It may feature a new protagonist and do away with the series’ real-time battles, but Yakuza: Like a Dragon still feels like a Yakuza game.
Jumping into chapter 5, which is said to be 5-7 hours into Yakuza: Like a Dragon, the focus of my time with a preview build of the game was enjoying the sights and sounds of Yokohama, a new location which is another big change for the series. But to truly appreciate it, there was a bit of story to play though first, and like previous Yakuza games it gripped me.
Ichiban Kasuga is Yakuza: Like a Dragon‘s protagonist, a likeable fellow whose obsession with Dragon Quest has inspired him to become a hero. His playful personality won me over after just minutes of play, but like Kiryu, he can also be direct and serious. Perhaps what’s most striking about Kasuga, however, is how he leans on his friends to help support him.
During my time with Yakuza: Like a Dragon I had three companions: a smartly-dressed lady called Saeko; Adachi, who appears to be an ex-cop; and a homeless man called Nanba. Along with Kasuga they make an unlikely bunch, but they bounce off each other very well. They also help the story diverge away from the usual Yakuza yarn, with them each growing as a result of their newfound friendship.
Exploring the streets of Yokohama with my ragtag team, I found that combat is initiated just like it is in any Yakuza game; gangs of thugs, Yakuza and other ruffians will all take a pop at you if you move into their cone of vision. Unlike in other Yakuza games, however, the combat is now turn-based, with you able to issue commands to all four members of your party.
Characters act depending on their speed, and you have all the usual actions at your disposal. Send your character to attack, for example, and they’ll rush at your selected target, whacking them with whatever weapon they have equipped. But you can also choose to defend, use an item, or attempt to escape from battle if you’d like. To really give the combat some depth, there’s a wealth of skills available to each character, too, largely dependent on their current job.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is much more comical than previous entries in the Yakuza series in many ways, and one of the earliest tell-tale signs is how enemies change their appearance when in combat. They may look like simple thugs on the street, but get into a battle with them and they may wield a simple stick as a weapon and a bin lid as a shield while adopting an Orc-like pose. Others gain red eyes and take on undead properties. Furthermore, they get titles like Technomancer, giving you an idea of their abilities and role in combat.
It’s clear that Kasuga’s obsession with Dragon Quest skews his view of the world, and it only serves to make Yakuza: Like a Dragon more entertaining. By visiting a job centre, you can change the jobs assigned to each of your party members too, which changes the skills available to them and their appearance during combat. Initially only a handful of jobs will be available to each character, but more will unlock as you progress through the game. Though like in any RPG, taking on a job requires you to have a specific stats.
The RPG elements of Yakuza: Like a Dragon are amazingly robust, really. After engaging in just a few battles I found myself proclaiming that this is what a modern-day Final Fantasy should be like, mechanically. Each character can be equipped with armour on their head body and feet, and they can be adorned with two accessories. Each also has a wide variety of weapons available to them; Kasuga’s prized weapon is a baseball bat which he believes only a legendary hero can wield, but I made him batter his enemies with a giant vibrator just for laughs.
Combat itself is fast-paced and very entertaining. It’s also quite dynamic. Tell a character to attack when there’s an object close by, for example, and they’ll pick it up to attack an enemy with it if it’s advantageous. And if you can strike an enemy who’s just been knocked down, you can score more damage by taking advantage of the fact. Then there are the skills, which come in various varieties.
From hitting multiple opponents with a powerful attack to buffing your party’s stats, making effective use of skills is essential to take down tougher enemies. There are even team-up skills that get all party members involved in some truly flashy antics. More skills become available as you rank up your jobs, and many of them have quick-time elements. You might have to press a button just at the right time to cause extra damage, for example, or tap a button like a manic to get in some extra hits.
Combat isn’t the be-all and end-all of Yakuza: Like a Dragon though; as usual, you’ll spend a of time watching story scenes – voiced in English this time around, might I add – and engaging in a huge amount of side-content and activities. In my time with the game, I joined Part-Time Hero, an agency set up to help fight crime on the streets of Yokohama, and also saved a man who was being shaken down by a Yakuza for his baby formula. That side-mission in particular had an unexpected yet hilarious outcome which shows that Yakuza: Like a Dragon still has some weird heart-felt moments among its craziness.
When it comes to activities, many old favourites make a return, such as batting, karaoke, darts, Mahjong and a plethora of classic SEGA arcade games such as OutRun and Fantasy Zone. There are a couple of exciting and noteworthy additions, too. One of them is collecting cans, which sounds as dull as dishwater until you discover that you do it by pedalling a rubbish kart around a section of the game’s environment. Against the clock, you need to collect a set number of cans while avoiding explosive barrels and competitors eager for the cans you’ve collected.
By far the best new activity to be found in Yakuza: Like a Dragon, however, is kart racing. You’re able to race around closed-off streets, picking up weapons to take out your competitors while drifting around corners and aiming for boost pads to give you a sudden burst of speed. It may only be a minigame in Yakuza: Like a Dragon, put it’s put together so well that it could be own thing. It is brilliant.
One final thing to note is that Yakuza: Like Dragon is the best-looking Yakuza game yet. Playing on ultra settings on PC, character models are brilliant and Yokohama is very nicely detailed. But what’s most impressive is how large Yokohama is compared to previous areas in the Yakuza series. You’re given much more room to breathe, and it makes the world feel more immersive and alive. There is the odd duff texture and character model that reminds you that this is a current-gen game though. Those picking the game up on Xbox Series X or PS5 when it launches ought to temper their expectations.
Still, Yakuza: Like a Dragon has done nothing but impress me during my time spent with it. I was worried that the move from real-time beat ’em up combat to turn-based RPG combat would perhaps make it unrecognisable as a Yakuza game, but I’m happy to admit that I was wrong; Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a Yakuza game through and through. Even the absence of Kiryu doesn’t hurt it one jot. If you’re a fan of the series, this is shaping up to be essential. And if the turn-based combat system doesn’t pan out with all players, I really hope it gets used elsewhere as it’s just too good to go to waste.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon launches 10th November on PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S and PC, and 2nd March 2021 on PS5.