The Yakuza franchise is many things to a lot of people, over the top organised crime melodrama, a rhythm action game, business simulator, brawler etc, so its been great to see the series grow from struggling to get released outside of Japan back on the PS3 to being the highlight of many peoples release schedules. Personally speaking, I’ve always dipped in and out of the games, usually after picking them up months after release. But when I heard that Yakuza: Like a Dragon was going to be a little different, I had to get on board.
First up, if you’re a fan of the series, then everything you know and love is still here. There’s all the mini-games, the ridiculous side quests, karaoke, its sometimes questionable sense of humour, its still Yakuza. Kiryu may be gone, and you may spend the majority of your time, initially anyway, in Yokahama instead of Kamurocho, but it’s still recognisably Yakuza. Everything from the character models, to the plot arcs, is still everything that fans have come to love, and that excellent. However, there is one big change.
It’s well documented that Like a Dragon has shunned the series brawler roots in favour of turn-based combat, and I know many were genuinely worried for it, but honestly, it has so much fun with its new mechanics that it feels completely fresh to go in this direction rather than the studio trying to mix things up and doing it half-arsed. The JRPG style mechanics are woven into the plot, the battle system, party make-up and the world around you. You no longer focus on just Kiryu (or Majima etc), you have a party of characters who you can switch in and out of your core group, who each have their own strengths and weaknesses and whom you’ll grow to love.
Because another aspect that’s been refreshed is the relationships that the main character Ichiban develops. Wherein the older games you’d get to see other characters through plot development, here you can actively choose to spend time with the core cast via having conversations with them in the Survive Bar. There are also conversations you can trigger as you explore the game’s world that gives you more insight into their personalities, which gives the game the feeling of a Persona game featuring actual adults rather than high-schoolers, so if that particular franchise has always intrigued you but its setting has been a turn-off, then Yakuza: Like a Dragon has you covered.
Your companion’s personalities and story arcs are all wonderfully written too, so spending time with them and learning of their troubles and feelings, watching their bonds with Ichiban grow, is a genuine pleasure, and that’s made even more so by the strength of Ichiban’s character. If Kiryu or Goro were different elements of masculinity, Ichiban’s ability to get incredibly emotionally involved in almost anything, but also see the absolute best in the worst of situations, is very enlightening, particularly in 2020.
As ever the writers have tried to handle some difficult subjects, particularly focusing on a group of people who have been trodden on for years by society and are now at an age where if they’re not a part of the current establishment then they’re not wanted, and it handles these subjects with a fair amount of grace. It doesn’t always get it right, but even when it does get things wrong, it feels like it is a genuine response for that character and for that the writers deserve credit.
SEGA’s have got to great pains to declare that this isn’t Yakuza 7, it’s genuinely is it’s own thing, though it also acts as an interesting jumping in point to the world that Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio has created.