Like a Dragon Review-In-Progress — Ichiban is Number One!

Kiryu who? I’m all about that Kasuga life now. Yakuza: Like a Dragon took no time at all to become one of my favourite Yakuza games to date.

At the time of writing, I still have yet to finish Yakuza: Like a Dragon. That’s not for lack of trying, mind you: I am currently on Chapter 13 (out of no more than 15) with about 50 hours of playtime. Despite my attempt to focus on the main story, it’s a Yakuza game, so getting swept up in exploring and engaging with the side content is inevitable. It’s a small but densely packed open-world game, and every part builds to the greater whole. And what an experience it builds up to in its entirety thus far!

Still, for a narrative-heavy game like this one, I’m disinclined to complete the full review until I’ve seen the full story. It’s possible to make a comfortable conclusion for some games prior to reaching the credits, but not for something so focused on a story. For now, this review-in-progress is largely an expansion of my thoughts from the preview build. If you haven’t read that, I’d recommend starting there and coming back.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon (or Yakuza 7) is a first for the franchise in many ways. It’s the first game to not star the iconic Kiryu Kazuma in a lead role. The action/brawler combat of old has been benched in favour of an over-exaggerated turn-based JRPG system. It’s the first game in the series (excluding Judgment) to feature an English dub since the original Yakuza on PS2. Any three of these could really have let the game down if implemented poorly; thankfully, it absolutely delivers on all of these aspects.

Afro-sporting leading man Ichiban Kasuga is, to put it simply, a fantastic protagonist. He’s as charming and likable as any Yakuza protagonist to this point, if not more so. Ye,t when push comes to shove, Kasuga is as determined and principled as it comes. He’ll happily take a stand for what he believes in, risking his life without a second thought to protect people and look out for his friends. He’s blunt, he’s goofy, and he epitomises the low intelligence/high wisdom character archetype. But combine all this with excellent writing, an equally deep and enjoyable cast of characters for Kasuga to interact with, and a fantastic delivery of the English dub by Kaiji Tang? I hadn’t even finished the first chapter before I was in love with this wild-haired vagabond with a heart of gold. It’s only gotten more pronounced since then, and I’ve long since stopped questioning my decision to stick with the dub.

Kasuga’s story begins 18 years prior to the narrative’s key events. He’s a low-level grunt for the Arakawa Family, which itself is a low-level family within the Tojo Clan. Nonetheless, he shares a strong rapport with the titular family patriarch. After a higher-ranked member kills a yakuza from another family and threatens a clan war, Arakawa requests that Kasuga go to prison in their place to prevent it. Driven by his loyalty for his boss, Kasuga willingly accepts and ends up serving a full eighteen years.

When he finally emerges, expecting to be greeted by Arakawa, he instead finds that the yakuza world has changed dramatically in his absence. The Tojo Clan is seemingly no more, having been wiped out and replaced by the Omi Alliance, and Arakawa is the traitor who let them in. Trying to find answers as to why, Kasuga ends up shot and his body dumped in the city of Yokohama, barely alive. What follows is Kasuga’s struggle to find answers and a meaning to his life… not to mention a means of not starving on the streets.

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Like Kamurocho and other cities in prior Yakuza games, Yokohama is dense with content and detail. The blocks and districts within are loaded with restaurants to eat at, minigames to play, or side jobs to pick up. Yakuza: Like a Dragon continues the franchise’s trend of marrying the serious and stylised crime drama with the borderline ridiculous substories, and the selection on offer this time is pretty hefty. I’ve helped a masochist feel pain again, gotten a lesson in fatherhood from a yakuza patriarch in a diaper, and hired mercenaries under the assumption that a sex-line was being phoned. The game rarely keeps me waiting long before I’m back to grinning like an idiot.

Of course, when I’m not grinning like an idiot, I’m engaging in a fantastically written drama with a complex mystery woven amidst in-depth worldbuilding. Yokohama’s underworld has its own flavour and power balance compared to Kamurocho, and learning all about this while interacting with the varied factions was the real highlight of the story to me thus far. When I wasn’t unraveling this mystery and learning all the connections between the players on the field? I was probably at a bar, drinking with my party members, and learning about their rich backstories. Whatever the tone, Kasuga’s earnestness and determination are infectious and always drives the story onwards. And then, moments later, he’ll bust out another Dragon Quest reference and shift the moment right back to the other tonal extreme as if it was completely natural.

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The Dragon Quest references are quite fitting, given Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s genre shift to JRPG. All aspects of the system are framed as Kasuga’s imagination being dominated by his love of that series, to the point that even the mechanics play quite similarly. Compared to other JRPGs of the year such as Persona 5 Royal or my personal favourite Trails of Cold Steel 4, Yakuza 7 is somewhat simplistic. It’s borrowed many of the core mechanics from Dragon Quest, sometimes to a fault. You’ll gain a selection of abilities as you level up, and it’s largely a choice between using those skills, attacking regularly, using items, or guarding. Enemies will have weaknesses and resistances, but beyond dictating what moves you should be using, it’s largely just fire and forget.

The complexity and unique spin of the system comes mostly through positioning. Battles take place on the streets much like in previous Yakuza games, and both allies and enemies will move around and position themselves on their own as you wait. Though you can’t directly move, these positions do have an impact. Area of effect abilities can strike enemies around or between you and the target. Choosing to attack an enemy regularly may see others in their path block the attack and interrupt it. Attacking someone on the ground before they can get up will net you a guaranteed critical hit. Items or hazards on the ground might be kicked or picked up in order to empower attacks. A lot of effort went into making these turn-based battles have some of the energy of the Yakuza franchise’s fights, albeit slower.

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Most of your power in battles comes from your Jobs, however. The job system of Yakuza: Like a Dragon is unlocked in chapter 5 and lets you choose from a selection of different classes that your characters qualify for. Compared to some systems that really let you build your dream characters out of it, however, Yakuza 7 is a little more straightforward. Your job rank levels up separately to your character, unlocking more abilities and permanent stat ups as you reach thresholds. Many of these skills can’t be used unless that job is equipped, however. They’ll typically have two “character skills” that can be used regardless of what class you have equipped, but it can take quite a while to get to them.

I found that this meant I wasn’t really changing my combinations too much. Every character has their own unique class, and while these aren’t specifically the best job, they did help create useful niches for the cast. Usually, I’d find one or two classes that I liked for that character, get them a few ranks in each, and then settle on what seemed best. Job rank experience also takes a while to get doled out, with most of the biggest jumps coming after beating bosses (in some cases, so much so that I thought it was a balance bug). It wasn’t until I was reaching later chapters that I felt I could really start experimenting. That said, the challenge does ramp up as the story progresses, and so eventually I really did start considering more idealised team combinations and setups out of necessity. Better late than never, but I can’t say that the system was the most engaging job system I’ve experienced in JRPGs.

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Still, this is ultimately a minor gripe. The battles themselves are still entertaining, and the way they’re contextualised is frequently hilarious. Seeing how Kasuga will let his imagination run wild with enemy designs is fantastic, and really gives the game a unique charm that other JRPGs might lack. The game also isn’t a pushover, with some of Yakuza 7‘s enemies and bosses really making me work for a victory. Chapter 12 in particular had one boss that halted my progression for a while and really made me re-evaluate my strategy and prepare. As such, I imagine some of the late-game content will really test me.

Regardless, I’m immensely keen to experience it. Perhaps the biggest hindrance to writing this review was simply that I wanted to keep on playing. At its best, Yakuza: Like a Dragon has had as much heart and character as any of the strongest games in the franchise. At its worst, it’s still been a game that I just can’t get enough of. The team’s writing has continued to improve with each installment since Yakuza 0. Barring a sudden poor ending, Yakuza 7 is well on its way to letting Kasuga rub shoulders with Kiryu’s greatest adventures. It’ll take quite the last-minute fall from grace to net anything less than a 9/10 once I score this thing in the coming days.

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Should you never hear anything more from me about it, then know that Yakuza: Like a Dragon is excellent. Everything about the heart and soul of the Yakuza series is here in full force, and the only time it ever really makes me stop smiling is to shed manly tears. Ichiban Kasuga is a fantastic protagonist, and his party is full of fascinating characters in their own right. The PC port seems bereft of most issues that’ve affected the series, and it’s run fairly smoothly on my mid-to-high tier system. It all just serves as another reminder that Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios are still at the top of their game, and that the Yakuza franchise is really something special. Seriously, play Yakuza 7.

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