REVIEW: Yakuza: Like a Dragon

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Title Yakuza: Like a Dragon
Developer Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio
Publisher Sega
Release Date November 10, 2020 (Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC, PS4)
March 2021 (PS5)
Genre RPG, Action-Adventure
Platform Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series S|X, PlayStation 5, PC
Age Rating Mature
Official Website

Author’s Note: This Yakuza: Like a Dragon review will contain minor spoilers.

I have been a fan of the Yakuza series for more than a decade, so I say this with no small amount of weight: Yakuza: Like a Dragon (Ryu Ga Gotoku 7) is my absolute favorite entry in the series, in no small part thanks to protagonist Ichiban Kasuga (who also managed to unseat Shun Akiyama as my favorite series character). Our hero takes the reigns from longtime protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, and I cannot think of a better successor. His story of found families, overcoming adversity, and standing up for those who cannot protect themselves is timeless and resonating, and he absolutely earns his place in the Yakuza pantheon.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon | Ichiban sitting at a bar

Ichiban in a nutshell. I love him.

Let’s back up a moment before I continue. Yakuza: Like a Dragon is the latest entry in the long-running series from Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio. Released in November, alongside the newest generation of consoles, the game takes a chance on not only a new protagonist, but also a new genre. Rather than playing the action-adventure brawler style of previous games, we’re now in full-fledged Japanese RPG territory, with turn-based battles, magic systems, jobs, and more. The game draws heavily from Dragon Quest and other classics, with a smattering of nods and homages to a ton of other properties throughout. The Yakuza games already had a ton of RPG elements to them, from an assortment of leveling systems, currencies, and special moves, so the shift from action-adventure to role-playing wasn’t nearly as cumbersome as one might think. Heat Actions made the logical transition to magic spells, and the game takes jobs as literally as possible. All of it is a treat.

Much like his predecessor, Ichiban is a yakuza with a heart of gold, and he is absolutely my favorite type of character. A man who is one million percent too pure for this world, Ichiban is idealistic, loyal to a fault, and constantly looking for the brighter side of things. Despite all his hardships, he never gives up hope, and it’s that hope that propels him through one of the best stories not only in the Yakuza series, but that I’ve played in recent memory. He is joined early on by Yu Nanba, a homeless nurse; Koichi Adachi, a disgraced cop; and Saeko Mukoda, a grieving barkeep. Because I will need to go into spoilers to talk about Ichiban and his gang in any more depth, I’m going to break this review up into two distinct sections: gameplay and narrative. But suffice it to say, Yakuza: Like a Dragon shines incredibly well in the story and character department, and you are doing yourself a disservice if you pass this title up.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon | Ichiban accepts an item from an NPC while standing in front of a construction fire

There is no more accurate an image for the Yakuza series.

Like Yakuza 6, Yakuza: Kiwami 2, and Judgment before it, Like a Dragon uses the Dragon Engine, and my God does it look nice. Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio has outdone itself on creating the city of Ijincho, where the majority of our story takes place, imbuing it with lively characters, astounding vistas and a sense of lived-in-ness that makes you feel like you’ve come home. Character models are overall stellar, with the main cast looking particularly impressive on both current and last gen systems. I played both the PlayStation 4 version (running on a PlayStation 5), and the Xbox One X version, and both looked phenomenal. (I attempted to play the upgraded Xbox Series X version, but thanks to an absolutely mystifying graphical glitch that no one could help me solve, I had to walk away from that system. That being said, performance-wise, the XBX played incredibly smoothly with minimal load times and fantastic detail, when it wasn’t assaulting my eyes with rave wands.)

One of the aspects I really enjoyed about this game was also a cheeky one. Ichiban literally perceives his battles as something out of an RPG (Dragon Quest is canonically his favorite game), so both enemies and Ichi’s party suit up to mirror his perspective. Previous Yakuza titles have always reused character models for townsfolk, and that’s no different here, but thanks to the genre trappings of RPG enemy design, the devs leaned into it for some quirky and fun mobs. Now all those samefaces you see walking around town are a specific enemy type (Yakuza, Businessman, Pervert, etc). By the end of my playthrough, I could spot a Chef or a Titillator from a mile away. They also received your typical palette swaps and armor upgrades for powered-up versions, really grounding the game in both its Yakuza series roots and paying homage to the RPGs the developers clearly loved.

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The Dragon Engine was not quite as capable of handling the random battles as it did the brawls in previous games. The ragdoll physics of fallen enemies in games like Kiwami 2 were always hilarious, but rather than watch thugs bounce 10 feet up into the air, Ichiban and the gang constantly get caught on the scenery: running into cars, bumping into buildings, climbing over guardrails, etc. I had a particularly great moment where Adachi could not figure out how to step over a playground fence. And while the game does eventually force your character into a spot where they can execute their attacks, it usually comes at the expense of a critical hit. See, if you use a physical attack against enemies when they’re on the ground, you’ll do critical damage, but when the crew can’t navigate the environment, mobs will often be back on their feet before you hit them, losing out on extra damage. When fighting random battles on the street this isn’t such a big deal, but against boss fights it can make a difference, especially when you’re low on resources. (I promise I’m not speaking from experience or anything.)

Fights themselves were fun and punchy, which you’d expect from a Yakuza title. The turn-based nature of the combat meant they weren’t quite as in-and-out as previous games, but the variety of attacks, spells, and effects always made for a dynamic showdown. Battles broke down like so: You had your standard melee attack which could deal critical damage to downed enemies; your Heat Actions, which were flashy physical and elemental attacks; and your support skills, such as Peerless Resolve, which would save Ichiban from one instant-death attack. (I loved Peerless Resolve, since if Ichi died, it was game over.) Using the circle button (PS4/5) or the A button (Xbox) at precise moments when you’re attacked can trigger a Perfect Guard, which severely mitigates damage, and some Heat Actions require multiple button presses for damage multipliers, not unlike Super Mario RPG. Depending on your job type, the Heat Actions and support skills available to you change, with a handful becoming permanent character skills carrying over between jobs. Characters and jobs had separate leveling trees, meaning Ichi could be level 64 but running around as a level 7 Host. Jobs only learned abilities up through level 30, though, leaving you plenty of incentive to mix and match. Leveling jobs would also result in permanent character stat boosts. You can also summon powerful allies called Poundmates, who deal massive damage to all enemies or apply status and healing affects to the party. Just like in other RPGs and the Yakuza series itself, there were of course game-breaking skills and combinations, but I never found myself bored or frustrated with combat, with one exception. Around Chapter 12 or so, there is a massive difficulty spike that the game doesn’t adequately prepare you for. Thematically it makes sense, but going in, just know that you will need to grind out some levels in order to finish the game.

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Unfortunately, load times were an issue. On both the Xbox One X and PlayStation 4, I sometimes spent upwards of 30 seconds waiting for the game to load, especially on boot up. Considering the size of Ijincho this wasn’t a huge surprise, but for the amount of loading screens in the game, that time adds up. The PlayStation 5 cut the load times down significantly, and the Xbox Series X even more so. They were never as bad as Judgment‘s, thank God, but after 85 hours of playtime, they definitely wore out their welcome.

Scattered around the world are tons of items, chests, and helpful NPCs, as well as high-level dungeons to help you grind your way to the top. The RGG team really managed to capture the essence of an old-school RPG while keeping the world modern and grounded. Just like previous titles, you can eat at your favorite ramen shop, buy energy drinks from the drug store, play a relaxing game of mahjong, and sing your heart out to karaoke. (Ichi’s song is a great addition to the series’ catalogue.) Subquests round out the world with interesting and hilarious stories (think Earthbound‘s level of quirky writing), fun minigames, and even some surprisingly emotional moments. You can even upgrade your weapons toward relic status if you’re willing to expend the time, yen, and materials. For old fans of the series, the game has one of the best payoffs I’ve ever seen for longtime players, but it’s also a fantastic starting point for those who haven’t played previous titles or who just want to experience a great RPG.

Read more about Ichiban and the game’s story on Page 2 ->

About Leah McDonald

Leah's been playing video games since her brother first bought an Atari back in the 1980s and has no plans to stop playing anytime soon. She enjoys almost every genre of game, with some of her favourites being Final Fantasy Tactics, Shadow of the Colossus, Suikoden II and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Leah lives on the East Coast with her husband and son. You can follow Leah over on Twitter @GamingBricaBrac

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