Yakuza: Like a Dragon musings | A most worthy addition to Ryu Ga Gotoku's fabled franchise

SEGA and Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio's Yakuza: Like a Dragon is available on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S

To say Yakuza: Like a Dragon was not really one of the games to which I was looking forward in 2020 would be an understatement. To say I'd rather even go through the agonising drudgery of falling over again and again in Death Stranding than give this one a shot is probably more accurate. But to understand this extremely strong — some might say prejudiced — stand, we'd need to go back to 2013.

My first brush with the Yakuza franchise was probably very similar to the way a lot of Indian gamers discovered these games: The second-hand store.

As a result, Ryu Ga Gotoku studios’ Yakuza games — and spinoff Judgment, by association — have rarely enjoyed more than a very niche or cult following on these shores. You’ll hardly ever see stores showing off any life-size cutouts, pre-order bonuses or promotional materials featuring these games, which is a shame.

But, returning to the second-hand store, my first run-in with a Yakuza game came at one such store in Mumbai’s western suburbs seven years ago. A salesperson, whom I’d go as far as to describe as downright clueless were it not for his unrelenting sincerity and painstaking effort to be helpful, produced a scuffed-up copy of Yakuza 3 during a protracted browsing session.

Long story short: The game was, if memory serves, the gentleman’s fourth or fifth recommendation after a Battlefield game (I don’t recall which one), FIFA 11 (bear in mind that this was in late 2013, when FIFA 14 was already available) and a couple of racing games that I can’t quite recall.

It mattered little then — and even less right now — that this diverse selection of recommendations was prompted by me asking, upon being badgered with ‘Yes, what are you looking for?’ for the umpteenth time, if they had any games like those belonging to BioWare’s fantasy RPG series Dragon Age.

Just to clarify, Yakuza 3, just like all other numbered iterations in the series from 0 to 6, was nothing like Dragon Age.

Series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu on the cover art from Yakuza 3

Series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu on the cover art from Yakuza 3

What it was, instead, was an out-and-out brawler set in a living and breathing semi-open world packed to the gills with all manner of weird and wonderful side quests (known in the series as substories) and myriad mini-games — ranging from faithful recreations of such SEGA classics as Outrun and Space Harrier in the game’s arcades to fighting tournaments, karaoke, pool and more.

I enjoyed it enough to stick with the series and watched as Yakuza 4 amped up the scale and size of the whole experience and gave us four playable characters, whose intertwining stories lead to one of the most memorable video game climaxes I’ve seen in recent times. And how did Ryu Ga Gotoku take it to the next level? By giving you five playable characters in the next edition, of course.

Yakuza 5 didn’t just stop at five playable characters though; the game introduced swathes of new mini-games including hunting in the hills, a simplified racing/taxi-driving sim and dance battles in the city, along with old favourites like baseball and bowling. And the story was even more interconnected with a satisfying denouement that criss-crossed between characters.

I only got to play Yakuza 5 early this year when it released worldwide in its remastered form, however, the game had been out in Japan in its original form on PlayStation 3 since 2012. As a matter of fact, I had to hold off on Yakuza 6: The Song of Life and any spoilers for nearly two years, considering that it released worldwide in April 2018.

Screen grab from Yakuza: Like A Dragon

Screen grab from Yakuza: Like A Dragon

Compared to the expansive scope and scale of the two previous editions, the seventh (if you include series prequel Yakuza 0) and final chapter of protagonist Kiryu Kazuma’s story was a lean and focussed affair. It only let you play as the lead character and followed a tight narrative that was a lot more emotionally driven than those in the older games. And since you can’t have a Yakuza game without mini-games and substories, these were naturally back and in abundance.

Everything, however, had built up to the final chapter of Kiryu’s tale. And it was suitably moving without being overly mawkish. You’d expect no less from the long-time ‘retired’ yakuza.

While I have yet to play Yakuza 0, 1 or 2, I’ve gleaned what I needed to about those editions from Let’s Play and recap videos. And during the time spent waiting for Yakuza 5, I thoroughly enjoyed Judgment, a differently-paced adventure in the same setting — the fictional Kamurocho district of Tokyo, that is meant to be based loosely on the city’s real-life Kabukicho — but with a different protagonist, different priorities, different skill-sets and different antagonists. I also avoided Yakuza: Dead Souls, the horror-survival spinoff starring the original characters, like the plague.

Regardless, Kiryu’s story had been told and although I knew there was a remake reimagination on its way, I was satisfied. Truth be told, I wasn’t even particularly curious about this ‘new Yakuza’ that landed on Japanese shores in January this year. After all, the heart of the Yakuza games was the stoic and resolute Kiryu — to whom there was nothing more important than family, honour and fighting injustice.

Screen grab from Yakuza: Like A Dragon

Screen grab from Yakuza: Like A Dragon

And the soul of the series was the sometimes exhilarating, sometimes demanding, sometimes amusing, but never tedious, combat that comprised at least 50 to 60 percent of your in-game activity. Whether it was the most perfunctory of encounters, in which a couple of kicks and punches were enough to dispatch a hoard of weaklings or a never-ending thumb-crippling battle that saw you land one combo after another to very little avail (with one eye glued to your inventory, making sure you didn’t run out of Staminan X and other recovery items), the nature of the battles were as much a part of the storytelling as the slabs of cutscenes.

When Kiryu (or one of his other playable cohorts) was struggling, you better believe you felt that struggle.

It’s probably not that hard to fathom then why Yakuza: Like a Dragon didn’t really pique my interest or fancy when it was announced and later, when it released in Japan. Who was Ichiban Kasuga supposed to be anyway? Some sort of knock-off Kiryu or a ‘YOLO’-spouting and smartphone-toting millennial version of the iconic fourth chairman of the Tojo Clan?

If Kiryu’s absence wasn’t bad enough, the brawler-type combat was making way for a turn-based RPG style. How would this even work?

Fortunately, the lure of the (even more) extended Yakuza universe and a begrudging appreciation for turn-based combat — cultivated earlier this year by spending over 120 hours of the lockdown on Persona 5 Royal — led me to give Yakuza: Like a Dragon a whirl.

Now 51 hours (at the time of writing) into said whirl — during which I’ve become a confectionary tycoon, a demon kart racer, a bodyguard, a golfing master, a musician, a chef, an angel investor and a magnet for all sorts of weirdness (more on this later), I’m not just a convert; I’ve damn near become an evangelist for this new avatar of the Yakuza franchise.

How did this transformation happen? Particularly when you consider it wasn’t all that long ago — 125 words on here and a couple of weeks in real time — that I was extremely sceptical about a Yakuza game without Kiryu (and by association, the galaxy of interesting characters that surrounded him) and with a turn-based combat system that seemed antithetical to the series in every way.

What Yakuza: Like a Dragon does and does very well is to lean wholeheartedly into its quirks and strangeness — perhaps more than any other Ryu Ga Gotoku effort — and succeeds as a result. But, as mentioned only a little while ago, we’ll get to all that shortly.

While previous entries in the series have taken the world of the yakuza to such places as Okinawa, Onomichi, Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka and Sapporo, Yakuza: Like a Dragon starts things off in the franchise’s spiritual home of Kamurocho. And in doing so, it thrusts you into the shoes of Ichiban, a small-time yakuza from the equally small-time Arakawa family that occupies one of the lower rungs of the Tojo Clan — the in-game first family of organised crime.

Screen grab from Yakuza: Like A Dragon

Screen grab from Yakuza: Like A Dragon

You are given a bit of time to explore the familiar surroundings of Kamurocho — I promptly made my way to Club SEGA and the Yoshida batting centre before bothering with the story, and wasn’t all that surprised that I didn’t need to even glance at the map. Almost everything was just as I remembered it from Yakuza 6: The Song of Life. “What an idiot,” I recall thinking to myself as the happy-go-lucky Ichiban’s personality was being established by the game in the first three quarters of an hour or so.

Where was the pursed lip, emotionless and icy cold intensity of Kiryu? Who, in his stead, was this undignified chump?

Before long, Ichiban undergoes some major changes in his life — changes that will not be detailed here on account of not wanting to spoil things for you, dear reader — that see him resurface in Yokohoma (a Yokohama that’s every bit as detailed and full of things to do as any other location in the series’ history) a couple of decades later, barely holding on to dear life.

What unfolds is vintage Yakuza storytelling: A steady drip of revelations — each more dramatic than the last, a seemingly small crime that unravels into a major transnational conspiracy that goes all the way to the top, a motley crew of memorable characters and enough ham and cheese in terms of the acting and dialogue to construct a lifetime supply of croque monsieurs (we’ll be needing some bread, mind you).

Screen grab from Yakuza: Like A Dragon

Screen grab from Yakuza: Like A Dragon

As Ichiban starts putting together the pieces of how things got this way, he comes across a clutch of characters who, over time, are recruited to his team. It was at around the point that I added the second team that I stopped comparing the new protagonist to the old one. The jaunty and playful vibe, even in the face of dire situations, had grown on me. As had the camaraderie among team members.

In previous Yakuza games, Kiryu made friends — some of whom were playable characters — who fought alongside each other. However, at heart, they all seemed to be solo operators, capable of taking down an army alone, and most appropriately, you only controlled one character at a time. That is where Yakuza: Like a Dragon really benefits from changing things up, because by embracing the JRPG-style team-based combat system, you get to see Ichiban’s friendships actually take form, both in terms of how you stack up your team and the Persona 5-esque bond-building you do with your teammates.

Of course, you can very easily blast through the game with the same three teammates, while leaving the rest on the bench to passively pick up experience points (I haven’t tried it, but I’m sure its doable), but where’s the fun in that?

Instead, it’s the interplay of levelling up all your teammates — trying out all sorts of combinations, defensive, offensive and somewhere in between — and deepening your relationship with each of them that exposes you to a deeper understanding of what makes each character tick. Aside from making them more useful to you in the long term (if we’re indulging in solid reductivism), this enriches the overall experience.

A very interesting class system — packaged as ‘jobs’ in Yakuza: Like a Dragon — allows you to shape each character into the Yakuza equivalent of tanks (a bodyguard, foreman, enforcer etc), mages (idols, hosts/hostesses, chefs etc) or rogues (breakers, musicians, night queens etc) with the sort of loadout you think works best. Throw in a crafting mode, something that has existed in previous editions of the series, and you’ve got all the elements for an RPG mechanic with enough depth.

Screen grab from Yakuza: Like A Dragon

Screen grab from Yakuza: Like A Dragon

And you will need to master that system and (eventually) work out your best combinations because you won’t just be fighting yakuza grunts and an assortment of hoodlums, you’ll be fighting wild animals, heavy machinery and gigantic cleaning appliances. Yes, honest-to-god cleaning appliances.

Storywise, there’s really nothing to say, both because I’m not too keen on spoiling it and because it’s a Yakuza game — you know it’s going to have an engaging story with well-fleshed out arcs, generous dabs of emotion and a predilection for a bit too much exposition. Yes, there's a fair bit of kitsch, but it only adds to the umami of the sumptuous delight that is a Yakuza game.

The same applies for side missions and mini-games. If, you’ve never played a single game in the series before, you’re in for an absolute treat. Clear out a few days at least for some of the most ludicrous side missions in all gamedom and a handful of truly immersive mini-games. You’ll be ever so glad you did.

If, however, you have played a Yakuza game before, then this will all be very familiar, only amplified. All your favourite mini-games including batting cages, SEGA arcade games, Mahjong, Shogi and karaoke are back. In addition, you also get a karting mini-game that wears its very obvious influences on its sleeve, golf and a business simulator that sees you running a confectionary business — a mini-game so addictive that it should be illegal. Oh, and there’s also a mini-game that sees you collecting bottles to be recycled. And one where you have to try and stay awake at the cinema. And-... well, you'll just have to see for yourself.

Screen grab from Yakuza: Like A Dragon

Screen grab from Yakuza: Like A Dragon

In terms of side missions, Yakuza: Like a Dragon brings back some staples from previous editions — find the missing cat, help someone turn their life around, beat up some bullies — and adds a generous helping of more ‘exotic’ ones. Whether it’s a bunch of grown men wearing diapers and crying for baby formula or a set of flashers in trench coats or an out-of-work dominatrix, this game’s got it all.

There’s also a delicious send-up of a ridiculously popular franchise about collectible monsters. That the achievement for completing a section of the side mission is called “I wanna be the very best” is both hilarious and a testament to the series’ unwavering commitment to popular culture references.

My biggest — and likely only — problem with Yakuza: Like a Dragon is the godawful mess of underground tunnels that serve as glorified arenas in which you can grind for hours to level up ahead of tough battles. Grinding to increase levels and RPGs go together like yakuzas and massively detailed back tattoos, I get it. But unless the game developers were trying to make a tongue-in-cheek reference to the absolute tedium associated with grinding, they have taken the really lazy way out with this.

The tunnels are never-ending. They’re also incredibly boring after you have been through them for the third time. The enemies don’t cough up nearly enough experience points for the sheer volumes of them that you pummel. It’s just such a jarring departure from how fun the rest of the game is. Frankly, I’d much rather be running my confectionary business or even counting the seconds till the COVID-19 vaccine is ready than spending another minute in these tunnels. Ever again.

Screen grab from Yakuza: Like A Dragon

Screen grab from Yakuza: Like A Dragon

If there’s one word that has typified the Yakuza series, it is ‘ambition’, what with its increasingly convoluted storylines, more playable characters, more sidequests, more locations, more variety and more mini-games. Yakuza: Like a Dragon continues that proud tradition and takes another ambitious leap forward for the franchise. That this edition is self-aware and slightly more willing than its predecessors to poke fun at itself is just the icing on the cake. The nomination for RPG of the year is extremely well-deserved.

In summation: If you’ve reached this far, you’ve done a stellar job reading so much today. But now it’s time to stop reading and get to playing Yakuza: Like a Dragon. Don't wait till it hits the second-hand store.

Game reviewed on PS4 Pro. Review code provided by the publisher

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