The Yakuza franchise is entering a new age of turn-based combat with an all-new protagonist. It’s just too bad we probably won’t see Majima anymore.
After years and years of playing as Kazuma Kiryu, it’s finally time to hang up the hat after beating up hundreds of thousands of street thugs. Yakuza: Like a Dragon is almost a soft reboot of an aging franchise. It takes the long-running series in a new direction that works really well as a first outing.
I say that the Yakuza series is aging, but it is like a fine wine. It is a franchise that keeps getting better and better. Eventually, all good things must come to an end. In steps new protagonist Ichiban Kasuga, a former Yakuza who never really knew where he stood among a crowd of gangsters. He always projected what he thought it meant to be a Yakuza, even if it meant getting the crap beaten out of him by his superiors.
After taking the fall for a crime he didn’t commit, Ichiban spends almost two decades behind bars. Upon his release, the world isn’t the way he expected it to be, and a personal betrayal leaves him reeling. Like a Dragon continues the Yakuza legacy of strong narratives built around the criminal underbelly of Japan.
This isn’t the same hard-boiled crime drama that players might be used to, and things in the latest outing are often lighthearted. It’s a nice change of pace from what we’re used to from the series. Like a Dragon benefits from having another new strong protagonist. It isn’t always fun and games though. This is generally a serious narrative that has more incredible performances from its well-developed characters.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s Ichiban is also a very likeable character. He’s passionate, driven to do the right thing, and cares about the people around him. He’s much like Kazuma in that regard and wants to do right by the people in his life, despite how they have treated him.
To be honest, though, it is weird playing a Yakuza game without Kazuma at the forefront. After three console generations with one character and just shy of ten releases, it’s a bit jarring moving to a new protagonist. That’s probably why Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio decided to switch the gameplay up.
Instead of rushing around Japan in a modern-day beat-em-up, Like a Dragon is a full turn-based RPG. The combat leaves room for player input during non-attack phases with constant guard opportunities with every enemy attack, which helps it stay a little more true to its action roots. There are still plenty of the classic Yakuza side activities, but the core gameplay here is very different than players are used to.
Despite this, the gameplay change worked out well. It was a gamble and it paid off. Characters in Yakuza: Like a Dragon bring their own personal style to the combat. Ichiban swings his “hero” bat (his version of the sword) like a champ. Yu Nanba – a homeless man who saved Ichiban’s life – can summon pigeons, scattering seeds across the battlefield. Drunkards can breathe fire with alcohol breath. Another character can summon poisonous lobsters to attack enemies. The characters are just as weird and zany as we’re used to from the franchise, and Yakuza: Like a Dragon is better for it.
It also benefits from the additional horsepower of the Xbox Series X. Running around the streets of Japan has never looked better, and Like a Dragon runs at 4K with a fairly consistent 60 frames per second. I did have some frame drops during some of the more action-heavy sequences when thrown enemies would break glass or a heavy effect attack was taking place, but my experience was pretty smooth across the board otherwise.
It is also worth noting that Xbox Series X is currently the only way to play Like a Dragon on the next generation of consoles. PS4 players can pick it up now, but the PS5 version won’t launch until next year. Of course, PS5 players can still play the PS4 version using backward compatibility, but you will not get the same experience.
Even with the extra horsepower, Yakuza: Like a Dragon often felt a bit emptier than previous entries. The city streets, while busy, weren’t often as bustling as other titles in the franchise. It just didn’t feel as lively as The Song of Life. However, the bright neon signs are still there, and Japan looks just as beautiful and vivid as years past.
Much like other titles, Like a Dragon often suffers from narrative pacing issues. Long sections of the story play without ever controlling the lovable Ichiban, and long cutscenes interject shorter gameplay segments. It would be especially frustrating for newcomers, but Yakuza veterans should know what to expect and not be deterred. The pacing issues are throughout, but the narrative told here is still Ryu Ga Gotoku in fine form.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon takes some big gameplay risks for a long-running franchise. It’s not the hardboiled crime drama narrative that players are used to but instead a personal story of betrayal that often suffers from pacing issues. Still, Like a Dragon is a great first step with more funny and interesting characters that fans will come to love if the studio sticks it out with them, but it’s too bad we might not see more Majima.
Game Freaks 365 received a free review copy.