Republished on Wednesday 27th July 2022: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of August's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
Where do we even start with Yakuza: Like a Dragon? SEGA's series has always been eccentric, but this latest instalment takes things to a whole new level. In a word, it's nuts — from beginning to end. In case you haven't heard, Like a Dragon goes full role-playing game: stats, equipment, loot, party members, and yes, even turn based battles. While past Yakuza games have had their fair share of RPG systems and mechanics — you could pretty much categorise them as 'action RPGs' — this still feels like a dramatic shift in both structure and identity. Like a Dragon is a borderline surreal experience — especially if you're familiar with the franchise.
After slumming it with Kazuma Kiryu and the boys for eight whole mainline games, developer Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio clearly thought that it was time to shake things up. An entirely new cast, a new story, a new setting — it's a fresh start, but the important thing is that at its core, it still feels like a Yakuza title. Excellent storytelling and characters elevate the experience as always, while optional activities and absurd side quests add Yakuza's trademark flavour.
The legacy of previous protagonist Kazuma Kiryu can be overwhelming. The Dragon of Dojima has had three console generations to establish himself, and so replacing him was never going to be easy. But with new lead Ichiban Kasuga, RGG Studio has hit a homerun with its first swing. In many ways, Ichiban is the opposite of Kiryu — at least in terms of personality. He's rash, emotional, and a bit of a dumbass. He's prone to following his instincts and throwing caution to the wind, but he's loyal and always true to himself.
Ichiban makes for a genuinely endearing protagonist. He's an ex-yakuza who's always struggled to make something of his life. And at the ripe age of 41 following on from the game's lengthy prologue, Ichiban decides that the time has come to follow his childhood dream of being a hero. No, really. Like a Dragon revolves around the fact that Ichiban looks at life like it's an RPG. He spent his formative years playing nothing but Dragon Quest — Square Enix's timeless fantasy RPG series — and in order to 'level up', he has to get out into the world and... Get a job.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is essentially a traditional, turn based Japanese RPG, but it's set in modern day Yokohama — a bustling city not too far south of Tokyo. Rolling countryside and idyllic towns are replaced with concrete streets and office buildings. The hero's holy sword is replaced with a limited edition baseball bat. Instead of casting magic, Ichiban's homeless friend pulls out a lighter and spews alcohol across the open flame. Again, Ichiban sees life as an old school RPG — even the thugs and gangsters that hassle our heroes transform into red-eyed monster people whenever combat begins. It's ridiculousness played with a straight face, and it works shockingly well.
In his quest to find work, Ichiban and his buddies naturally become embroiled in events that will shape the future of Yokohama. In true Yakuza fashion, we're steadily introduced to a menagerie of ne'er-do-wells, but it's Ichiban's accomplices that steal the show. Together with our hero, his allies are some of the best characters to ever grace SEGA's series. Where Kiryu was a mostly solitary protagonist, Ichiban has a whole party of people following him around, and they all bounce off one another to excellent effect.
Perhaps the best thing about Ichiban and his group is that none of them are what you'd typically expect from a traditional RPG party. Both homeless ex-nurse Nanba and haggard ex-detective Adachi are greying men over 40, yet here they are cruising with Kasuga as the gang clobbers their way across the city. It's somehow both bizarre and mundane in equal measure — but it makes for a fascinating 60-hour adventure.
At its best, Like a Dragon is effortlessly engrossing. Its story has all of the twists and turns that we've come to expect of the franchise, but it's a shame that the in-game cutscenes can look so janky. While the writing and top notch characters are enough to carry the experience, it's still jarring to jump from superbly animated, pre-rendered scenes to static in-game models and text boxes. This hit and miss quality has been a part of Yakuza for as long as we can remember, but in Like a Dragon, where there are often so many characters to talk to and so much plot to get through, the dialogue system is really showing its age.
Like a Dragon also takes a long, long time to get going. Again, nothing new for Yakuza, but without the instant release of action-based combat — which was always the perfect way to bookend a long cutscene in past Yakuza titles — it can feel like you're watching a movie rather than playing a video game. A very wordy movie, at that.
Don't get the wrong idea, though. Like a Dragon's turn based combat is largely a lot of fun, but it never quite provides that same thrill. This is especially true during the opening ten hours or so, when Ichiban and his crew barely have any abilities to call upon in battle. Much like Dragon Quest, combat only hits its stride later on, as you gather more party members and gain access to all kinds of special moves. Until then, you're just going from fight to fight picking the same basic commands over and over again. The initial lack of challenge and tactical thinking can be off-putting — especially when your time spent outside of battle is consumed by longwinded cutscenes.
There are definitely some pacing problems at play here, but stick with the game long enough and you'll be rewarded for your patience. As the story progresses, more and more of the city opens up to you, and Yokohama's streets are packed with opportunity. Bit by bit, you're given access to a vast web of interconnected systems, all of which benefit Ichiban and the party somewhere down the line. For example, fighting alongside your allies or buying them lunch will make them friendlier towards Ichiban, and in time, they'll open up to him, leading to some of the most touching scenes in the game. But beyond the drama, you also gain better battle synergy. Close friends earn more experience, and they make a habit of following up on enemies who have been left vulnerable by a previous attack.
What's more, in a very Persona-esque twist, Ichiban has a number of personality traits — including intelligence, charisma, and kindness — that increase as you try your hand at minigames and side quests. A more charming Ichiban, for instance, might be able to smooth talk his way into an underground gambling den, while developing Ichiban's passion could make him better at buffing his teammates during combat. It gets to a point where everything that you do counts towards the bigger, overall goal of making your party stronger, and it's super satisfying to see it all click into place.
The same is true of combat itself. There are some tough battles to be found in the game's later chapters, but overcoming your enemies with precise teamwork is exactly what being a hero is all about. It's really rewarding to see your party blossom into an elite team of fighters, and the fact that you're given so much freedom in building your ideal team only adds to the sense of satisfaction. Indeed, there's an in-depth job system that lets you change a character's role entirely. One minute Ichiban's a rough and ready bare-fisted brawler. The next, he's a musician, battering lowlifes with his guitar and playing songs to inspire his allies. There's hours of enjoyment to be had in mixing and matching your squad.
It takes a while to really get going, but once things finally kick into gear, Yakuza: Like a Dragon blossoms into one of the most unique and engrossing RPGs on PS4. At its core, this is still the Yakuza that we know and love, with shocking story beats and fantastic characters, but in embracing the structure of an old school RPG, it successfully branches the series off in a whole new direction. Equal parts refreshing and familiar, it's a crazy and creative game that knows how to have fun, as Ichiban Kasuga proves himself a worthy successor to the one and only uncle Kaz.