I’ve always heard great things about the Yakuza series. From the wacky side stories to the lovable characters, they were games that seemed to have a passionate cult following among other bloggers I followed. When a new Yakuza was announced that would be in a genre I’m more familiar with as well as soft rebooting the storyline, I figured that was the ideal time to jump in. I grabbed the game, played a significant chunk of it but never finished, and didn’t chronicle any of it on my blog.
Recently, a series of coincidences put the game on my brain again. An RPG podcast I listen to mentioned the game for their list of top JRPGs. Someone I followed on Twitter posted about how much they loved Ichiban, the protagonist of the game. A playthrough I was watching of Persona 5 Strikers had a reference to the game when Makoto mentions wanting to see the movie “Dragon: Like a Yakuza.” And to top it all off, Famitsu showed images of Ichiban, Adachi, and Nanba on the computers at RGG studio and all but confirmed that Yakuza 8 is in development. Each time I saw something about the game I wanted to replay it a bit more, and news of a sequel sealed the deal. And since I have never covered the game before here on Adventure Rules, this seems like as good a time as any to share my second first impressions.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is the seventh game in the mainline Yakuza series and moves away from longtime protagonist Kiryu to tell the story of Ichiban Kasuga. Ichiban is part of the yakuza, specifically the Arakawa family of the Tojo clan. He’s fiercely loyal to the patriarch Masumi Arakawa, a man whose story we learn over the course of the game’s early hours. Masumi’s young adulthood was fraught with troubles – abused by his mother, found his father dead while they were eating together at a Chinese restaurant, and lost the love of his life in an incident that also left his son very sickly. We see both Arakawa’s cruelty and his kindness, and the game paints a picture of him as a man that Ichiban deeply respects as a father figure in his own life. When Masumi asks Ichiban to take the fall for a murder committed by a higher ranked member of the family, the player can perhaps understand why Ichiban finds Arakawa a man worth making that sacrifice for.
When we rejoin Ichiban eighteen years later, the world is different. Not only the advancements in technology and culture, but also the political environment and the positions of the yakuza clans in Kamorocho (the city where Ichiban lives). I won’t say more than I’ve said already regarding the story, as this I think is the core setup of the game. The world Ichiban knew before prison is gone when he gets out, and he has to discover new friends and a new meaning for his life when everything that mattered before is stripped away.
Mechanically, Like a Dragon is a JRPG. This is justified in-universe as Ichiban’s overactive imagination. He grew up playing Dragon Quest and thinks of life through the lens of roleplaying games. Fights are turn-based battles against monstrous beings, getting a job is changing your class, and the friends you meet along the way become your party members. It’s a fun framing for changing up the genre of the series – as to whether the game mechanics themselves are an improvement on the previous Yakuza formula, well, that feels like a different matter.
Perhaps because Like a Dragon is RGG’s first turn based RPG, the game falls into a number of genre pitfalls. I’ll borrow the phrase my college design professor used to describe my artwork: good concept, poor execution. Yakuza’s battle system is heavily position-based. If you attack near an object like a bicycle or a traffic cone, you’ll use it to wallop your enemy for bonus damage. Character skills that hit more than one target have a set range, such as Adachi’s Reckless Charge hitting everything in a straight line leading to the target while Ichiban’s Mega Swing hits enemies in a circle around the target. If you target an enemy with a basic attack and another enemy is in the path to them, you’ll get interrupted and take damage. But despite positioning being absolutely central to the combat system, you have zero control over it. You don’t get to choose where your units stand and there’s no rhyme or reason to where your enemies stand. In fact, they kinda just wander around, so a move that seems promising at the beginning of your turn may be completely unviable by the time you menu to it.
Some of the game’s mechanical problems feel like they come from being a little too inspired by Dragon Quest, specifically. For example, if you’ve played Dragon Quest titles with a job system like DQ6 or DQ7, then you know it takes quite a while to actually unlock the ability to change jobs. I think DQ6 takes about 10 hours while DQ7 is closer to 20. Like a Dragon similarly takes ages before you can finally start customizing your characters by changing their jobs (you’ll be locked to their starting jobs until chapter five). In DQ9, when you change jobs you start over from level 1, and the only thing that carries over between jobs are your skill ranks in weapons that the two jobs share. Like a Dragon similarly has you start over when you change to a new job, but the benefits that carry over are even worse – only a couple of select abilities from each job transfer to the others. The need to grind each job separately makes the prospect of mastering multiple jobs a time sink, and often the payout is simply not worthwhile as the best abilities granted by any particular job are never the ones that carry over.
Thankfully while the mechanics do hold the game back somewhat, where Yakuza truly shines is one the characters, both your main party as well as the many quirky and endearing personalities you’ll meet in side stories. As your explore Yokohama (the city where Ichiban ends up after chapter two of the game) you’ll find the map steadily populated with little side missions. Structurally they all work very similarly: meet a character and learn about their problem, and then steadily solve that problem over one or more scenes. Sometimes different parts of a sidequest take place in different locations, or you may have to regularly return to a single location after some time has passed. You control the pacing: I’ve had some quests I loved enough that I went from objective to objective to make it happen while others I’ve just done the next piece whenever I happen to be in the neighborhood. The game doesn’t always handle this well – the main story will often run through multiple back to back scenes or create a scenario where you can’t organically engage with other content for a bit – but when it steps back and lets you choose what you most want to explore, the game feels great.
These moments have been the ones that made my return to Yokohama the most worthwhile so far. The cast of Like a Dragon are misfits down on their luck, caught between a ruthless criminal underworld and a borderline fascist political movement. The way they band together to take on an oppressive and unfeeling world feels particularly inspirational in 2022. And in between those moments, the time spent protecting a persimmon for a little girl undergoing surgery or helping a naked man sneak to a clothing store so he can visit his sick grandma show just how wacky and sweet that Yakuza can be all at once. Those moments are the ones that keep me rebooting the game, even when I’m rolling my eyes during battles or taking steps to try to avoid them.
So far I’ve deeply enjoyed my return to Yokohama. While the game does take quite some time to get rolling and the combat and job systems leave a lot to be desired, the story and characters make Like a Dragon an experience well worth having. I’ll plan to continue sharing updates as I make my way through, and my plan this time is to finally roll credits and see Ichiban’s tale through to the end.