Yakuza: Like a Dragon Review — Ichiban is Number One!

Yakuza: Like a Dragon Review — Ichiban is Number One!

Kiryu who? I'm all about that Kasuga life now. Yakuza: Like a Dragon took no time at all to become one of my favourite Yakuza games to date.

I think the best way to summarise my feelings for Yakuza: Like a Dragon are as follows. I intended to finish the story before committing to a score, but due to changes within the review copy invalidating my saves, that was no longer possible. I was in the final chapter and had overcome some serious hurdles of boss fights, but it was all gone now. I’d have to start from scratch.

Please note: This is an updated and finalized version of the Review-In-Progress published here a few days ago. Much of the text remains similar, but the subsequent opening has changed, and I’ve added a few more thoughts towards the end. If you’re getting deja vu, that’s why!

For most games, this is a death sentence. Time is limited, and I rarely relish having to re-experience something just to get to what’s new for me. So imagine how surprised I am to find that not only am I keen to start over and jump right back into Like a Dragon, but I am relishing it. I cannot wait to do so, trying out new class combinations and experiencing all the great moments with more of an eye for their nuance. I want to dive right back in, retrace my steps through Yokohama, and become reacquainted with Ichiban and the gang. In short, I just want to play more Yakuza: Like a Dragon. If that’s not enough to sell just how much I adored this game, I don’t know what more to say.

Once again, many general statements and feelings about the game can be found in my earlier preview article. If you haven’t read that, I’d recommend starting there and coming back.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon (or Yakuza 7) is a first for the franchise in many ways. It’s the first game not to star the iconic Kiryu Kazuma in a lead role. The action/brawler combat of old has been benched in favor of an exaggerated turn-based JRPG system. It’s the first game in the series (excluding Judgment) to feature an English dub since the original Yakuza on PS2. Any three of these could really have let the game down if implemented poorly; thankfully, it absolutely delivers on all of these aspects.

Afro-sporting leading man Ichiban Kasuga is, to put it simply, a fantastic protagonist. He’s as charming and likable as any Yakuza protagonist to this point, if not more so. Yet when push comes to shove, Kasuga is as determined and principled as it comes. He’ll happily take a stand for what he believes in, risking his life without a second thought to protect people and look out for his friends. He’s blunt, he’s goofy, and he epitomizes the low intelligence/high wisdom character archetype. But combine all this with excellent writing, an equally deep and enjoyable cast of characters for Kasuga to interact with, and a fantastic delivery of the English dub by Kaiji Tang? I hadn’t even finished the first chapter before I was in love with this wild-haired vagabond with a heart of gold. It’s only gotten more pronounced since then, and I’ve long since stopped questioning my decision to stick with the dub.

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Kasuga’s story begins 18 years before the narrative’s key events. He’s a low-level grunt for the Arakawa Family, which itself is a low-level family within the Tojo Clan. Nonetheless, he shares a strong rapport with the titular family patriarch. After a higher-ranked member kills a yakuza from another family and threatens a clan war, Arakawa requests that Kasuga go to prison in their place to prevent it. Driven by his loyalty to his boss, Kasuga willingly accepts and ends up serving a full eighteen years.

When he finally emerges, expecting to be greeted by Arakawa, he instead finds that the yakuza world has changed dramatically in his absence. The Tojo Clan is seemingly no more, having been wiped out and replaced by the Omi Alliance, and Arakawa is the traitor who let them in. Trying to find answers as to why, Kasuga ends up shot and his body dumped in the city of Yokohama, barely alive. What follows is Kasuga’s struggle to find answers and a meaning to his life… not to mention a means of not starving on the streets.

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Like Kamurocho and other cities in prior Yakuza games, Yokohama is dense with content and detail. The blocks and districts within are loaded with restaurants to eat at, minigames to play, or side jobs to pick up. Yakuza: Like a Dragon continues the franchise’s trend of marrying the serious and stylized crime drama with the borderline ridiculous substories, and the selection on offer this time is pretty hefty. I’ve helped a masochist feel pain again, gotten a lesson in fatherhood from a yakuza patriarch in a diaper, and mercenaries under the assumption that a sex-line was being phoned. The game rarely keeps me waiting long before I’m back to grinning like an idiot.

Of course, when I’m not grinning like an idiot, I’m engaging in a fantastically written drama with a complex mystery woven amidst in-depth worldbuilding. Yokohama’s underworld has its own flavor and power balance compared to Kamurocho. Learning all about this while interacting with the varied factions was the real highlight of the story to me thus far. When I wasn’t unraveling this mystery and learning all the connections between the players on the field? I was probably at a bar, drinking with my party members and learning about their rich backstories. Whatever the tone, Kasuga’s earnestness and determination are infectious and always drive the story onwards. And then, moments later, he’ll bust out another Dragon Quest reference and shift the moment right back to the other tonal extreme as if it was completely natural.

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The Dragon Quest references are quite fitting, given Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s genre shift to JRPG. All aspects of the system are framed as Kasuga’s imagination being dominated by his love of that series, to the point that even the mechanics play quite similarly. Compared to other JRPGs of the year, such as Persona 5 Royal or my personal favorite Trails of Cold Steel 4, Yakuza 7 is somewhat simplistic. It’s borrowed many of the core mechanics from Dragon Quest, sometimes to a fault. You’ll gain a selection of abilities as you level up, and it’s largely a choice between using those skills, regularly attacking, using items, or guarding. Enemies will have weaknesses and resistances, but beyond dictating what moves you should be using, it’s largely just fire and forget.

The complexity and unique spin of the system comes mostly through positioning. Battles take place on the streets, much like in previous Yakuza games, and both allies and enemies will move around and position themselves on their own as you wait. Though you can’t directly move, these positions do have an impact. Area of effect abilities can strike enemies around or between you and the target. Choosing to attack an enemy regularly may see others in their path block the attack and interrupt it. Attacking someone on the ground before they can get up will net you a guaranteed critical hit. Items or hazards on the ground might be kicked or picked up to empower attacks. A lot of effort went into making these turn-based battles have some of the energy of the Yakuza franchise’s fights, albeit slower.

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Most of your power in battles comes from your Jobs, however. The job system of Yakuza: Like a Dragon is unlocked in chapter 5 and lets you choose from a selection of different classes that your characters qualify for. Compared to some systems that really let you build your dream characters out of it, however, Yakuza 7 is a little more straightforward. Your job rank levels up separately to your character, unlocking more abilities and permanent stat ups as you reach thresholds. Many of these skills can’t be used unless that job is equipped, however. They’ll typically have two “character skills” that can be used regardless of what class you have equipped, but it can take quite a while to get to them.

I found that this meant I wasn’t really changing my combinations too much. Every character has their own unique class, and while these aren’t specifically the best job, they did help create useful niches for the cast. Usually, I’d find one or two classes that I liked for that character, get them a few ranks in each, and then settle on what seemed best. Job rank experience also takes a while to get doled out, with most of the biggest jumps coming after beating bosses (in some cases, so much so that I thought it was a balance bug). It wasn’t until I was reaching later chapters that I felt I could really start experimenting. That said, the challenge does ramp up as the story progresses, and so eventually I really did start considering more idealized team combinations and setups out of necessity. Better late than never, but I can’t say that the system was the most engaging job system I’ve experienced in JRPGs.

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Still, this is ultimately a minor gripe. The battles themselves are still entertaining, and the way they’re contextualized is frequently hilarious. Seeing how Kasuga will let his imagination run wild with enemy designs is fantastic and really gives the game a unique charm that other JRPGs might lack. The game also isn’t a pushover, with some of Yakuza 7‘s enemies and bosses really making me work for a victory. Chapter 12, in particular, had one boss that halted my progression for a while and really made me re-evaluate my strategy and prepare. As such, I imagine some of the late-game content will really test me.

Regardless, I’m immensely keen to experience it. Perhaps the biggest hindrance to writing this review was simply that I wanted to keep on playing. At its best, Yakuza: Like a Dragon has had as much heart and character as any of the strongest games in the franchise. At its worst, it’s still been a game that I can’t get enough of. The team’s writing has continued to improve with each installment since Yakuza 0. Yakuza 7 is well on its way to letting Kasuga rub shoulders with Kiryu’s greatest adventures. Sadly, I still haven’t seen how it ends up, but nearly everything I have seen has been wonderful thus far. It’d take a Final Fantasy 7 Remake level of poorly executed endings to really sour the experience, yet even then, I can say that Yakuza: Like a Dragon would’ve been worth it.

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Still, it’d be remiss of me not to address some issues, minor though they can be. I played the PC port on a mid-to-high-end machine, and while it was overall consistent, there were occasionally frame dips and struggles to hold a consistent frame rate. Character models and animations are largely good, but there can be some texture pop-in or degradation. All this stuff is minor, but the battle pathfinding is much more of a nuisance. Once a battle is started, you’ll be left waiting until non-combatant NPCs have run out of the area to clear the field. In busier streets with lots of clutter, this can take several seconds of awkwardly staring while an older woman gets stuck against a bike rack. The pathfinding issues extend to battles and sometimes cause enemies or allies to get stuck or take roundabout paths to deliver their attacks. On some occasions, my character would just be running in a circle right next to the enemy they were supposed to attack. This was a common enough occurrence that I could pick what streets I was best avoiding fights on.

In addition to this, there are a handful of sharp difficulty spikes in Chapter 12 onwards due to seriously tough bosses. While I didn’t mind the challenge, these enemies were tough enough to necessitate swapping jobs around and potentially grinding to approach their higher levels. Unfortunately, most of the fights around the world don’t offer enough progress to make it worthwhile. This is conveniently where the Battle Arena opens up, which provides an absolute ton of experience and shores up these weaknesses. Still, it’s balanced in such a way that the Battle Arena felt practically mandatory, while the average fight in the streets stopped meaning much of anything. If the battles weren’t fun enough, this could turn the game into a real slog, but I was at least still enjoying myself. Even so, some number tweaks would definitely go a long way to smoothing out later battle areas.

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None of this was ever enough to dissuade me from pressing on for long, though. For every minor gripe or negative I came across, there were a dozen positives that I could gush about for hours. Quite frankly, I love Yakuza: Like a Dragon. Everything about the heart and soul of the Yakuza series is here in full force, and the only time it ever really makes me stop smiling is to shed manly tears. Ichiban Kasuga is a fantastic protagonist, and his party is full of fascinating characters in their own right. This is a great story, a delightful open-world city to play around in, and a hilariously fun recontextualization of JRPG tropes in a real-world setting. It all just serves as another reminder that Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios are still at the top of their game and that the Yakuza franchise is really something special.

Seriously, play Yakuza 7.