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July 2024

Yakuza: Like a Dragon

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: SEGA
Release Date: March 2, 2021

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PS5 Review - 'Yakuza: Like a Dragon'

by Andreas Salmen on Sept. 21, 2021 @ 4:00 a.m. PDT

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 Yakuza series has been on a hot streak in recent years, going from a niche franchise to a widely known and celebrated IP, especially since Yakuza 0 made its way to PS3 and other platforms. After its sixth mainline entry concluded the story of protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio proved that it's capable of spinning the familiar setting into something new with 2018's Judgment. The approach to its seventh Yakuza entry introduced a new protagonist, a sprawling location, and a new combat system, so Yakuza: Like a Dragon feels like a clean slate without compromising on what made the series enjoyable. While the game was released in late 2020 for most platforms, the PS5 version was delayed several months to March 2021. The good news is that Like a Dragon is as good or better on the PS5 than it is on other platforms, but it also misses out on adding anything new to the mix to make the upgrade worthwhile.

Some may worry that changing the formula of a successful and long-running series is risky, but Like A Dragon sometimes goes out of its way to change key aspects of past games, and it's interesting to see how well the changes work out. New protagonist Ichiban Kasuga carries the game and is set up to be a character that players can easily identify and empathize with. Abandoned at birth, Ichiban is raised in the red light district of Kamurocho, the setting of most entries in the series, and he eventually pledges loyalty to a Yakuza family. When one of its members is accused of murder, Ichiban takes the fall out of loyalty; he loses everything, and after over 15 years in prison, he has to rebuild his life.

The game takes its time setting up Ichiban and his situation, providing depth and insight into his motivations. He's somewhat of a kind fool, obsessive in pursuing action, and not shy about using violence to solve conflicts. Throughout the game, he meets several new party members who become an integral part of the story, each with personalities and motivations that are intertwined with Ichiban's journey.

The characters and interactions carry the story, which is great but could've had a more even pace. I enjoyed Ichiban and his sidekicks so much that I find Like a Dragon's story to be one of the better ones in the series thus far, and that's high praise indeed. The story sometimes drags on and spends too much time treading water. If you don't enjoy long cut scenes and dialogue segments, you should probably stay away from the series anyway. The first two hours alone are almost exclusively comprised of cut scenes and exposition, which are vital to establishing Ichiban as a character, but apart from a handful of walking sections and the odd fighting interlude, it's very hands-off. There is also a late-game segment where the story crawls to a halt if you're not sufficiently leveled up for the final boss encounters, and that didn't help the pace of the closing hours of the story.

The story is a big pillar of the Yakuza experience, but there is much more that makes or breaks the game. Thankfully, even though a lot has changed, Like a Dragon is unmistakably a Yakuza title. You spend a limited amount of time in the usual Kamurocho location, but this time around, a lot of the adventure plays out in Yokohama, which features several districts and a more diverse landscape, so it's quite big for a Yakuza game. From a homeless camp to sparsely populated districts, to bars and entertainment areas, Yokohama feels more grounded in reality because of its scale and the more diverse mix of environment environments.

The city has changed, but most of what you'll do has remained largely the same. Generally, the world and its side content feel bigger and more elaborate, but the way it works in the context of the game has barely changed. It may work even better now that the brawler-style gameplay has been replaced with a turn-based RPG system. Food locations heal and may provide special buffs or party interactions, arcades are still the place to get your fix on retro games, and its 50+ side stories are still goofy and memorable. It's immersive in a way that very few games manage to emulate. I often got lost chasing down errands for strangers I had met on the street, like fighting over baby formula with a Yakuza in diapers or helping the police catch a public urination offender who's soiling the local river. The side stories may often be fetch quests, but they either involve weirdly memorable characters or reward you in interesting ways, so it never feels like a waste of time. There's also a more elaborate management side activity that involves Ichiban rebuilding his business empire, which is as delightful as the management side-gigs found in previous entries and similarly deep and addicting.

While I enjoyed the combat in previous Yakuza titles, the depth of the fighting mechanics was inconsistent across entries and often required little more than button-mashing. It was synonymous with the series, so the new approach to combat was a bit worrisome. It certainly isn't perfect, but it turns out to be a great addition. It doesn't change much in the way that the game plays. You'll still encounter the same fights against random goons and there are some boss fights. The only difference is that you'll get to attack with up to four characters in a turn-based manner. Each character has a basic attack and special skills that cost additional MP points. Skills deal higher damage or inflict status effects, and some skills involve multiple party members if your bonds are strong enough. It's turn-based combat by the numbers, but the game benefits from the introduction of more strategic possibilities —- in theory. Random street encounters are still annoying, presenting you with pushover enemies. The game attempts to keep engagement high with mandatory Quick Time Event (QTEs) button presses to maximize the damage dealt for some skills, but it eventually becomes quite tedious to do the same thing over and over again.

It took a while until I ran into opponents who kicked the living crud out of me, but when I did, it was like hitting a brick wall after cruising down a highway at top speed. Unless you have spent time grinding a few levels up to this point, you'll likely have to go through some menial fights to progress the story; it's in line with many other JRPG titles, but that doesn't make it a good or rewarding practice. A more challenging overall approach that slowly ramps up would've done wonders for the game pacing. The dungeons are rarely engaging or memorable, and some of them can stretch on for ages. They're nothing more than a few rooms and corridors with an assortment of enemies to brutalize and an occasional chest to open. Thankfully, there are not too many of them in the game, but when there are, the repetitiveness of the combat system becomes painfully apparent.

It wouldn't be fair to reduce combat to familiar JRPG tropes. Like a Dragon puts its stamp on encounters by being unfathomably weird in the best kind of way. Your first companion, a homeless person, attacks enemies with bird feeders to attract damage-dealing pigeons or uses sake to "breathe fire." You can also still use items on the street as weapons. As long as you attack while close to an object, your character automatically kicks it into your opponents or uses it as a makeshift weapon for the next attack. If enemies are slow to get up, a quick follow-up attack can deal massive damage. Watch out if you're attacking someone further back in the pack, since enemies can block and attack if you have to run past them. Special tag-team attacks further amplify the over-the-top action that can ensue during combat, with high-quality cut scenes detailing the action as your team dismantles opponents. There is enough nuance to bring the combat in line with previous Yakuza titles, but it's not until one-third of the way into the adventure that things kick into gear.

By completing side stories in the city, you can acquire poundmates, who are essentially quirky characters you can summon during combat (for a fee) to execute powerful attacks. The attacks are so outrageously weird that you'll want to use them just because. Why wouldn't I let a Yakuza in diapers scream at my enemies until their ear canals implode? Exactly.

The most fun that I had in combat was the job system. Instead of being classified as a mage or warrior, jobs in Like a Dragon resemble actual jobs: cook, hero, breakdancer, fortune-teller, etc.? Each job has a unique outfit and combat style, but some jobs feel less impactful than others. Taking down enemies with a precisely choreographed breakdance routine is fun, but attacking enemies with a purse as a barmaid feels lackluster in comparison. Regardless of the inconsistency, it's fun to unlock new jobs and try new styles. Since jobs are leveled up when in use, it pays to settle on a few jobs to unlock their best combat skills. It rounds out combat in a fun way but doesn't negate how shallow and repetitive it can sometimes be. This is a good first iteration that I hope the series can build upon because it fits well glove and transforms Yakuza into a proper RPG.

With RPG combat comes other RPG systems. Between leveling up your character and their job, you'll also have to make sure that your party is as powerful as it can be. The most obvious way to do so is via gear, such as equipment, trinkets or weapons. There are shops at almost every corner peddling new gear that can significantly increase resistances and damage output. A missed opportunity in this context is that equipped gear does not change a character's appearance. The look of each character is defined by their current job, and equipped gear (except weapons) does not change their visual appearance. In a game as routinely weird as Yakuza, I'm hoping that future entries allow for more customization options in connection to gear, but I appreciate the more consistent look over the Frankenstein outfits that I cobbled together in other RPGs where equipped gear is reflected visually.

Another method of progression is to strengthen the bonds of your team. You have a hangout where you can unlock additional background story moments about party members, and some spontaneous conversations can also occur. Eating in a restaurant and ordering a special set of items can provide party buffs, and some characters may also engage in table talk to further their bonds, which enables more powerful team attacks. Ichiban can also invest in progressing certain character traits, such as kindness and charisma, by making certain decisions in missions or by taking exams in a local institute, each providing improved combat resistances and unlocking further content. It works well together, and you can decide how much time you want to invest into each system. They are usually worth your investment, but you're rarely punished for not fully engaging in one or the other.

The game is a good entry in the series from a gameplay and story standpoint, but the technical side is tougher to pin down. The cut scenes can look incredible  with highly detailed character models and animations, but the game still has one foot firmly rooted in the previous generation — and possibly the one before that. NPC character models and their animations are often rough and forgettable, and the game is full of low-resolution textures. It's inconsistent, so you may hardly notice some, but others are painfully apparent because they're prominently featured in close-up shots during cut scenes.

Like a Dragon is nice to look at most of the time. The game runs at 60fps by default on the PS5, which is the setting I'd recommend playing at since the added smoothness is a godsend. If you want, you can play at a locked 30fps with up to a 4K resolution, even though the difference in visual fidelity is almost negligible unless you have an enormous 4K screen on which to count pixels. I tried both modes and did not encounter any noticeable issues or stuttering, which is the most important part. Of course, load times are also vastly reduced compared to last-gen systems, although it shows that Like a Dragon is a mere port. All loading screens are still intact in this version, but they sometimes barely pop up before they're gone again. There is a noticeable stop at many stages, which would feel smoother if they were replaced with a slightly longer fade to black. Disappointingly, the improvements on the PS5 end here. There's no DualSense support, apart from regular haptic vibration similar to other versions. Haptic feedback could have helped elevate some of its more interesting combat moments and attacks and make the PS5 version more worthwhile, but there is no real reason to specifically play the game on the PS5 if another next-gen version or a capable PC is readily available.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon is an important entry for a series that's trying to redefine itself without losing what makes it Yakuza. I thoroughly enjoyed the story, even though its pacing was inconsistent. A lot of the enjoyment is due to the new protagonist Ichiban, his memorable companions, and their relationships, which are engaging to explore. Most of the adventure is set in the Yokohama region, which is a joy to interact with, and so are its shops and engaging side stories. While the introduction of RPG mechanics was a daring move, it ultimately paid off, and I prefer the full-on RPG approach over the old brawler gameplay. Most of its RPG systems are simplistic to the point of almost being repetitive, but it lays a solid and fun foundation upon which future titles can build.

Score: 8.6/10

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