characters.
On Xbox Series X, there are also two modes to play the game in as well: A quality mode that gives you 60 frames every second at the cost of some visual enhancements and a quality mode that adds more graphical flourishes but keeps the game in a locked 30fps mode. Strangely I preferred the performance mode as the quality option made Yakuza: Like A Dragon look worse to me.
The grinding loops may have been frustrating, but the stylish action scenes, showdowns and intimate moments of character building combined to tell a story that’s worth experiencing for many dozens of hours.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s switch to turn-based RPG combat and team-based tactics may bite off more than it can chew thanks to terrible difficulty spikes and ill-defined character progression, but it’s still a breath of fresh air for the series. Ichiban Kasuga and his pals are an entertaining lot, the game has plenty of style, and even though the combat devolves into an ungodly grind, it’s a flashy new start to one of Sega’s best franchises.
Last Updated: November 17, 2020