I really enjoy the Yakuza series, but I haven’t played that many of them.
I’ve only grabbed the ones that are on PC, so that currently means 0, Kiwami 1 and 2, and now, Like A Dragon. The series has always been really fun for me, and it was something I got into by watching other people play via Let’s Plays on YouTube (most notably the Super Best Friends Yakuza 0 run).
Like A Dragon is an interesting case study in how you take a franchise and tweak it into something different and new without changing the stuff people love about it. In the case of Yakuza, it is a strong open-world game that uses the smaller, more compact Japanese city plans and approximations as a means to allow for a sort of Grand Theft Auto-inspired game that is less violent and less aggressive in many ways, with a focus on the fun elements of being open world. Yakuza’s density means every corner can be handcrafted and stacked with content, from story elements to minigames to sidestories. It also turns the insider’s lens on Japanese culture and its oddities, focusing on the seedy underbelly aspects like hostess bars and soaplands all the way through to the silly, like cults and grown men in diapers, a thing that has been featured in more than one entry of the game!
The core gameplay of Yakuza in the past has been on action combat – using multiple attack buttons to create combos and special moves that do a lot of damage, using elements of the environment to enhance attacks, and on dramatic boss battles.
Like A Dragon changes two things about the franchise that can be seen as large shifts – the first is that it moves almost entirely away from the grimy setting of Kamurocho (based on Tokyo’s real-life red light district Kabukicho) and to a new city in Yokohama, which offers new things to explore like immigrant culture in Japan through it’s largest Chinatown and the effects of capitalist culture on people through the lens of homeless encampments. It isn’t the first Yakuza to step out of Kamurocho, but so far at least, it barely grazes that familiar setting in favor of building a larger and different city vibe with its fictional Izekai Ijincho.
The second major change, and certainly the largest, is that the combat you might know and love from prior entries is gone completely. In its place is a very well made, hilariously implemented JRPG. You level your characters, equip them with gear, grind up their jobs, and have options for magic and even summoning.
While it seems like a joke, the RPG elements are actually very well crafted. To keep the Yakuza action flavor, there are incentives for faster play (attacking a downed enemy while they remain down causes bonus damage) but the core is a turn-based game, and it is actually very enjoyable. The UI is clean, clear, and readable, and characters gain experience both for their own level and for their job, with both adding stat bonuses and offering different attacks and abilities. Everything is grounded very well in the game’s fiction, and none of it feels too outlandish or out of place…well, I mean, you know, compared to the standard outlandishness of Yakuza.
I’m currently working on chapter 5 of 15 in the game, and I’ve spent around 14 hours playing according to Steam, with a mix of story focus and skipping around to do a few sidestories and some experience grinding before a big quest, so while I won’t claim I’ve seen enough to say it is the best game or anything like that, it is really damn good.
One final change worth discussing is the voice acting, as Like a Dragon is the first title since the early PS2 releases to have an English voice track. Here, it is offered as a choice – subs or dubs, and so far I’ve played with and enjoyed the dubbed English audio. They’ve taken a lot of care with the voice actors to make characterization feel in-line with the dialogue and they’ve even straightforwardly kept the Japanese-isms in the spoken dialogue, like san, kun, and chan titles on people’s names, and even the pronunciation of the Japanese names is kept closer to the native tongue and less like an English speaker would want to say them after reading them, which is nice. The only oddity I’ve noticed with voices so far is that the game does not have supplemental NPC audio in English, so side-story NPCs without spoken dialogue or with minimal spoken dialogue will still use Japanese speech for their brief utterances before a text box, and non-named enemies also use their original Japanese VA work, as do shopkeepers. It isn’t bad at all, I just note it because it can sometimes feel slightly dissonant.
All in all, as a pickup on the Steam sale marked down, I am extremely pleased with the game and as the Steam sale ends today, I would encourage you to pick it up if you like Yakuza but have been on the fence about the changes, or are just looking for an awesome modern JRPG to play.