Yakuza: Like a Dragon ReviewNovember 5, 2020
The Yakuza games have always been about smacking people in the face with traffic cones, bicycles, and street signs, but the development team behind Yakuza: Like a Dragon has taken arguably the boldest swing in the series to date. A shift from the reflex-testing beat-’em-up action of previous games to a more structured, turn-based JRPG-style combat system seemed like a genuine gamble when it was first revealed, but the end result successfully manages to introduce a more tactical form of team-based street fighting without sacrificing any of the series’ signature flair and offbeat humour. A lengthy late-game level grind made completing its story more of a drudge than it needed to be, though, meaning that although I found Like a Dragon to initially be as refreshing as a can of Suntory Highball, by the end I felt as weary as someone who’d had a few cans too many.
The switch to turn-based combat might be the biggest change in Yakuza: Like a Dragon, but it isn’t the only one. An entirely new cast of characters and a sprawling Yokohama setting combine to enhance a story that, while entertainingly bombastic throughout, doesn’t really stray too far from the types of complex criminal conspiracies and preposterous plot twists that have become the standard for almost every mainline Yakuza game and spin-off to date.Main protagonist and ex-Yakuza clan member Ichiban Kasuga is a likeable hero who wears his heart on the sleeve of his apparently mandatory leisure suit. However, it’s the engaging ensemble that he forms with the three other core characters alongside him in his justice-seeking quest – grizzled detective Koichi Adachi, doctor-turned-vagrant Yu Nanba, and cabaret club hostess Saeko Mukouda – that really sets Yakuza: Like a Dragon apart from its predecessors in terms of drawing me into its world. Exploring the backstreets of Yakuza games on your lonesome has always been enjoyable in the past, but it turns out it’s even more fun with a few colourful friends along for the ride – especially when their lighthearted banter offers insight into each location as you wander around.
Being a Yakuza game, Like a Dragon never suffers a shortage of street thugs waiting to bully you out of your bento box money when you’re just innocently heading down to the arcade to play some OutRun. Yet while you might assume that a switch to turn-based combat would slow the speed of each brawl down to a crawl, combat still manages to feel fluid and energetic despite the pauses in between individual attacks. Although you aren’t given any direct control over the position of each member of your party in the skirmish, every character in the scrap is in constant motion, and that helps each battle feel dynamic. Additionally, the option to reduce incoming damage by tapping the guard button in real-time and the ability to knock an enemy off their feet and then quickly follow up with a more damaging strike in the short window of time before they recover kept me locked in during every fighting moment.
But what really brings the spectacle to each turn-based beatdown is the sheer variety of enemy types, with some 250 different kinds of foes to encounter as you explore every corner of Yakuza: Like a Dragon. While some of these are mere garden-variety goons, the vast majority of villains are as loopy as a bowl of soba noodles: you’ll battle the likes of scissor-twirling hair stylists, mop-toting janitors, and lubed-up perverts teaming up to form killer squads that appear to be just as likely to crash a costume party as they are to smash your face in. Each dishes out their own unique sets of hilariously unconventional special moves that can inflict mostly traditional status effects. The first time I witnessed a trenchcoat-wearing degenerate suddenly flash his private parts at one of my fighters, let’s just say the target wasn’t the only one stunned into silence.
Luckily, your own fabulous four have no shortage of spectacular moves at their disposal, and the combinations in which you employ them is what gives this new-brand of Yakuza combat a far more strategic edge than ever before. Faced with a large group of enemies you might strike a cute pose with Saeko to leave a number of them dazed by her charms before unleashing a charging Koichi to skittle them like lovestruck bowling pins. Come upon a single strong enemy and you might get Namba to breathe his putrid homeless guy’s breath to lower the defense of a stronger enemy before getting Kasuga to slap them viciously across the face with wads of cash. Yakuza: Like a Dragon doesn’t just successfully reinvent the street fighting formula of its series forebears, it provides an invigoratingly quirky take on turn-based combat that’s quite unlike any other I’ve ever experienced before.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s job system is also unlike any other I’ve ever experienced, although not necessarily in a good way. Jobs allow you to change the class of each character in order to tailor their skill set to your ideal playstyle, but the problem is that these jobs aren’t particularly well-defined at a glance. Rather than offer more established RPG classes like warrior, mage and cleric, Yakuza: Like a Dragon instead features around a dozen or so different jobs with names like Host, Chef, and Dealer (as in cards, not drugs), and although you’re able to browse their individual lists of special attacks it’s hard to get a full understanding of how they play without picking one and then committing the time to level it up long enough to unlock the full suite of its special attacks. If you guess wrong, that’s a lot of time sunk into a class you don’t especially want to play.As a result, I dabbled with a few of the jobs but ultimately stuck with the default selection for the majority of the seven playable characters in my party, with the main exception being Saeko, who I switched from Hostess to Idol in the early game on a whim. That move fortunately paid dividends later on by offering invaluable healing support during Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s toughest enemy encounters.
There are also some issues evident in the battle system that regularly impact the flow of each fight. Most notably, the automatic pathfinding of each of your party members is often unreliable, particularly indoors or when there are a number of objects to navigate around. In those scenarios, I’d often select an attack and then watch as my character got stuck in a wall for a while before teleporting to their target. This can be especially annoying when you’ve strategically waited for a group of enemies to move into a tight bunch in order to unleash an attack with a wide area of effect, like Kasuga’s bat-swinging Giga Smash, only for the group to have dispersed by the time your dawdling character manages to make their way over to the target.
Dungeons & Dragons
But overcoming confused pathfinding is a relatively minor molehill compared to the Mt. Fuji-sized spikes in difficulty that awaited me in Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s third act. For the first 20 hours I had progressed relatively unimpeded, and arrived at the start of the 12th story chapter (out of 15) with my party members each at around level 31. It’s here that I was suddenly met by a pair of level 50 boss characters with the ability to unceremoniously wipe out my entire street fighting squad in a single hit. Chapter 12’s misleading name is ‘The End of the Yakuza’, and after several ill-fated attempts at taking these two super-powered enemies out, it was also very nearly the end of me.
Thus began my first real experience with grinding for levels in Yakuza: Like a Dragon, as I pumped the brakes on the story for a good five hours or so while I rolled up my sleeves and concentrated on gradually boosting my stats in order to give my party any chance of moving forward. While it’s true that I could have spent more time trying to level up my characters in the first half of the campaign, the only real option for farming XP to a significant degree in the first 11 chapters is by fighting your way through the Yokohama Underground Arena, a prolonged series of drab concrete hallways that is dull enough the first time you’re forced to fight through it in an early chapter and does little to inspire repeat excursions no matter how wacky the line-up of enemies may be.In chapter 12, however, you gain access to the Sotonbori Fighting Arena, which is a little more interesting the first time you play through it since each of its 30 floors presents unique battle conditions and bonus items for clearing them within a certain number of moves. Yet neither of these two dungeon areas appear to feature enemies that scale with you each time to restart them, meaning you only see relatively diminishing XP returns with each subsequent trip – your party grows stronger while the enemies stay the same. And I had to revisit each of them an exhausting number of times before I could successfully battle my way through the sharply escalating series of boss fights that awaited me at Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s conclusion.
All up I’d estimate that I spent around 10 to 15 hours in the late game grinding my way to levels high enough to be able to overcome those last few bosses. When you consider my overall story completion time was just under 45 hours, that’s not an insignificant portion devoted to repetitive busywork. I’m all for turn-based fighting in the street, but grinding for XP really isn’t up my alley, particularly since it came at the worst possible time, slowing my progress through the story to a halt just as it was very clearly trying to accelerate towards its climax. Truly the closing chapters of this latest Yakuza story felt less Like a Dragon, and more like a drag.
The Only Way to Travel
Although the repetition required to scale its steeping difficulty curve wore me down towards the end, one thing I never got tired of was merely existing within Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s Yokohama setting. In a year where many of us have barely visited neighbouring cities let alone countries, the virtual tourism aspect of this latest Yakuza game felt more valuable to me than it ever has before in the series. Not only is Yokohama much larger than the Kamarucho and Osaka areas from previous games (both of which can also be visited in Yakuza: Like a Dragon), it’s also far more diverse; with a beautiful bay area, seedy red light district, vibrant Chinatown section, and more to wander around, and each is home to their own landmarks and peculiar side characters to interact with.
Admittedly, a number of the minigames dotted around the map (like karaoke and golf) are fun but not exactly new to the series, and if I haven’t taken the time to understand Japanese chess after playing this many Yakuza games I probably never will. But elsewhere I very much enjoyed the arcade racing thrills of the new Dragon Kart street racing, and even scratched my Animal Crossing itch by planting seeds in planter boxes around the city and harvesting them for vegetables to eat for stat boosts.
In fact, possibly the biggest upside to the more expanded RPG elements of Yakuza: Like a Dragon is that there’s a meaningful gameplay benefit to almost every little interaction and activity you can undertake while exploring Yokohama. You can, for example, sit for exams at the vocational school to boost Ichiban’s intellect and thus make him less susceptible to brainwash attacks during a battle, or share a drink with a specific party member at the bar thereby boosting your bond with them and enabling them to level up faster when they’re not in the active party. While the grinding loops I endured late in its main story path had me wearily watching the clock, very little outside of the story ever felt like a waste of time and effort.