Monday, July 15, 2024

Yakuza: Like A Dragon Review – A new hero takes his turn

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Yakuza 6 marked the end of protagonist Kazuma Kiryu’s journey, leaving us with one question: “What now?” For years, players had explored Japan with Kiryu, becoming attached to the character as well as the model his games inhabited. Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio could have just dropped a new face in Kamurocho and called it a day, but that’s not what happened. In Yakuza: Like a Dragon, the studio raised eyebrows by ditching traditional arcade combat and replacing it with turn-based RPG-inspired battles. And if there’s a new face to the action, he’s accompanied throughout his Yokohama adventure with a rotating troop of like-minded heroes. It is a pivot that could have ended in disaster. Thankfully, Like a Dragon’s daring gamble pays off, leading to one of the best entries yet.

Ichiban Kasuga had big slip-on moccasins to fill. Kiryu’s stoicism and determination went naturally to the criminal underworld he was in, but his charm and willingness to help people solve their problems won over the public. Kasuga isn’t a Kiryu, and that’s kind of the problem. This new hero is impulsive, brash, and a bit clumsy. At the start of his adventure, Kasuga shares his enthusiasm for the Dragon Quest series with a subordinate. He considers himself a hero, even though his abilities do not initially match his aspirations. Kasuga’s willingness to help is militarized against him, leading to his downfall (and 18 years in prison) for murder.

At first, we don’t know much about Kasuga, which ends up being one of the most refreshing things Like a Dragon has to offer. Without the weight of half a dozen games and their associated stories on his shoulders, Kasuga is a blank slate for this new Yokohama adventure. Kasuga certainly has goals and motives – understanding why his father figure in the Tojo clan betrayed him is the main one – but the fact that he’s so small in this world creates an exhilarating sense of freedom. This new hero hasn’t established a relationship in this new city, so the first few hours are filled with simple things like finding work. What might be a boring catchphrase cleverly delves into the RPG systems that underpin the whole experience.

Like a Dragon isn’t just a superficial interpretation of RPGs; it contains a satisfying amount of depth, including the various tasks that characters can perform. You start out as a hero swinging bats, but you can also progress to several other roles, such as a conductor, musician, or break dancer. Each role gains new abilities as they progress, such as the leader using an AoE soaring technique or the musician playing a tune that heals the party. Jobs and Global Attacks are pretty dumb, which suits the brand perfectly. Changing those jobs is simple, even if it requires a quick stop at the employment office – a good reminder that, ridiculous as it may be, he’s grounded in his own sense of reality.

I was a bit put off by the turn-based combat at first, but quickly warmed up. Returning players will notice familiar animations, including bike swing actions as characters encounter these props in the field. Timed button presses grant extra damage or dampen enemy attacks, which has helped me stay engaged during battles. As Kasuga settles into the city, other characters join in the action. This allows for much more depth and specialization. I enjoyed that a few Murderers soften my targets while the rest focus on debuffing enemies or healing when needed. I especially liked the Poundmates, which are basically the summon version of Like a Dragon. These are extremely silly, and they are often rewards for engaging in the myriad of subdomains. I’m not going to spoil it too much, but I will say that having a group of low-level yakuza thugs attacked by crayfish is one of the less bizarre options available. When leveled properly, Random Battles resolve as quickly as in previous games, but larger boss encounters have strategic elements that reward planning and patience.

There’s a big criminal conspiracy at play here – it’s a Yakuza game, after all – but it doesn’t seem as unnecessarily complicated as some of the storylines in the other entries. Keeping track of important numbers isn’t so overwhelming, possibly because Kasuga isn’t up to much of what’s going on. I also loved the way the story gradually unfolds. Kasuga and his friends learn a lot about the criminal world of Yokohama by doing various jobs all over the city; he discovers the city and its people at the same time as we do, which is a refreshing approach.

It wouldn’t be a Yakuza game without an abundance of side activities, and Like a Dragon delivers here, too. If you’re not having fun with the task at hand or want to take a break from the story, there are several long side activities or chases here to occupy your time. Yokohama is home to several great entertainments, including a Mario Kart-style Dragon Karting series, with racing rivals, bonuses, and multi-level tournaments. I’ve spent a lot of my time in the weirdly engaging business simulation, where you hire people to run a variety of different businesses to increase profits, and then go up against investors in boardroom battles. It’s similar in spirit to running cabaret or the game of baseball in previous entries, and it’s a fun way to earn a lot of money for upgrades and consumables.

Like a Dragon is a departure from the games that came before it, but I found these changes revitalizing. As much as I enjoyed the Yakuza formula, it was definitely a formula. Since a dragon has enough familiar elements to make it feel like it’s a Yakuza game at its core. During all this time, I have fully appreciated how this new identity is establishing a new identity. Hopefully this is the first stop on another great journey for the series.

This notice was originally published on November 4, 2020.


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