Back in 2015 when I was still a bright-eyed, innocent 21-year-old with too much time on my hands, I gained my first exposure to Sega’s Yakuza franchise with the release of Yakuza 5. I had only seen the cover arts for the first and third games before that and even then it wasn’t a strong impression because at the time Yakuza 5 was a digital-only release here in North America. It’s crazy to say it now given how popular the series became but for almost a full decade the Yakuza franchise struggled to find footing outside of Japan and Sega of America practically gave up on it. After looking into it more and more I became VERY much interested in the franchise but I didn’t play Yakuza 5 until a year later when I got it for free (thank you PlayStation Plus). No, MY first Yakuza game was in 2016 with the 4th one because it came with a theater on the main menu that fully recapped the first three-game in fairly extensive detail. After finishing that I immediately started playing it.
Ever since then my life has been run by these god awful middle-aged men.
I fell in LOVE with the series and have played almost every mainline game since then, only missing Yakuza 2 and 3 which I WILL get to eventually. Hell Yakuza 0 is one of my favorite games of all time. With that being said though, I wasn’t super jazzed after finishing Yakuza 6: The Song of Life. At the time it was the first Yakuza game I got to experience while it was brand new and it left a bitter taste in my mouth. I thought by that point the general gameplay began to feel stale and while I LOVE Kiryu Kazuma, I thought his story went on for a bit too long. The game had a wonderful ending all things considered and the story WAS great, but it left me wanting more and something different. You know what’s funny about that though? A year before I played Yakuza 6, the series developer Ryu Ga Gotoku actually announced that the franchise would be getting a new protagonist after Kiryu.
Jokes aside, this thought popped into my head after I beat Yakuza 6. I still had a whole other guy to be introduced to and for the first time, I would be fresh on his introduction. A little bit after that they announced that not only would Yakuza be getting a new main character, the series would NO LONGER be an action beat ’em up. It would be a fucking turn-based JRPG. I got so excited when I heard that, oh my god. It was something new! Something different for the franchise! I waited with bated breath until the worldwide release and while I wasn’t able to get it immediately, I got my grubby little gamer hands on it and after about 50 or so hours, I can finally say this.
This, without question, the best game in the series.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon (Or just Ryu Ga Gotoku 7 in Japan) is a JRPG if there ever was one. It tells the story of Ichiban Kasuga (Who get a MUCH needed facelift after that first reveal), a low-level yakuza just trying to get by and work closer with his boss and idol, Masumi Arakawa. After one of the officers kills someone from another gang, Ichiban is chosen to take his place in prison so the family won’t get into too much trouble. After 18 long years he finally gets out only to find that not only is his family gone, but the entire clan he was apart of and his hero at the center of it all. What follows is an insane plot filled with drama, action, betrayal, revaluations, murder, business management, and a whole lot of running around. Ichiban isn’t the only hero in this story, however. For the first time in the series you actually have multiple characters with you throughout your quest to find answers including the disgraced homeless doctor Yu Nanba, former police detective Koichi Adachi, and bartender Saeko Mukuoda. Each character has their own reason for joining Ichiban on his quest and let me tell you I will not be spoiling a GODdamn thing.
As much as I love Like A dragon’s story and characters I think it would do the game a disservice by talking about it at length. I think the narrative is at its absolute strongest going into it blind and wondering what will be coming next because boy lemme tell ya this game does some SHIT. What these characters go through in both the main story and the optional Persona-styled social links really endears them and honestly, they might be some of my favorite characters in the franchise, especially Ichiban. I love Kiryu as much as the next guy but Ichiban is such a gentle and moronic soul and I love watching him develop throughout the game. If this is the guy that’s going to carry the series for the next 10 years then I’m all for it.
Going off of the story though comes the gameplay, which is what I was the most excited about going in. After spending the past few years really sinking my teeth into the genre, I am happy to say that Like A Dragon really knocks it out of the park, especially for a first outing. You may be wondering though “Why a JRPG? That seems really weird for a series based on enemy groups attacking you at once.” Well here’s the funny thing about that. They contextualize it by playing off of both Ichiban’s overactive imagination AND his unending love from the Dragon Quest franchise.
Ichiban views every fight as if it’s a random encounter in a JRPG, and it’s adorable. This actually the game to have a lot of fun with its enemy designs and what you can do in combat. While your initial encounters with your enemies will have them look like just random people off the street they’ll transform completely once you hit battle. They can get fatter, have random weaponry, grow taller, but keep in mind that’s not what’s actually happening. For all we know these fights could just be playing out like a normal Yakuza game but because Ichiban has Gamer Disease we see things differently. This also extends into things such as summons, which are just friends and acquaintances of Ichiban that he calls with his cell phone but they just straight-up act like monster summons like in Final Fantasy.
Bro the game even has a job system. Like a LITERAL job system. You go to a job center and just pick up jobs for your party members and they’re all just straight-up regular-ass classes. The Idol job for Saeko is just the white mage because she gets group healing and status debuffs, the Foreman job is almost exactly like a warrior/berserker, and Bodyguard is just a tank that helps you keep damage off your teammates. Like A Dragon does a wonderful job recontextualizing standard JRPG tropes into a modern/contemporary setting and it has so much fun with it.
Now, what is Yakuza without side-stuff to do? Nothing, that’s what it is. Nothing. This game gives you so much to do. Like so much to do. LIKE SO MUCH TO DO, MAN, I COULDN’T EVEN DO MOST OF IT. There’s the staple karaoke, there’s Shogi, there are UFO catchers and classic Sega games all around you (Port Virtua Fighter To Something, Damn It), Mario Kart-styled races, vocational schools, and even a management simulator which you SHOULD 100%, trust me.. It’s a bit much, not going to lie, but it does mean that there’s no shortage of things to do. This isn’t even counting the sub-stories which are side-quests that have been in the series from the beginning and where the majority of Yakuza’s personality really shines. They all range from comedic gold to heartwarming stories about sentimentality and they are all MUCH easier to find and complete due to the game being a JRPG now. You used to have to do a lot of item grinding and endure a bunch of unfun minigames if you wanted to do the majority of sub-stories but Like A Dragon streamlined them beautifully. I’m not going to 100% the game by any means, but it’s that the game has stuff to do outside the main story and that they all serve a purpose.
Do I think Like A Dragon is perfect, though? Not REALLY…but mainly because of minor issues. For one thing, that game looks a bit dated. While the city of Yokohama is detailed and very expansive, it doesn’t mean it looks super great. Textures are fairly low quality and at times extremely flat. Character animations outside of combat and cutscenes are also really basic and plain looking with a lot of copy-pasting that looks extremely awkward. Characters that also aren’t mainstays tend to look less detailed and robotic than the main cast which funnily enough was a complaint I had with the FFVII Remake so..I guess it IS a JRPG. Loads are also an issue as the game has to load after almost every big cutscene transition and, on the base model PS4 at least, can sometimes take a bit too long. also wish the game didn’t have to load after getting in a taxi since realistically you’re only traveling about 2 minutes away so I don’t know what it’s re-loading. The BIG one though is much less of a nitpick.
The majority of Like A Dragon I would say is fairly easy if you stay within your level area. The map has an indicator telling you when you’re in an area with above level enemies so as long as you follow that you should be good to go without many deaths and remain fairly above level.
UNTIL CHAPTER 12.
The big boss fight at the end of Chapter 12 has an insane difficulty spike and the game starts to become a tad uneven. While the normal enemies are still fine the bosses you start getting are way above your level and can leave you feeling unprepared and annoyed. Just a tip for when you get to this point? During this chapter, you unlock “The Arena” grind there for a bit because you level up pretty fast. You unlock an extra dungeon during the final chapter as well and I recommend combing through it as much as you can because you can get about 1-2 levels per winning encounter because the enemies grant high EXP. While I wouldn’t say the grinding was bad since the game is so much fun, I would call it unfair and surprising and I can see it frustrating a lot of players.
Bullshit difficulty aside, Yakuza: Like A Dragon is a fantastic game and is well worth your time. Yakuza is a series that prides itself on its charm and gameplay, and Like A Dragon is no different. I think it’s actually a fantastic game for those unfamiliar with JRPG’s because the game does a fantastic job of teaching its mechanics to make it easy to understand. While I wish looked just a BIT nicer and had faster load times, it doesn’t detract from the simple fact that Like A Dragon is phenomenal. I know I said in my Hades review that it was my game of the year (At that moment) I think this game is up there. The ending of this game made me inconsolable for like an hour and left me completely satisfied, and I think it will do the same for you. I’m glad Yakuza got a much-needed facelift and am looking forward to whatever the developers have in store for Ichiban and his friends. Like I said at the start; This, without question, the best game in the series.