Taking place before, during, and just after the events of Yakuza: Like a Dragon, the intriguingly titled Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name tells us all about what Kazuma Kiryu was up to in that time — and it's fair to say he was busy. But before we dig into the details, it's important to note that in its latter half, Gaiden goes all-in on adding context to the story of Yakuza: Like a Dragon. As such, knowledge of that game is a necessity if you want to get the most out of this Sotenbori-based adventure.
Anyway, following on from Yakuza 6, Kiryu is indentured to the Daidoji faction — an organisation that helps manipulate Japan's political structure from the shadows. Taking advantage of Kiryu's rather unique skills — that is, his ability to pummel basically anyone or anything — the Daidoji have our hero perform various tasks for them behind the scenes, under the codename 'Joryu'.
Setting Kiryu up as a secret agent sounds incredibly cool on paper, and we're pleased to report that it's pretty damn cool in practice. Equipped with a pair of sunglasses and a sharp suit in order to hide his identity (that's all it takes, apparently), Joryu hits the streets of the aforementioned Sotenbori. His mission? To uncover the motives of a dangerous yakuza clan — but things are never straightforward in the Like a Dragon universe.
As we've come to expect, Gaiden's plot is packed with twists and fantastic characters. It's a slightly smaller game in terms of scope; the story itself will run you roughly 15 hours, and the somewhat cramped Sotenbori is the only explorable map. The latter becomes a bit of an issue towards the end — there are only so many times you can run from one side of the same district to the other before it grows tired — but the largely excellent narrative carries the experience overall.
In many ways, Gaiden comes across as a Kiryu character study. We didn't think it was possible for developer RGG Studio to infuse the veteran protagonist with yet more personality, but he's got some absolutely killer scenes here, to the point where Kiryu feels more fleshed out as a lead than ever before. One cinematic in particular almost moved us to tears — a rarity, we assure you — and that's testament to the series' consistently superb storytelling.
And of course, away from the main story, Sotenbori is stacked with minigames and comical side quests, all of which are practically begging for your attention. From classics like karaoke and darts to much more in-depth pursuits like pocket racing, there's a surprising amount of stuff to see, should you veer from the path of the core plot. For reference, it took us around 40 hours to have a decent crack at everything Gaiden has to offer — and that's not bad for a 'smaller' Like a Dragon title.
That said, there is one headline element that doesn't quite live up to the billing. The return of a proper colosseum — in which Kiryu faces off against all manner of murderous opponents — should be cause for celebration, but its implementation ultimately disappoints. Instead of being built around randomised tournaments — as was the case in previous games, like Yakuza Kiwami 2 — you're essentially tasked with completing combat challenges, some of which are time-limited.
What's more, there's a significant grind behind assembling and levelling up your own team of fighters. Group battles are an all-new concept, but again, the implementation is lacking. You and your allies always face off against the same masked goons in every brawl, with later fights simply jacking up enemy health values (to an often absurd extent). The colosseum just doesn't feel like the celebration that Gaiden's crunchy action combat deserves.
Indeed, said combat system shines elsewhere — largely thanks to the sheer number of battles and tense boss fights peppered throughout the story. Kiryu comes with two styles of arse-kicking: agent and yakuza. Agent is a new approach that sees Kiryu make use of fast strikes and crazy gadgets — including a 'spider' wire that can lasso foes and fling them across the battlefield in hilarious fashion. In contrast, yakuza encapsulates our hero's usual fighting style, comprising brutal charge attacks and lethal finishing moves.
The two styles complement each other really well, and mastering both is suitably rewarding. Gaiden's combat feels refined, in the same way that the brawling in Lost Judgment did, and so we're tempted to say that it's one of series' best excursions when it comes to the all-important action.
Like a Dragon Gaiden teeters on the edge of feeling tired and a bit predictable, but in the end, this is another memorable chapter in Kiryu's seemingly endless tale. It adds welcome weight to the events of Yakuza: Like a Dragon while also telling a great individual story, which is stuffed with typically engaging characters. Refined combat carries this 'smaller' title even further, and although its optional excursions can feel a little too grindy for their own good, Gaiden stands as a rock solid instalment, and a potent reminder of why Kiryu's such a beloved protagonist.