Yakuza: Like a Dragon Is a New Beginning for an All-Time Great Series

Take another turn at your criminal empire.

For all its misadventures and melodrama, the Yakuza series often feels afraid to take risks. That’s not a huge surprise. The games drew enduring success across seven numbered entries and several spinoffs in their home country of Japan. Yet the franchise only really impacted worldwide with a prequel in 2017. Yakuza 0 made a dent around which the series’ intricate lore, cast of characters, and difficult to pin mix of tones could flood and flourish. Yakuza: Like a Dragon seeks to do the same all over again, while pretty much abandoning the signature gameplay of the past. It’s turn-based combat time, baby!

The tried and true 3D brawling isn’t all that’s out. Longstanding series protagonist, Kazuma Kiryu, is also gone. In his place is Ichiban Kasuga. The new hero still has quite a lot in common with Kiryu, though. As a scruffy soldier for the Tojo Clan — the same yakuza group as his predecessor — he wears a red suit and has a nasty habit of going to prison for murders he didn’t commit. More broadly, his 18 years in the slammer help maintain a lot of the same “man out of time” humor and setup for side and primary plots. Ichiban struggles with smartphones and treats gig economy apps like magic spells (sometimes literally). The similarities mostly end there, though.

Our new hero tries to see himself as exactly that. Ichiban grew up as an orphan raised by sex workers. Much of the rest of his education came from playing Dragon Quest. It colors his worldview to the point that, when battle begins in the open-world streets, enemies and allies alike warp into bizarre visions of themselves. Ichiban clearly isn’t the only Dragon Quest fan behind the game, too. Sega does a more than credible job of replicating that iconic series’ sense of humor and enemy design, shifting the half-real world of Yakuza into… a quarter-real one. Weirdoes wear stuffed trash bags and fling status ailments among your party members. Punny names abound. And it all feels perfectly normal to a guy who soaks self-confidence out of a baseball bat he plucked from a sidewalk like Excalibur from the stone.

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All this takes a while to get rolling, though. The cautious side of Like a Dragon mostly manifests in the story. That is to say I spent a lot of time in cutscenes early on — even compared to past games. It’s as if Sega was afraid to let go of that endless legacy it reached organically over time. So it frontloaded a franchise worth of drama into the opening three chapters, giving Ichiban and his connections a dozen different threads to pull on. The lengthy first scene of the game doesn’t even follow him, for instance. Instead it establishes pathos for a character we barely interact with for the first half of the main plot.

There’s a kind of sense in that. Ichiban is unlike Kiryu (or Majima, or Saejima, or the other deuteragonists of past games) in another way. He’s kind of a dope!

Instead of the force of nature Kiryu became by his exit in Yakuza 6, this protagonist starts life as a grunt. He’s mortal. Strip away the goofy costumes and Kamen Rider transformations, and this actually has the opposite effect from making the game seem “silly.” There’s a level of danger and uncertainty to all the criminal conspiracies that dominate the main story which I haven’t otherwise felt since the PlayStation 3 days. It makes sense, then, that the central character more directly surrounds himself with friends to form his JRPG party. He wants and needs the support. And I, as the player, agree that this goofball could use the helping hand.

Ichiban receives aid from the “forgotten” people of Japan. There’s Nanda, the homeless ex-nurse. Later you get Saeko: the series’ first woman playable in combat. Near the start, these two are rounded out by Adachi, an ex-detective turned ex-driving instructor after he stood up to police corruption. Because the Yakuza games typically understand that good cops don’t stay cops.

Once you find your first full party, things start getting dense. I mean really dense. Yakuza games skew long these days and Like a Dragon is just as deep. You’ve got the side quests and open-world encounters to battle through, sure. But then there’s the job system. You can change your characters’ classes just like in some Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy games. Though it’s literally presented as changing your profession, as the heroes attempt to climb their way back up the social ladder.

At any point you can just become a pop idol, a breakdancer, a chef, etc. Each of which carries perks you can grind out to make yourself into a more passively unstoppable beatdown machine. You might need to, as well, since combat outside of story progression isn’t terribly easy. Roaming bands of enemies can mess you up (taking half your funds in the process) if you don’t mind their levels.

The reward here is twofold. For one, it just feels good to slowly overcome the odds, edging back into that simplified Dragon Quest fantasy the game keeps referencing. The other benefit is how much it makes the cruft around Yakuza games matter. Eating out (in-game) to heal often felt superfluous when you could just not get hit during beat ’em up segments. The attrition of turn-based battles is different. It makes meals important events again.

New systems also flourish in the downtime. Like a Dragon isn’t a solo affair, so it fills the quiet moments with party chat. Little anecdotes and exchanges add spice to every dinner, while also building bonds that reveal new attacks and abilities. Think of it like Persona lite. There’s no time limit to get to know everyone and do everything. It’s just a big playground in which to rise from the ashes and become an urban legend — befriending every random bozo and mastering every vocation, if you so choose.

There’s a lot of space to do it all in, too. Like the past few mainline Yakuza titles, you get to stretch your legs outside of iconic Kamurocho. This one mostly takes place in Yokohama. Three warring gangs have locked the seedier elements of the city within a cold war called “The Great Wall of Muscle.” Naturally, Ichiban gets embroiled in the struggle, after a betrayal leaves him stranded and penniless in town. Just as naturally, there’s much more to it than that… You can’t have a Yakuza game without schemes within schemes. Because just as important as the side stories about catching public pissers are the excuses for sweaty men punching each other over their ideals.

The latest crop of large men came in well, I think. Ichiban’s background gives him a soft spot for sex workers in particular. He butts heads with right wing conspirators and the police as they try to sweep aside his family in a corrupt election campaign. Like a Dragon isn’t quite as thick with emotionally supportive dad energy as I’ve come to expect from the games, but the setup leaves enough room for its heart to still squeeze through. Much of it is simply bundled up in the Big Friendship of Ichiban and his allies. Whereas stoic Kiryu usually needed foils for his shine to reflect off best.

Overcoming these foils could still be better in a number of ways. The turn-based combat is a welcome refresh for Yakuza. It opens up quite a lot of doors: visually and mechanically. Like a Dragon can go all out more often when, say, summoning a jacked old man in a diaper to assail your foes is available at a single button press. But the repurposed brawler engine just feels weird sometimes. NPCs shuffle around arenas and get stuck on debris way too often. Any time that happens, they risk interrupting timing-based bonuses for no good reason. They slow down and slop up what should be an otherwise smooth back and forth.

Beyond that, though? Yakuza: Like a Dragon captures the soul of seven all-time great games in an almost entirely new shell. It does so slowly, patiently. It uses density that can be overwhelming at times, in place of the frustrating hurdles of past beat ’em up battles. It’s at once both more approachable and more intimidating than previous chapters — like a beefy, supportive dad bathed in blue flames for your benefit. It’s both a new beginning and everything that entails.