15 years ago, a legend was born: Kazuma Kiryu arrived in the first Yakuza game and instantly became a fan favourite. Launching a year later in the West, the franchise was almost canned before it could gain any momentum – at least on our shores due to a disappointing localisation. Perhaps though, we just weren’t ready for the absurd world that Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio had created.
However, when Yakuza 0 arrived back in 2017, it gave new fans an easier way to jump into the franchise. I and many others found a series we didn’t know how badly we needed and, for myself at least, made many other open-worlds pale in comparison. But after seven mainline games, there is a new seismic shift in the form of Yakuza: Like a Dragon. New protagonist, new location, new battle system. Were we, as now established fans, ready for such a shake-up?
Yakuza: Like a Dragon – now and hereafter referred to as Yakuza LaD – is the eighth main instalment of the Japanese crime series. Whereas the Western title has dropped the numbering system, in Japan this is known as ‘Ryū ga Gotoku 7: Hikari to Yami no Yukue’. Gone is main protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, and in steps Ichiban Kasuga.
Kasuga’s story starts in a similar fashion to Kiryu’s: Kasuga goes to prison for a murder he didn’t commit to protect a higher-ranking member of the Tojo Clan’s Arakawa Family. He is promised to be treated like royalty upon his release from prison for taking the fall, however when that happens there is no one outside to greet him. Even worse, when he does track down Masumi Arakawa, leader of the Arakawa family, he is shot and dumped in a completely different city.
Yakuza LaD starts in Kamurocho – the main city for the Yakuza series from the very beginning of the franchise. The introduction does a good job of welcoming Kasuga into players’ lives; such is the love for Kiryu that there is rightfully some trepidation of new characters. It does feel a bit slow however, as I was keen to get to this new city touted about so much in the pre-release information. We’re not talking Yakuza 3 levels of slow introductions, but it isn’t until Chapter 3 that you arrive in the new city of Isezaki Ijincho.
Ijincho is around three times the size of Kamurocho, but that does come at a cost. It is easily as packed as other Yakuza cities – with Ijincho being split into several noticeably different districts – but due to the size of the city things feel a bit more spaced out. You can use taxis that act as fast travel points, but in the early stages money comes at a real premium to Kasuga and it can take a fair old bit of time moving between story beats – longer more when you factor in the very high frequency of battle encounters.
The city is open to you from the beginning when you first get the chance to explore, but it is highly advised not to. Characters and enemies now have levels assigned to them and you earn EXP to level up; many of the northern areas of the maps feature enemies too high a level for Kasuga to deal with at first. Lose a battle and it isn’t game over though, but you do lose half the money you are carrying.
After arriving in Ijincho, Kasuga is living on the streets with not a penny to his name. He has to search and scrounge under vending machines for any pocket change he can find. He quickly meets a wide cast of characters, some of which being Koichi Adachi, Yu Nanba and Saeko Mukoda who join his party. Together, Kasuga and his party learn about the social structure surrounding Ijincho: three rival gangs known as the Ijin Three have a gentleman’s agreement between themselves. It’s almost like a mini Cold War situation, where anything could go wrong and implode on itself at any moment.
Unsurprisingly, that’s exactly what happens.
The storytelling in Yakuza LaD feels different to what has come before. Or rather, the story returns to how it was in earlier entries, partly due to us as the player discovering the kind of person Kasuga is. He feels much more of a bit-player in terms of the Yakuza ranking compared to the likes of Kiryu and, also due to the fact he is much more vocal with his feelings, Like a Dragon feels a more personal story to Kasuga. He sets his stall out early with his intentions and isn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve at all times, which may well be one of his downfalls at some point.
Then there is the combat – a bone of many contentions when Yakuza: Like a Dragon was officially announced. I say officially announced, as the new turn-based system was unofficially announced as part of an April Fool’s joke originally.
A conventional turn-based system in 2020 has almost gone full circle now and feels refreshing once again. Where other RPG franchises have steered away from turn-based in recent instalments – looking at you, Final Fantasy – in Yakuza LaD it has been brought in to replace the beat ‘em up feel of every other entry. And for a first attempt, it makes a pretty good fist of it. There is also a Job system where you can assign members of your party different roles, and between all this are hundreds of different special attacks to perform.
The fighting itself is semi-dynamic; party members cannot be manually moved around the battlefield, but placement of characters plays a big part in the battles. Objects lying on the ground are still utilised in typical Yakuza fashion – woe betide any enemy that still thinks no harm will come to them when stood next to a bicycle – but can only be used if your party member is lucky enough to be stood next to an object at that particular moment they make an attack. Likewise, when rushing past an enemy to attack a specific target, a party member will leave themselves open to an attack. It isn’t a perfect turn-based system by any means but it doesn’t remove any of the fun from previous games.
Due to the nature of being turn-based, Yakuza LaD is allowed to now experiment with more traditional RPG features. Occasionally, Yakuza switches to a dungeon crawler, allowing Kasuga and his party to show off their fighting prowess in extended sequences. Then, some boss battles will offer difficulty spikes not seen before in a Yakuza title.
Of course, with a turn-based battle system and full level progression, the latter half of Yakuza LaD does rely on grinding to progress – sometimes a little too much. There are ways to do so in the arenas and the sewers, however.
Whilst all the changes above may suggest that Like a Dragon is a complete reinvention of Yakuza, many of the other traditional elements stay. Huge substories and sidequests, this time involving Kasuga taking over an underperforming confectionary company, collecting enemies like Pokémon, and donning his superhero cape when answering requests on an app called Part-Time Hero, are all present. A lot of the fun comes in discovering these side-activities through progression; even after 25 hours in-game I was still uncovering additional activities. And that’s not even including the substories that open up as you progress through the main story, with another 50-plus wacky and wild tales to enjoy.
There is also the inclusion of dual audio; this is not the first time a mainline Yakuza game has had English dubbing, but localisation has changed significantly since the original release. And by changed significantly, I mean improved tremendously. The localisation team have essentially painstakingly written the game’s English script twice; once to fit with the Japanese subtitles and a more Eastern influence, and then the English version, which features many more traditional Western terms and phrases.
Despite the host of new features and ideas, Yakuza: Like a Dragon on Xbox is still quintessentially a Yakuza title. The humour is still here, as are the plot twists on plot twists, and of course the karaoke, which all add up to make it one of the stronger ‘launch’ titles on the Xbox Series X|S. There is a noticeable graphical improvement over previous titles on the Xbox One too; Ijincho is a gorgeous addition to the city roster and returning cities have never looked better. Yakuza: Like a Dragon is another great mainline entry; one that will please existing fans no end, but is immediately accessible for newcomers also.