Yakuza: Like a Dragon (PlayStation 4) Review

By Justin Prinsloo 30.11.2020

Review for Yakuza: Like a Dragon on PlayStation 4

Branded as the ideal entry point for newcomers to the series, Yakuza: Like a Dragon makes wholesale changes to its formula in a bid to refresh a franchise that has ever-increasing popularity. The stoic but kind mainstay protagonist Kiryu Kazuma makes way for new boy Ichiban Kasuga. Another farewell must be bid to the legacy brawler combat, which bows out in favour of a new turn-based system à la JRPG. Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio has set itself the impressive task of rebooting a beloved franchise by uprooting two of its chief staples: a fan-favourite character and the unmistakably fluid combat. In spite of the risk, the result is a triumph.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon, for all intents and purposes, is a traditional JRPG. It markets itself as the perfect point to hop onboard with the series: the changes mean it will appeal to lovers of turn-based combat while the existing Yakuza charm remains intact to keep hold of longtime fans. The Yakuza titles seem to grow in scope and ambition with each entry and in truth, a JRPG serves that expansion well. The new fictional location of Isezaki Ijincho is massive compared to the environments of Kamurocho and Sotenbori, but despite the larger scale, the trademark attention to environmental detail is still here. This is the perfect space to get lost in, striking a fine balance between the intimate, populated areas that Yakuza is known for and the larger worlds that JRPGs thrive in.

The world wouldn't be complete without a plethora of side missions - dubbed "substories" here - to become embroiled in. On this front, Like a Dragon does not disappoint. Player-controlled Ichiban is altruistic and always up for an adventure, which makes him the perfect observer and aide to the oddballs he comes across. He is a relentlessly lovable goofball; an emotional and mercurial protagonist where Kiryu was brooding and stern despite his innate kindness.

Screenshot for Yakuza: Like a Dragon on PlayStation 4

The switch to turn-based combat and more overt RPG mechanics is also well-justified by Ichiban's character. He grew up playing Dragon Quest, a pastime that impacted him to the point that he views life itself as a role-playing game on a grand scale. This inspires his search for members to join his party and acts as the motivator for the ragtag group of misfits to learn new "jobs", which are Like a Dragon's version of character classes. These take the form of actual occupations such as nightclub hosts, chefs, musicians and dominatrices, to name a few. Whilst the jobs themselves are rooted in normality, the abilities they house amusingly are not. Chefs can devastate foes in front of them by breathing fire into their faces, while the Dealer class deals damage based on the strength of a dice roll. The jobs all feel distinct from one another - even if it takes a while to gain access to the good ones.

The combat itself is fairly standard turn-based combat in a 3D space. Friends and foes alike will reposition themselves automatically which grants the impression of a dynamic, open battlefield, even though the player has no control over where they are positioned. It does call for some improvisation in the heat of battle, as trying to attack a foe who is blocked off by one of his mates will usually not go according to plan. Similarly, performing attacks that target an area are best used when circumstance sees a few enemies briefly clustered together. While this mechanic only narrowly escapes being gimmicky, it does help the battles to feel a little livelier. There are certainly times when this reviewer missed the all-out brawls of previous entries, mainly during some of the over-the-top difficulty spikes that occur later in the story. Whenever these crop up, it's best to exit the story mission and do some grinding to level up. With a little refinement to the combat, though, this turn-based system could turn into a real winner should future Yakuza titles continue to use it.

Inventory management is blessedly tameable, foregoing the dreaded trope of gargantuan gear hauls that many JRPGs are infamous for. New armour and weapons seem to be fed to the player at just the right tempo to avoid having to scroll through endless lists before offloading junk at the pawn shop. Also featured is a Persona-style personality wheel that Ichiban levels up during conversations and by performing various actions. Growing the facets of his personality, from Passion to Intelligence to Style, is well worth the effort as it provides access to everything from dating opportunities to new weapon shops.

One JRPG trope that Like a Dragon sadly does fall victim to is in the reuse of many of its "dungeon" areas. There's only so many times a sewer with the same tired assets can be used before it inspires a bone-tired dread of venturing further. Because Ichiban's wild imagination causes enemies and his party to morph during battle, becoming more reminiscent of the heroes-and-monsters appearance favoured in Dragon Quest, it seems a missed opportunity that environments don't morph in this fashion too.

Screenshot for Yakuza: Like a Dragon on PlayStation 4

Like a Dragon often requires patience in other areas as well - especially in the story's opening five to six hours. It exhibits the slow-burn antics the Yakuza titles are famous for, both in its storytelling and in the way it drip-feeds access to the multitudinous systems on offer. However, weathering the lack of urgency in the opening few hours is, as has always been the case with Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio's work, rewarded. Indeed, it remains relentlessly playable and addictive despite the initial slow-going.

Like a Dragon's plot, once it heats up, is a winding and unpredictable thrill ride. After taking the fall for a crime committed by another of his Family's officers, Ichiban spends eighteen years in prison to protect his patriarch. Upon his release and after gaining an audience with his boss in the hopes of being reinstated, he is promptly shot in the chest and left for dead. Waking near a homeless camp in Isezaki Ijincho days later, Ichiban sets out to find answers.

The scene is perfectly set for a bloody revenge tale but that is not at all what Like a Dragon resembles. Ichiban is loyal to a fault, even after being laid low by the man who should have welcomed him back with open arms. Ichiban's unceasing fealty makes him instantly endearing and alongside the new party-based gameplay, it allows for storytelling opportunities that the series hasn't before been capable of. This is 100% the Yakuza that has come to be known and loved, but in a few strokes of genius it manages to feel wholly fresh as well.

Not only is Ichiban's kindness deeply moving; so too is his eagerness for personal growth. Emerging from prison in his early 40s, he is nevertheless passionate about claiming a new lease on life which results in a story about how personal reinvention at any age is never out of reach. In a 2020 in which the world is crying out for goodwill, Ichiban is a breath of fresh air. His unabating loyalty to those he cares about makes him the perfect vector through which to tell a tale of redemption. The bonds he forms between the various party members acquired throughout the campaign are heartwarming tales of friendship that slot perfectly into the in turns heavy and humorous themes that Like a Dragon throws the player's way. It's timely and comforting amidst the real-world uncertainty that bedevils a virus-riddled planet.

It's also ridiculously funny. Yakuza's trademark offbeat humour is in fine form thanks to Ichiban's introduction and the dynamic between the handful of party members that he accrues. It's just a shame that some of the later party members don't get as much attention as the early arrivals. Sometimes they're even wholly absent from crucial cutscenes. Nevertheless, when they do put in an appearance its usually with a verve that makes them memorable regardless of their limited screen time.

Screenshot for Yakuza: Like a Dragon on PlayStation 4

Of course, it wouldn't be Yakuza without a slew of minigames to explore and rank up in. The fan-favourite batting cages and golf are still present, as are the SEGA arcades that house entire versions of some of the company's classic titles. There's also Dragon Kart, which is essentially a Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio spin on Mario Kart. A can collection mini game is introduced early on when Ichiban is desperate for cash: here he must race through the streets on a bicycle fitted with a flatbed trailer, collecting empty cans whilst avoiding rival collectors and dump trucks. It feels a lot like Pac-Man in 3D and is even cooler than it sounds.

And then there's the big one. The Ichiban Confections minigame tasks Ichiban with running his own business enterprise and even contains a neat little substory to work through. Ichiban Confections must work its way up through the shares rankings to become the number one ranking company in Yokohama - a feat that becomes exponentially harder the higher up you go. It is massively addictive, not least because it nets a decent amount of cash the more time you invest into it. It's convolutedly presented and can be a little overwhelming at first but when it clicks, boy does it click.

All this considered, it's safe to say that Like a Dragon manages to hold onto the series' personality whilst rewriting its core gameplay and characters. The graphics are great, especially in cutscenes, and even the janky real-time animations can be forgiven because they're so stylised as to make them instantly recognisable. There's also the choice of playing in English, an option that first appeared in the spin-off Judgment last year. Refreshingly, this is a serviceable way to enjoy Like a Dragon thanks to great lip-syncing and some decent voice acting, though it may not tempt the purists away from the colloquially superior Japanese-with-subtitles experience.

Screenshot for Yakuza: Like a Dragon on PlayStation 4

Cubed3 Rating

9/10
Rated 9 out of 10

Exceptional - Gold Award

Rated 9 out of 10

Yakuza: Like a Dragon is the most invigorating, wholesome and downright fun entry in the series since Yakuza 0. The turn-based combat, while slightly rough around the edges, manages to impress. The new protagonist Ichiban is a delightful addition to the lore. The only reason Yakuza fans won't adore Like a Dragon is if they despise turn-based combat but even then, it's well worth giving a shot for the beautifully written story and fresh take on the Yakuza formula. Ichiban Kasuga is the hero this world needs right now.

Also known as

Ryu Ga Gotoku 7

Developer

Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio

Publisher

SEGA

Genre

Turn Based RPG

Players

1

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  9/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date Out now   Australian release date Out now   

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