System: I played on PS4 Slim

Completed: Yes, I completed the main story and a moderate amount of extra content on normal difficulty in about 65 hours. Most of the extra content I completed was sub-stories, a fair bit of most mini-games, no gambling, no going out of the way for Part Time Hero, etc.

ESRB Rating: M for Blood, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language and Use of Alcohol

In a hurry? Here’s the gist: Yakuza: Like a Dragon is an excellent jumping-on point for the long-running franchise, with a great story and interesting characters. The gameplay style differs from the rest of the series quite a bit, but it mostly works while still feeling true to the spirit of the franchise and sporting an intriguing in-story explanation. However, some of the systems don’t feel fully developed. There are some massive difficulty spikes to prepare for, and there are too many unnecessary combat encounters. However, these issues don’t hold back the excellent atmosphere, plot and characters, which are the main reasons to play.

Yakuza: Like A Dragon was one of my most anticipated games of 2020, and despite a few very notable issues, it did not disappoint. Like A Dragon is the eighth entry in the main series of Sega’s long-running Yakuza series and the first featuring new main protagonist, Ichiban Kasuga. Like A Dragon is also notable for changing the gameplay style of the series from the usual beat-’em-up action with RPG elements into a full class and turn-based RPG, which is cleverly explained in-game by the protagonist, a long time fan of the Dragon Quest series, imagining his struggles as though they were fights in those games.

The game opens with a brief sequence set in the franchise’s iconic Kamurocho neighborhood, in the year 2001, as Ichiban, a low-ranking member of the Tojo Clan’s Arakawa family, goes about his usual business until someone is needed to take the fall for a murder committed by a higher-ranking member. Seeing an opportunity to make a sacrifice for the Arakawa family and cement his reputation for devotion to the Tojo Clan, Ichiban offers himself and spends the next 18 years in prison. When he gets out, he finds no one waiting to welcome him back, and the once-mighty Tojo Clan is gone. In the course of events, Ichiban finds himself with others who’ve fallen through the cracks in Yokohama, forced to survive on the troubled streets of that city while unraveling the plots and conspiracies in play there and piecing together the events of the last 18 years.

As is always the case with the franchise, characters, tone and storyline are where the game really shines. Ichiban is very different from Kazuma Kiryu, the protagonist of previous installments, but shares the same commitment to standing up for the weak and oppressed, which makes them very easy to cheer for. It’s also very interesting playing a Japanese RPG where the main protagonist and the majority of the player’s party are full adults, ranging in apparent age from their late 20s to late 50s, with character interactions based around adult concerns and struggles. This is a very welcome change of pace in a genre usually starring teens and younger adults and certainly gives the game a unique flavor in that respect. The storyline is full of the usual twists and turns, punctuated by the franchise’s usual heated exchanges and stunning action set pieces. As (almost) always for the franchise, side quests and mini-games provide some much-needed levity to break the tension of the serious main plot.

Ichiban struggles to stay awake in a comfortable movie theater

Mechanically, the game is very interesting and tries new things with the franchise but isn’t always fully successful. Pulling from the “midlife career change” angle that most of the player characters are facing, the game’s class system is based around visiting a temp agency and learning the skills of a new profession, all of which translates to different weapon skills and special powers because of Ichiban’s perception of everything being a Dragon Quest-like RPG. While this is a very amusing idea and a good enough justification for game mechanics as any, it feels bolted on in many ways. For one, in a franchise known for its vast number of light hearted side quests, characters, etc., the fact that you switch jobs by talking to someone at the temp agency and only meeting certain statistical requirements is baffling—there’s a real space here for having each job be its own side quest, either as a requirement to unlock it or to bring it past a certain level. This would have been a great opportunity to give the classes a level of storyline connection where currently there is none. Additionally, the class mechanics don’t always feel particularly vital to explore—more than half of the characters are best remaining with their default class or coming back to it after “splashing in” some of another. One easy way around this is to have some special abilities and stat upgrades unlocked by leveling a class remain in other classes—the game has these, but they’re relatively few and far between. I completed the game on normal with almost every character having only spent any time worth mentioning in two classes, their base class and one other, just to make sure I could always hit enemy elemental weaknesses. More incentive to dip into different classes, either for mechanical or storyline benefits, would have gone a long way. It’s been announced that the next entry in the series will use a similar play style, so I hope this issue will be fixed there.

Ichiban unwinds with a drink in one of the many character interactions that drive the franchise.

A personal complaint I have about the series as a whole is that there are far too many non-storyline encounters that can’t be easily avoided. It can make even walking around the city somewhat of a chore. This is even more true here than before, since the turn-based combat makes these fights take a good deal longer and exhausts far more player resources.

Additionally, there are at least two major difficulty jumps in the game where level grinding (playing repetitive fights to increase statistics rather than just fighting that would naturally come up in other areas of gameplay) becomes practically mandatory. It’s not the usual grinding for a few minutes early on to give yourself a bit of a cushion while learning the game that you often see in modern JRPGs, but the older style—multiple play sessions of doing nothing but building levels like early Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. While they do come at more or less acceptable break points in the narrative, they absolutely harm the narrative flow as you take a lengthy detour to get your levels up for battles significantly harder than any encountered before.

However, none of these issues are deal breakers, and I never considered dropping the game at any point in my playing, which ran longer than my first play through of any other game in the franchise, though not too out of the ballpark from something like Yakuza 5. It never felt like it was overstaying its welcome. There are definitely some stumbles as the series adapts its formula and feel to a different style of gameplay, but they are not enough to begin to ruin the return to its world or lessen the drama of watching these new characters go through their struggles. Most of my problems with the game can, and hopefully will be, fixed in a future iteration. But as both a first showing of a new gameplay style and another installment in the long-running crime drama series, Like A Dragon is definitely a hit and definitely worth the extended playtime. Check out a copy today!

A powerful foe, armed with umbrella and trash can lid, engages our heroes in turn-based combat.