Yakuza: Like A Dragon is really something. Rarely do preview/impression pieces like this get the crux of the argument out of the way so quickly and in the absence of cursing (though in my defense it would be of a positive persuasion) let’s just say that holy moly, is this game one you can’t put down. That may sound like one is giving Yakuza’s eighth mainline entrant faint praise — the series has, for quite a while, been known for its high enjoyment factor, both in and outside its core story-heavy premise. But it would’ve been easy for developers Ryu Ga Gotoku to play it safe. Even if the ending moments of 2018’s efforts required players stepping into the shoes of a new protagonist. Someone else to gloriously beat hundreds of street thugs to a flashy, over-the-top pulp. There was nothing to suggest that a radical shift in gameplay was necessary or even requested by the loyal fanbase. Quite the contrary, though such a change would prove welcome to some. So the news that Yakuza: Like A Dragon would be doing away with conventions — gone are the real-time beat-em-up segments for starters — in favor of a turn-based, party-orientated battle system would undoubtedly result in one of two polarizing outcomes.
How great then to report that after spending ten-or-so hours scouring the varied spaciousness of Yokohama (another fresh change in contrast to the series staple and narrowed alleyways of Kamurocho), Yakuza: Like A Dragon takes to this change in both pace and presentation, like a snuggly-fitting shoe. While the initial perception may have been that the genre change — and upfront admiration for the Dragon Quest series above all — was Ryu Ga Gotoku’s indulging on some obsessive love for a given IP, the most pleasing element of all is that Like A Dragon‘s combat has depth. Plenty of it in fact; these aren’t just static, four characters standing in a row affairs that shift between players and enemy AI taking their respective turns. Yes there are turns still, as there are all the necessary mechanics and relevant baggage that old-fashioned JRPGs are known for. But in typical Yakuza fashion, Like A Dragon approaches this in the only way Yakuza can. By finding a way (multiple ways) to contextualize all this in all the many absurd, slapstick ways the series is known for. Status ailments come by way of a character belching on their target; the shields some enemies wield are nothing more than trashcan lids; “sealing” an enemy’s skills is accomplished through them simply standing in blissful awe at a female character’s presence.
It’s all signature, ridiculous Yakuza affair, but regardless of how much these scenarios tickle your funny-bone, the best part of all this is how in-depth the combat system can actually get. The basic gist to these encounters is that both your party and the enemy collective will randomly move about a given space as if squaring each other off. You can’t control how your players move, but there’s enough going on for battles to feel anything but stagnant. The trick is working out how best to deal with as many foes at once or if one enemy is the target, how that solitary strike can benefit your whole party. Specifically, when best to attack and how quickly one should follow-up when, for example, an enemy is downed and the opportunity is there for the next party member to land a critical strike. It’s not as easy or as straightforward as that though; run too close to an enemy on your way to someone further away and they themselves may strike you — halting your attack as a result. Then there’s taking note of what items or furniture is present in your given environment. Remember slamming a bike into someone’s face in past games; if you’re close enough, your character may even pick it up and use it in a similar fashion — a few bonus hits on top of what you already had planned.
It only takes a few fights to get into the swing of things and to see the kind of tactical planning Like A Dragon‘s combat is aiming for here and best of all, manages to translate and encourage without punishing those who may unintentionally miss it. You are of course at the mercy of where characters decide to move and at times it can feel occasionally pot-luck in hoping all the figurative pieces line up. But even if you’re not the kind of person who’s adept in thinking three steps ahead, Like A Dragon‘s unabashed appreciation for JRPG’s long-and-storied history doesn’t come at the expense of a battle system that at its heart — in stripping away the aesthetic — is varied and accessible from the off. Making careful use of your MP meter (of which your skills are fueled by) for one is apparent — especially when one finally gets into tackling Yakuza’s interpretation of “dungeons” — but there’s enjoyment still in getting a layout of the battle before you. On top of seeing how the world of Yakuza translates the many cliche’s and gimmicks RPGs bring. Though the fact one was starting to grow a touch tired of a dungeon segments around two thirds of the way through is perhaps one of the few small concerns to raise, considering how stale these parts have the potential in becoming.
As you might expect from the change in gameplay and general premise, Like A Dragon is a lot more traditional with its RPG progression. You have your XP acquired after each victory in battle, equipped gear/items, job classes, skill traits that can be increased through the decision and dialogue choices you make during the wealth of side content. But another thing Like A Dragon encourages is bonding with your party and the willingness to invest time in not only having certain characters join you in certain mini-games, but on simply taking the time to hear them dish out spots of exposition and personal thoughts as you freely explore the city streets at your leisure. It also helps that it allows your party to feel more like an actual group of former-strangers bonding over the most trivial of things. There may well be spots in the narrative that do feel like they’re on the cusp of diverging into unnecessary, off-track padding, but I’d be lying if I said some of these interactions aren’t at the very least insightful.
That’s something Like A Dragon very much makes sure to carry across from previous releases. Ryu Ga Gotoku’s writing department do a great job once again at making side-stories — and all the odd-ball characters you meet along the way — entertaining in their own little ways. Whether it’s a homeless man looking for his pet lobster, a hard-working father trying his best for his newly-born child or simply a guy trying to convince you urinating into a river is some deeper philosophical proposition (only Yakuza could get away with cramming so many eye-rolling, toilet-themed puns into one conversation). Yes, anyone who’s ever played a Yakuza game will snark and proclaim this to be all too common a spot. And though they’re not entirely wrong, while the ridiculousness and left-field emergence is still the beating heart of the delivery, Like A Dragon still balances all this out with the kind of endearing writing that makes me care or at least get on-board with the people Kasuga Ichiban not so much meets, more stumbles across on his way. It helps that Ichiban is more than just some re-skinned Kazuma Kiryu here — Ichiban’s more oafish, naive-albeit-sincere personality (an insert for the developer’s love of Dragon Quest on top) makes for a welcome change. One that suggests presence for more of these pleasant, dynamic interactions with the rest of his party.
Naturally we can’t talk about returning feats of optional entertainment, without discussing Like A Dragon‘s offering of mini-games and such delicacies. There’s a satisfying mix of simpler distractions — returning favorites like Darts and Baseball are pleasant-enough with plenty of challenge feats to attain — in-depth takes on other genres (the business-management activity is reminiscent of the moreish quality Clan Creator brought in Yakuza 6) and then there are the “interpretations” of what should be, on paper, the most mundane premise for gameplay imaginable. And yet Like A Dragon finds a way to turn collecting cans off the street in one scenario or avoiding falling asleep whilst watching some B-tier movie into this charming little flexing of the developer’s creative muscles. Both examples far more addictive than they have any right to be. In the case of the latter, one introductory scenario whose left-field turn does its job at administering a laugh or two.
Seeing how all of this will line up from start to finish will be intriguing. And not just because the change in gameplay has admittedly resulted in a couple of small nitpicks that could grow into some unforced error later down the line. Rather, Ryu Ga Gotoku, in all their visible love and admiration for JRPGs — and of trying their best to translate this into a way that makes some degree of sense in-world — still recognize that fans are in it for more than the combat. Maybe even more than the story in all its regular adhering to themes regarding loyalty, family and betrayal. Fortunately, the game doesn’t look to be shying away from that foundation that has made this series what it is at the expense of what feels like a deliberate shift in presentation and expectation. In shamelessly doubling-down on its excessive absurdity and indulgence with both the dramatic and the comical alike, Yakuza: Like A Dragon looks to have exceeded these high expectations and reached an even greater peak thanks in no small part to the change in combat. Though only ten hours in, I’ve loved nearly every second spent with Ichiban and company — Like A Dragon has the potential to be the series’ most inventive iteration thus far and one of the more fantastic closers to 2020. The game releases across PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S and PC on November 10. A PS5 version will follow thereafter on March 2.