I don’t know who, if anyone, was wondering what Yakuza would be like if it was more like Dragon Quest. Yet here we are anyway. Yakuza: Like a Dragon is unmistakably a new entry in Sega’s long-running and fan-favorite crime drama brawlers. But while we followed Kazuma Kiryu for years, Like a Dragon introduces a new protagonist, a new city, and a totally new genre of play. When it works it really works, and when it trips it stumbles. Regardless of your feelings on classic, turn-based JRPG combat, Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a ride I doubt anyone can prepare for.
Like a Dragon starts in totally safe, familiar territory. You play as Ichiban Kasuga, a grunt-level Yakuza whose intense moral convictions make it hard for him to succeed in the business. Then, despite his friendly relationship with the patriarch of his clan, Kasuga ends up taking a hit for a higher-up and spends nearly two decades in prison. When he gets out he finds a completely alien world in front of him, and from there on Kasuga has to leave his old world behind and find a new purpose in life. And with the help of a truly ragtag group of misfits from all walks of life, Kasuga does just that on a journey to become a Hero.
Like a Dragon is a turn-based JRPG. There’s no dancing around that, or any sort of euphemism introduced to obfuscate that act. Kasuga literally wants to become a Hero like Loto, and cites Dragon Quest several times as a keystone for his motivations. While the backbone of this game is still Yakuza, many of the systems you’ll be engaging with will be instantly familiar to anyone who played Dragon Quest VI.
You’ll be building a party, grinding money for new equipment, gambling at every opportunity, losing money instead of a game over if you die, and most importantly playing with a tongue in cheek job system. I say tongue in cheek due to its goofy Yakuza-flavored occupations, but make no mistake, this is the vocation system from Dragon Quest VI brought back to life.
For better or worse, part of this game’s adherence to the series’ identity is that the developers implemented these systems within the Yauza videogame framework, rather than the other way around. So many of the Yakuza staples, such as running around a city (this time Yokohama instead of Kamurocho) fighting random goons and stumbling upon sidequests featuring Yakuza’s trademark non-sequiter humor. You still get to visit arcades to play Sega games, eat at restaurants, participate in epic karaoke sequences, and run a business on the side. Like a Dragon is 100% a core franchise entry.
When it comes to combat, Like a Dragon does manage to fumble the ball a bit, but accomplishes so much with so little in the process it’s easy to forget about the problems until they show up to remind you. Combat exists in the normal game world, happening the same ways it always has. But instead of brawling in real time, you make menu choices in traditional JRPG style. While all the characters freely move around on the field, the game is entirely turn-based so you can take your time as you need. In addition to the normal stuff you can do, there are also absolutely hilarious summons, and environmental variables that pop up to further adapt the Yakuza staples.
The problem here is some of those affectations mess with the player to no benefit. The most egregious example is that while some moves are supposed to hit areas of effect, everyone is constantly moving around. Lining up multiple enemies for that is entirely out of your control, and people will continue shuffling around until the last possible moment. Player characters and enemies can also get caught on geometry, and if you run ahead of your group (with the game’s unlimited sprint) you have to sit there and watch them catch up from across the street on their turns.
Environmental hazards are a fun bonus, and some truly hilarious stuff can happen if you get lucky. But it’s also nearly impossible to tell when your attack is going to involve something like a chair, or bike, or whatever foreign object Kasuga or his party will pick up. It seems like it’s governed more by chance than physical presence, or that the game just doesn’t always pick up on things when you think it should.
Also, a timed hit system does exist, giving you button prompts to add additional damage to your techniques. But it’s either “mash X fast” or “press Y when the circles touch” depending on the move. There’s nothing else to that, and feels like a last-minute concession for people who don’t like turn-based combat that is at odds with things like the auto-battle settings. But despite those issues, the moves themselves, the party roles for jobs, and other systems like extra damage for ganging up on enemies and followup attacks all look great. Despite some of the awkwardness, between the core combat being fun, the skills being over the top, the music being hype AF, and the job system, I never found myself avoiding combat.
Obviously since Yakuza is a Dragon Quest game now, there’s a super big emphasis on storytelling, and perhaps a more padded and slower-paced kind of storytelling compared to previous Yakuzas. It’s all familiar in tone and style, but the cutscenes feel longer, and the story takes its time moving between major plot points. This of course is designed to give you time to play with the job system, build up your characters, discover secrets and screw around with the minigames and stuff.
The best part of Like a Dragon’s storytelling is how well it leverages its new setting and characters to explore other parts of the Yakuza world and by extension, the real world. Yakuza has always incorporated the gray areas of society for obvious reasons, but Like a Dragon really zeroes in on the very real struggles of people who are homeless, sex workers, disillusioned cops, and other kinds of victims of capitalism. Kasuga, who has largely only known the Yakuza life, is often positioned as a sort of well-meaning but ignorant Hero, a vessel for players who may be in more privileged positions than the characters they encounter.
Kasuga often learns about the very real struggles of the working and poverty class for the first time during his quest, and these are arguably more powerful moments than the higher level Yakuza plot drama. He and consequently the player are ripped violently from their spot on the food chain, and find themselves face to face with all kinds of harsh truths. But that doesn’t mean Like a Dragon is suddenly the gold standard for moral progressivism in videogames.
As much as Like a Dragon succeeds in directly tackling issues of class, it absolutely fails in other social matters. This won’t come as a surprise to any Yakuza veterans, but this game still has no idea what to do with women. They’re either victims, service workers, or the butt of several “sexual harassment as humor” scenarios that aren’t unique to this series at all, but stand out even more beyond their banal tropeiness when standing next to the good stuff. For example, Saeko, the woman of the party, gets the short end of the stick in many absurd ways.
All of Saeko’s early job options are based on stereotypes, from her unique Barmaid job that uses handbags and makeup for combat, to the Idol (white mage) and other classes like a dominatrix-style or hostess, both of which just have a ton of “lol women, am I right” gags for movesets. The characters in the party also constantly brush her off, patronize her, or outright insult her in moments that aren’t countered with in-text criticisms. She also only gets like, half the job options the others do when you unlock that system. Just a bunch of baffling missteps for a game that otherwise wants to throw hands with systemic injustice.
Despite some of that frustration, I am always in the pro-job system camp and relish any opportunity to engage with that style of play. And I wasn’t kidding about the Dragon Quest VI thing; it’s practically copied and pasted here. You have to visit a specific location to change your jobs, each one coming with its own sets of abilities, stat bonuses, outfits, and more. There isn’t a lot of wacky stuff like Final Fantasy or later Dragon Quests have experimented with – each job ranks up independently, and that job you pick is the job that character has access to.
There is some nuance to things, however. Each character has a unique class that fits the story, and gives them skills that you could totally stick with the whole game if you want. Each character also has their own skills they learn by leveling up, separate from their occupations. All of this adds up to a job system that’s more of a fun side attraction than a main focus, but one that offers tangible gameplay and style differences. But again I’m in my exact wheelhouse here, so I’m totally down with simple job systems, as long as they include those differences at a minimum. So your mileage may vary.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a tremendous game. There’s always something to do, something new to find, some hilarious new sidequest around the corner. This game finds every chance it can to be as extra as possible, from the inexplicably bizarre summoning system to Kasuga’s overactive imagination transforming his perception of reality via RPG tropes. But for all of its goofiness, Like a Dragon also wears its heart on its sleeve, and really has a message about looking out for the people on the ground. But for all its class wokeness, it still thinks harassing and belittling women is funny. While it noticeably stumbles in various spots, Like a Dragon is an obvious experiment that’s as close to a slam dunk as it was ever probably going to get. I hope we see more of this, and that the Yakuza team continues exploring this setting beyond the mafia drama. That’s really what makes Ichiban’s adventure stand out, and the times he feels like a Hero the most.
- The usual Yakuza humor and charm in a fresh setting with fresh characters
- This game literally and philosophicaly invokes Dragon Quest and I’m here for it
- Job system!
- Betrays its own thematic premise every time a woman is on screen
- Awkward physics and some general jank in combat
- Occasional grinding roadblocks
A copy of this game was provided by the pubisher for review