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June 2024

Yakuza: Like a Dragon

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: SEGA
Release Date: Nov. 10, 2020

About Chris Barnes

There's few things I'd sell my soul to the devil for. However, the ability to grow a solid moustache? I'd probably sign that contract ... maybe ... (definitely).


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Xbox Series X Review - 'Yakuza: Like a Dragon'

by Chris Barnes on Dec. 21, 2020 @ 12:45 a.m. PST

Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a complete reimagining of the franchise, a landmark to coincide with the series' 15th anniversary.

Buy Yakuza: Like A Dragon

The protagonist from the latest entry in the Yakuza series is the epitome of a naive, happy-go-lucky JRPG party leader. Ichiban Kasuga is a beacon of encouragement to his fellow party members: too dumb to know when to back down in the face of danger and always willing to take on a side-quest for random passersby despite the blood-soaked main quest that lies before him. He's so much more than a run-of-the-mill JRPG character. He's a homeless man that's hit rock bottom. He's an ex-Yakuza who thinks of himself as a Dragon Quest hero (literally). He's even the owner of a bakery that brings in far more revenue than any bakery should. "First In Smiles!" is the tagline for his booming business, but it might as well be the tagline for the entirety of Yakuza: Like A Dragon, which is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.

Ichiban begins his journey like so many other characters in the Yakuza series. Raised as a foster child, Ichiban inevitably ends up adopting the Yakuza lifestyle. He serves his Tojo clan family well. Grateful for the opportunity they've given him, he repays his debt to the family by any means necessary. The early chapters of the game involve running menial collection jobs for the Arakawa family, like collecting money from lowlifes and purchasing plungers for local shops.

Ichiban is loyal to his boss, Masumi Arakawa, who makes an unappealing request: Take the fall for a murder and turn himself in for a crime that he did not commit. Eighteen years pass by while he's in the slammer. Upon his release, he learns that a lot has changed in that timespan — even loyalty. While his devotion to the Arakawa family never wavered, he quickly learns that the Tojo clan is seemingly gone. The remaining traitors consider themselves to be Omi clan members.

Ichiban now has little left to call home in Kamurocho and has nowhere to turn, so he hits rock bottom and is eventually homeless on the streets of the nearby city Yokohama. What ensues is an epic story of redemption. Desperate to discover what happened to the Arakawa family to which Ichiban had so blindly devoted his life to, he must scrape together resources and build a party of friends to help him work his way up the ranks of local Yakuza families to learn the truth about the Tojo clan traitors.

As is the tradition with Yakuza games, Like A Dragon delivers its story beats through varying degrees of production quality. Some cut scenes feature detailed facial animations, high-quality voice acting in either Japanese or an English dub (a first for the series), and carefully crafted lighting effects. Some are delivered through stylized still images backed by a wonderfully delivered monologue. Others feature stiff animations, awkward pauses in dialogue, and simple audio grunts to support narrative-filled text boxes. It's a staple from prior entries in the series that continues here. The bigger-budget cut scenes are much more prevalent in this game than in Yakuza 0 and the Kiwami remakes. Regardless of a scene's production value, I was always engrossed with the story. It gets a bit into the weeds, particularly in the latter half of the game, but I really enjoyed the narrative.

There's more to Like A Dragon than the main story. Yokohama is a bustling city filled with distressed citizens seeking help from Ichiban. In prior games, it always felt like Kiryu's stiff demeanor encapsulated the melodramatic scenes from the main plot. The wacky side content was juxtaposed against the overly serious protagonist. Whereas Kiryu is a dramatic character who stumbles into the absurdity of Yakuza side-quests, Ichiban may as well be one of the side-quest characters. He's a lovable knucklehead who forces his way into the blood-soaked conflicts of the main story, but it works.

Ichiban surrounds himself with other party members who I also grew to love throughout the course of the game. With what may very well be my favorite set of party members in any RPG ever, I constantly sought out every little bit of dialogue to learn more about the characters. The main plot can be put on pause while you kick back drinks with your friends at the local karaoke bar and learn about their backstories. A meal at a little sushi bar to replenish your health before an epic boss battle may be elongated because your friend Adachi wants to express his love for chili spice. All of these little motifs among your party members will increase your bond level, which can have a big impact on their performance in battle.

On that note, the combat system is where Yakuza: Like A Dragon diverges drastically from its predecessors in the series. As he explains to his party members early in the game, Ichiban is an avid lover of the Dragon Quest series. With an absurd haircut, overflowing optimism, and a willingness to help any citizen with a problem, he walks and talks like a JRPG protagonist — and he also fights like one. Because of his love for video games, battles are seen through the lens of his child-like perspective. As a result, the game now features a turn-based combat system with all of the expected mechanics and tropes of the JRPG genre. Characters can purchase gear from vendors to boost their battle stats, and enemies arrive for battle in crazy costumes.

I was never a fan of the battle mechanics in prior Yakuza games and always hoped that Ryo Ga Gotoku Studio would make changes. In the lead-up to Like A Dragon's release, I was wary of the change to a turn-based combat system. To my surprise, I really enjoyed the game's combat. In the early chapters, with few techniques and a small cast of characters to support you, the combat is something of a bore. Battles resolve by simply trading blows with the enemy. You can attempt to press a button at the exact moment of an enemy hit to trigger a perfect guard and reduce the amount of incoming damage. This mitigates the monotony of the early hours of turn-based combat, but rarely does the game need anything to add complexity.

As you progress in the story, the size of your party and the combat depth grow. You'll swap characters in and out of battle to capitalize on enemy weaknesses. It feels great to leverage AoE debuff skills before following up with another character's ultimate to kill every enemy in a single turn. It's a system that I enjoyed a lot, but it's not without faults.

Characters drift freely in the battlefield, awkwardly drifting into rooms where no enemies are present. Sometimes your characters miss an attack because an environmental object obstructed their pathing to prevent them from getting close enough to the enemy to hit them. Ichiban and others can use objects in the environment as weapons to beat down the enemy. This isn't a specific action, but it arbitrarily happens. When you select the Attack option, the character takes what is sometimes an unexpected and obscure path toward the enemy. Sometimes, they pass by an object that's usable in battle, but other times, they won't. If the character picks up an object to attack, it overrides the attack with your currently equipped weapon. This is troublesome when you may intend to attack an enemy who's weak to your character's equipped weapon type. Instead of hitting them with a blade that does double damage, you hit them with a traffic cone.

Moreover, Like a Dragon introduces one or two difficulty spikes in what's an otherwise easy experience. You'll often breeze through the story, gaining enough experience through the core plot and a handful of side content to easily progress. One particular moment in the latter half of the game pits you against a boss that's significantly harder than anyone else you encounter up to that point. In some ways, the increased difficulty was welcome. It was my first tense battle that demanded the use of skills I rarely relied upon in earlier segments, but it also meant grinding. After 30+ hours, my character was level 35, but this boss was level 50. This ultimately led to five hours of nonstop grinding to get my character leveled up enough to have a chance of succeeding.

It forced me to learn the various enemy weaknesses and engage with the business management minigame. With a need for better equipment, the easiest way to gain money in Like A Dragon is to build up the bakery business to a booming Fortune 10 company. You're expected to hire new employees, assign them to various properties, and ensure all of your businesses are running at peak performance to generate a profit. Every so often, you even get into debates with shareholders to reassure them of the company's direction. This also added an extra five hours of grinding, but it was well worth it. It's an easy way to generate a ton of yen quickly, but it also gets you one of the best party members in the game and offers funny cut scenes that you'd otherwise miss.

I was fortunate enough to experience all of the whacky shenanigans that Yakuza: Like A Dragon has to offer on next-gen systems. Bouncing between both the Xbox Series S and Series X, I was never wowed by the game's performance or visuals from either of the new systems, but I wasn't let down either. You can set the graphic options to either Normal or High Resolution. For Series S owners, the former results in a 900p image that runs at 60fps, and the latter is a 1440p image that runs at 30fps. The Series X, on the other hand, produces either a 1440p image at 60fps, or a 4K image at 30fps, depending on the selected setting. I found the Normal graphics options setting for the Series S to appear incredibly washed-out and blurry on a 1440p monitor. It's worth noting that I temporarily moved my Series S to a 4K TV to test the graphical modes. When doing so, those graphical critiques on the Series S became less apparent when playing at a distance on a 4K TV.

I preferred the High Resolution mode when playing on the Series S and the Normal mode on Series X. Either way, you won't experience top-notch graphics that's light years ahead of the previous generation. Environmental textures are often muddy. Random NPCs roaming the streets of Yokohama stand out against the high-detail character models that make up your party. The depth of field in certain cut scenes isn't quite right, often focusing on the back of a character's head instead of the face of the character who's actively speaking. The new consoles aren't all about the graphics, and that is true in Like A Dragon. With lightning-fast SSDs in the new consoles, you encounter the occasional 5- to 10-second load time when fast-traveling via taxi or triggering a cut scene, but the game is otherwise a seamless, exhilarating ride from start to finish.

What a wild ride it is. I didn't want Yakuza: Like a Dragon to end. A part of me wonders if I grinded out battles and business minigames more than was intended, simply because I wasn't ready to say goodbye to Ichiban and friends. Fortunately, the story wraps up nicely and leaves the door open for a possible sequel — even though it wavers a bit near the end. This isn't farewell to Ichiban. With a new cast of charming characters, Like A Dragon feels like the start of a new saga in the Yakuza franchise. Until next time, Kasuga-kun.

Score: 8.7/10

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