Like a Dragon is a spectacular experience. While so many of its moving parts feel like they shouldn't work cohesively, everything fits together in the most perfectly satisfying way. The combat is always fun, the story is occasionally convoluted yet engaging and the world of Yokohama is fantastic to exist in. This truly is a spectacular experience that should be played by everyone, whether you have an affinity for Yakuza or not.
If you’ve played a Yakuza game you know exactly what to expect from Like A Dragon. You also have no idea what to expect, as the latest entry in the beloved franchise is nothing like those that came before it. The general tone, consistently engaging writing and buzzing open world you’re familiar are all present but the actual gameplay is so fundamentally different, it doesn’t feel like a Yakuza game. Which is by design. This a game that wants to ditch the confining roots of its past and try something new. And oh boy, does it succeed.
To put everything into context, Like A Dragon isn’t just a fun subtitle. It’s indicative of the game as the whole, as the whole thing is meant to resemble a Dragon Quest game. While that particular JRPG may not have really penetrated the local South African market (which is a pity, you should really find a copy and give it a bash), Dragon Quest is huge in Japan, hence why the latest Yakuza game has changed its spots to replicate something the developers are clearly fans of.
Yet while the game’s structure has fundamentally shifted… it still feels like Yakuza. Which is just a shorter way of saying it’s good. Exceedingly good.
The more things change
Let’s talk about everything Like A Dragon does to differentiate itself from the games that came before. Gone are the beat-em-up combos, replaced by a slower but just as over-the-top turn-based combat system. While fans of the tight yet occasionally button-mashy combat may not enjoy the system, I loved it. Speaking as someone who’s a fan of classic turn-based combat, the likes of which you’ll find in dozens upon dozens of JRPGs, Like A Dragon absolutely nails it. While you don’t have the most tangible control over your characters, the animations that play out for the staggering amount of attacks, “spells” and abilities is truly impressive.
It’s also beautifully integrated into the world of Yakuza. In this (vaguely) realistic depiction of Japan, magic wouldn’t exactly fit. So spells take the form of scattering bird seed to summon hungry pigeons or lighting a particularly ripe belch on fire to create a ball of flame. They’re equal parts hilarious and satisfying to execute. Special mention needs to be made for the Poundmates ability, which act as the game’s “summons”. Every single one is spectacular and they never get old. Even if you seen them fifty times.
Which might very well happen. Like a Dragon is a long game that’s not only carried by engaging combat but a fantastic story. While the actual narrative is akin to previous games, a brand new cast of characters drives the plot forward and while they’re not all especially unique, lead character Ichiban is maybe one of our favourite characters in any video game. The man is a big, goofy adult who desperately wants to be a hero, which is at odds with the life he’s chosen in the Yakuza. He’s funny, charming, and passionate. While the story that revolves around him can often become convoluted and difficult to follow, keeping this bright-eyed, optimistic protagonist at the centre of it all keeps it entertaining.
The more they stay the same
While the actual gameplay of Like A Dragon is a fundamental shift from previous instalments, it’s still unmistakably a Yakuza game. The world of Yokohama, while much smaller compared to other open-world games, feels alive. The sounds of Japan pump through every back alley and street and seemingly every corner has some quirky character looking for help in an equally bizarre side-quest. A personal favourite of mine being someone tasking Ichiban with finding hot water to make some baby formula for a child they’ve heard crying in a nearby building, only to discover that it wasn’t a baby at all but rather a Yakuza boss who relaxes by dressing himself in a diaper and having someone feed him milk.
And that’s just in the first ten hours.
That irreverent and off-the-wall sense of humour Yakuza is known for is here in full force and while some of it feels a little too ridiculous, it mostly hits. Yet despite the overly goofy nature of the game, Like A Dragon still manages to tell an impressively mature and deep story. There are moments of genuine emotion woven into the game’s absurdity which never feel out of place… it just works, something which the Yakuza franchise has consistently managed to achieve.
Of course, if you’re not a fan of drawn-out cutscenes instead of gameplay, you should probably give Like A Dragon a wide berth. There are multiple parts of the runtime that feel more like watching a movie rather than playing a game. This will test the patience of some, while others will doubtless enjoy how much the game commits to telling its story. We fit into the latter category because, as long as the cutscenes are, there’s always enough action to keep things moving forward.
It also just looks great. While some the animations can be a little choppy or imprecise at times, it is overall an excellent looking game with the trademark flair and style the series is known for. Character models can sometimes look a little dated during some of the moment-to-moment cutscenes but it’s never such a problem that it becomes jarring.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon Verdict
Like a Dragon is a spectacular experience. While so many of its moving parts feel like they shouldn’t work cohesively, everything fits together in the most perfectly satisfying way. The combat is always fun, the story is occasionally convoluted but engaging and the world of Yokohama is fantastic to exist in. This truly is a spectacular experience that should be played by everyone, whether you have an affinity for Yakuza or not.