By Leah McDonald / December 3rd, 2020
The main story and characters are where this game shines the most, however. This section will contain story and character spoilers so turn back now if you want to experience this masterpiece on your own.
I don’t recall the last time I was this invested in an RPG story, and I play Final Fantasy XIV. Ichiban’s story outshines even my precious Emet-Selch. Stories of found families and betrayal have always been personal favorites, and Yakuza: Like a Dragon does not disappoint. Add in a stellar cast and you have a recipe for gold. Having a band of six characters (and an optional seventh) let the RGG devs give everyone the spotlight in some way, fleshing out their motivations, personalities, and backstories to create nuanced and engaging companions on Ichi’s journey. Ichi himself is like a distilled version of every one of my favorite RPG tropes: he’s an idiot with a heart of gold who has his entire life turned upside down after he’s betrayed by the person he loves most in the world. Ichiban Kasuga was written specifically for me and I love him. I love him so much.
The Yakuza games have never shied away from exposing the dirty underbelly of Japanese society, and Like a Dragon doesn’t drop the ball. Born in a Kamurocho soapland as the son of a prostitute, Ichi has lived his entire life mired in that underbelly, only ever finding his place in it when, at 15, he invokes the name of a local yakuza boss to save his skin from a different Tojo Clan family. Masumi Arakawa, a hardened assassin known for taking hit jobs for the Tojo Clan, comes to Ichi’s rescue despite not knowing the teen at all. From that moment onward, Ichiban is as loyal to Arakawa as possible, serving him without fail for seven years until Arakawa asks him to take the fall for a murder he didn’t commit. Even after spending 18 years in prison, Ichi never loses faith in his surrogate father, his resolve shaken only after Arakawa shoots him and leaves him for dead.
Like a Dragon is all about society’s gray zones – the places that are hard to define and often less than legal. Prostitution, gambling, organized crime – everything Ichiban has ever known is castigated and reviled by a young, conservative movement called Bleach Japan. The law is the law, they claim, and anyone breaking it must be punished. The gray zones that shelter those who have nowhere else to go and are at society’s mercy must be purged. There’s this fantastic moment during the first encounter with Bleach Japan when the Yokohama branch leader, Sota Kume, claims no child born to a prostitute has ever found happiness. Ichiban loudly exclaims that he was always happy growing up in a soapland surrounded by exactly those women, leaving Kume to stew in his own juices. It’s a declaration of one of this game’s most prominent themes: everyone is fighting to survive, and sometimes the law isn’t equipped to help those people, but they should not be cast out for society’s failures.
Homelessness is another major theme, exemplified early on by Nanba, the nurse who saves Ichiban’s life. Six months ago Nanba lost his nursing license after a narcotics selling scandal at his hospital, and he is quick to advocate for his fellow hobos. Ichiban, for all his experience in the underworld, still sees the homeless as having brought it on themselves, for not working hard enough. But many of them have worked themselves to the bone and still been spurned, Nanba says. Many have nowhere else to go, just like the soapland prostitutes. This theme is further expanded when it comes to the Yokohama Liumang and the Geomijul, both major crime factions in Ijincho. The Liumang are the remnants of Chinese immigrants who lost a war for control of the city’s Chinatown, and the Geomijul are made up mostly of Jingweon Mafia survivors. Each faction was a place to call home for those who no longer had one, and for whom Japanese society would not or could not find a place. In each of these groups, the members find purpose and family, just how Ichiban did when he joined up with Arakawa.
Justice can come in several different forms, and it’s not always the law that makes it so. Adachi is a former detective who was demoted to the driver’s license division after attempting to leak documents that showed his boss jailed an innocent man for murder. That man later committed suicide in his jail cell. The memory has haunted Adachi for 20 years, and so he teams up with Ichiban in an attempt to finally bring his old boss – the current head of the Tokyo PD – to justice. Saeko seeks justice for the death of her boss, a soapland/sex shop/bar owner whose hanging kickstarts a war between the Ijin Three: the Liumang, the Geomijul, and the Seiryu Clan. It just so happens he was also Ichiban’s boss for a while, bringing Saeko into Ichi’s band of misfits. The party is eventually rounded out with two other spoilery characters I’d rather keep a surprise.
This is a band of characters I cannot gush about enough. I love them all. Not only do they each help reinforce aspects of the game’s themes, they are also delightfully written with a lot of depth. Each has an extensive subplot that’s unlocked as your affection for them grows, delving deeper into their backstories and personal lives. Throughout the game you can engage in Party Chats and Table Talks, where each member of the party will chime in about something going on in the world or in their life. These can range from trivial to hilarious to profound, and every one of them was a treat to find. One of my favorite Party Chats was when Ichiban and company walked past a bookstore and he was surprised to see his favorite manga, from before he was incarcerated, still in publication – but only because of several author hiatuses. I laughed out loud and immediately thought of two likely candidates. (Can you guess which?)
The only party member I found out of place was Eri Kamataki, an optional character who serves as both a love interest for Ichiban and the Management minigame NPC. Eri herself is great: She’s easily flustered, desperate to hold onto the business her father built up, and staunchly loyal. The Management minigame is one of the best in the series, and also a major source of income for the party through the majority of the game. Her place in the party, though, is an afterthought at best. She plays no role in the main story and doesn’t even appear in cutscenes, regardless of if you have her in your party or not. When you’re hanging out in the Survive Bar (the party’s safehouse), she doesn’t interact with any of the other characters. She does have a karaoke song, but that’s about it. If she had not been included in the party and remained as just the Management minigame / love interest, I don’t think she’d have bothered me so much, but she felt like wasted potential the way she was incorporated.
The love interest plot line was also a bit of a letdown. Each individual segment was great. I loved all of the girls Ichiban could woo, and each had a use outside the flirting. For instance, Ririka changed your jobs, and Sumire crafted your weapons. But the actual plotline that stemmed from dating all of them felt tired and forced and, overall, left a sort of sour taste in my mouth after the fun buildup.
But as far as the main story goes, this game was anything but a letdown. I don’t want to actually spoil the plot, because it really does need to be experienced, but my heart hasn’t hurt that much in a long time. Watching Ichiban struggle and fight through low after low, to be helpless as his world is constantly turned upside down, was an emotional rollercoaster. His unwavering optimism was a breath of fresh air despite his circumstances. I think we’ve all had someone we love who went down the wrong path. We’ve all had someone we desperately wanted to save. We’ve all had someone we’ve lost. Experiencing those moments through Ichiban’s eyes was as heartbreaking as it was cathartic, and I still can’t stop thinking about something he says. “There’s no logic to it. Deep in our hearts, we felt a connection… It’s not some kinda clear-cut love-it-or-hate-it kind of emotion!” Sometimes the love we feel for someone defies logic. Sometimes it’s hard to explain. But we love that person all the same. It’s a line I keep thinking about, days after finishing the game. It’s a line I think I’ll still be thinking about years from now.
Everyone wants to be the hero of their own story. Whether it’s taking care of loved ones, overcoming hardship, or grasping for a dream, I can think of no one who isn’t seeking some sort of place in this world. To say 2020 has been a bit rough for a whole lot of people would be an understatement, and Ichiban Kasuga was definitely the hero I needed this year. His strong heart, unwavering resolve, and unconditional love for those most important to him were the sort of positivity I craved. He would have been my favorite protagonist of all the games I played this year regardless, but he shone extra brightly in the darkness, and I adore him all the more for it. Ichiban’s struggles and triumphs were relatable and heartbreaking and beautiful, all at once, and helped propel his game not only to Game of the Year status, but also ousted Yakuza 5 from its pedestal as favorite game in the series. Ichiban is the hero everyone deserves, and I think his absolute banger of an anthem puts it best: “You may have nothing, yet you’ve got the bravery to go forth and lead a wonderful life.”
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is available on Xbox One, Xbox Series S|X, Windows, Steam, and PlayStation 4 for $59.99. A PlayStation 5 upgraded edition is slated for March 2021.
PlayStation 4 review copy provided by the publisher. Xbox copy purchased by reviewer.
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