Yakuza Like a Dragon

There’s one simple feature that could make or break Yakuza: Like a Dragon: the combat is turned-based. So if that sort of gameplay is repugnant to you, this is really all you need to know, and thank you so much for watching.

Like a Dragon operates on a strictly turned-based system, meaning the action stalls if a character doesn’t execute a move. Battles take place in the same spot you’ve been exploring and your command options replicate all the canonical moves of the JRPGs Yakuza is trying to replicate.

Characters automatically reach each other without any need of movement input, but there are times – though not many – when an attacker might hesitate in executing a strike or have trouble finding the correct path. Out on the streets in dense traffic, this is even more probable.

That said, the programmers did well in considering cases in which these problems may occur and proactively built in safety checks that automatically reset characters’ positions when battles are paused. A small but interesting strategic element comes from interference by enemies when your character sets a target.

This requires some attention to your selections, as having somebody in the middle of things causes your opponent to trip over them and fail at their attempt. Positioning is definitely significant in Yakuza, but the complete lack of control over your party members also takes on major relevance in gameplay.

The environment is interactive. If a member of your team is standing by a bike, a tank, or any furniture items like a chair or even a table, you’ll see them take the object and use it in a customized attack, breaking it over an enemy’s head. Everything is by chance, though, since you don’t have any control over your team’s positioning at any time.

That means it’s all about choosing when to attack or use your special skills. Some attacks can be boosted by repetitively smashing a button or by pushing it at the correct time based on an on-screen prompt. Definitely a gimmick, it and Perfect Guard are the only interactions still needed in case you decide to activate the game’s Auto Battle Mode.

An outrage for turn-based purists and a time-saving tool for everyone else, you’ll retract any criticism you might have of Auto Battle when the Fedex guy shows up for a signature. Or when you want to hang around outside and wait for him just in case your PS5 arrives. You already know it’s the latter of the two…

You can perform a Perfect Guard by pressing the guard button right as your character is about to take damage. It motivates you to pay attention even when using Auto Battle, although the implementation leaves a margin for improvement, it being somewhat unrefined. All the different types of enemies feature distinctive attacks, each with their own timings and animations.

This is necessary to keep things interesting. But considering the camera is automatic and incapable of accurately following activity across the entire field, you have to anticipate being caught off-guard.

Auto Battle has different presets, allowing you to prioritize healing, all-out attacks, or a smart, balanced approach that doesn’t abuse MP abilities. Auto Battle itself works well as long as you’re a decent level and you keep your inventory full; though it removes any real difficulty, however minimal, that the game may otherwise have offered.

It needs to be considered, of course, that Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a JRPG. We’re all used to the typical fantasy stories with farfetched cosmologies, creatures, and rules, and Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio knows that. There’s a reason that there aren’t many games with actual, recognizable settings. People flock to fantasy worlds to escape real life.

And on top of that, attempting any obvious alterations of our world poses the big risk of ruining a game’s credibility, longevity, and ability to perpetuate interest. Parasite Eve is just the first to come to mind, and that succeeded but it’s more than 2 decades old. And….sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but a new chapter or remake is next to impossible at this point. It’s just not gonna happen.

Yakuza’s developers have found a way to avoid any sense of repetitiveness in its (literally) down-to-Earth characters. The game takes place in life-like cities such as Kamurocho that are populated by life-like people with boring clothes and no special skills – perfect for maintaining realism. Ichiban Kasuga is a big fan of role-playing games, especially Dragon Quest.

It’s nice to see a studio explicitly celebrating a game from another company. The developer’s trick of having Kasuga’s adventure mimic his favorite video game allows for the creative freedom and weirdness that they needed. Whereas in the world map you see common people with everyday clothes, when you transition into battle, they emerge as improbable caricatures representing the extremes of our society.

As improbable as they are (they can ruin your expectation of a realistic experience), the result is a wonderful show reel of the creative talent of the game’s artists and writers, who’ve managed to pull off a tall order. Each move and status effect inflicted or received, while being coherent in terms of gameplay, is properly contextualized, described, and customized for each type of enemy.

The main source of annoyance as far as the look of the game is that in both the open world and battle, you often see the same old model with recurring animations. It’s the inevitable risk of not being in a proper fantasy world where a degree of repetition in monsters can be tolerated.

Though it goes without saying, the range of representation the artists had to pull off was no small obstacle. Your characters’ jobs are shown with corresponding outfits only when in battle, with the detail – which didn’t go unnoticed here – that your party reverts back to their standard clothes conveniently in time for the victory pose.

In a world of police officers and mafia mobs, what might the focal point of the job system be? It couldn’t be but an employment office. Both hilarious and realistic, as absurd as it sounds, it fits well – even given the uncomfortable restriction that in order to perform a simple operation like changing jobs, you have to go back to the Hello Work office.

Unlocking alternate jobs to switch between requires a minimum character level as well as one of the personality traits at that level. These traits can be enhanced via conversation with NPCs in sub-stories or at Kasuga’s favorite bar with other party members. Or, better still, by completing as many certification tests as possible. Certifications are just one of the many side activities you can engage in, the most important being business management.

Taking charge of a confectionery store, your goal is to transform it into the number 1 ranked business in Kamurocho. Not really that difficult. And it could be a cakewalk if you happened to buy a special edition of Yakuza: Like a Dragon that gifts you a troupe of overpowered employees. Certain information about shareholder meetings is withheld from the player, a fact that necessitates trial and error in your first attempts at this mini-game.

In short, you have to break your challengers’ defenses by using the winning color in a rock-paper-scissors-like model, and then convert them by depleting their health bar with the same mechanic. A great help here against the clock, in case you need it, is pausing the game, which gives you the opportunity to take your time and make the correct choice.

Fulfilling this management side quest is quite time-wasting with its standard initial characters, and while being your richest source of income, it feels detached from Kasuga’s everyday life after you complete it. Some dialogues won’t consider the status you reach, although you’ll discover that you can recruit a number of employees by exploring the city, even if most of them are crappy.

Groups of troublemakers can be found at an alarming interval, and sometimes they’re inevitable, even if, honestly, there’s an instance or two story-wise where it doesn’t make sense. There are so many people who want to smash your face in. The pacing of Yakuza is very disturbing if you’re not comfortable with role-playing games.

Having said that, it’s also a proper answer to complaints of underdeveloped video game narratives: it seems as if its story will take off about 3 hours in. No wait: 5. No? Well then, 10. Wait, Kasuga’s level 15 and we’re still waiting for the plot to open up? Considering the standard we’re used to, the writing is outstanding. The story takes many sharp turns and keeps you running at a low speed by taming your desire to actually use all the buttons on the gamepad.

There’s one important conversation that doesn’t feel entirely logical, given what Kasuga knows and how you’d expect him to react, but that’s really a very narrow critique of what is otherwise a highly extensive plot that you’ll devour until the last second of the last cutscene.

Based on what’s been tested, the American voice over seems acceptable. While playing in Japanese, even if you don’t understand anything and have to rely on subtitles, you’ll still catch all the tones and emotions the actors manifest. And the localization helps too, it being top-notch. The work of adapting a game fitted with Japanese cultural references to a Western audience deserves maximum respect.

It’s a little bit surprising that there haven’t been more complaints online against all the male chauvinist lines or sexism in the game. Then again, maybe all the irreverence, the satire, the nonsense that never ceases to amaze, all mixed up with contemporary pop culture, maybe it’s something too intentionally over-the-top to be offended by: it’s always been a Yakuza staple and…bless Sega for this! Not many products on the market are set in our world, with real places and social dynamics that can be represented in a critical way.

Yakuza is a colorful and extravagant franchise that doesn’t shy away from portraying the dark and grim aspects of real life, in which bloody, merciless, dramatic events cover your screen at the most critical points.

Technically the game is stable. If it closes to desktop, there may be some third-party application running in the background that you have to close. But it’s worth mentioning that the online store accessible through your fictional smartphone just leaves you in a stalled state where you can’t do anything. That’s really funny when you didn’t save first.

On the other hand, it presents the perfect opportunity to reload the game and confirm by skipping past all the cutscenes that Like a Dragon is more a visual novel than a role-playing game – by about 90%.

It’s a shame that, although this installment of Yakuza has a great narrative, it’s a VERY LONG, long, long story, with a huge amount of cutscenes to passively sit through – if you’ve ever experienced the 50-minute, non-stop dialogue of a Tsubasa game, you know what I mean – not to mention some not-really-engaging, random street battles that don’t feel any different from boss fights.

Yes, when you’re at the main menu, you can breathe in the Sega charm, the style, the font! At first glance, you might think you are about to play Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown!…

Oh wait, there’s actually the arcade port inside Yakuza. In this game, you can go-kart race, watch a movie, or even play golf, but first you’ll have to convince yourself to spend serious time on such peripheral activities. The most entertaining and interesting thing you can do aside from progress through the main story is play koi-koi.

Koi-koi is the real deal! Boomers, stay away. Now listen: First, you move those beautiful cards around on the screen, and then you have to call koi. Call koi. Okay, then what? That’s it. Just call koi. See how much fun this is?

The game’s graphics, while clearly trailing behind many bigger titles, don’t prevent it from being enjoyable. Sixty Frames Per Second are easily reachable by renouncing a few of the most intensive settings.

The streets of Kamurocho are delicious with all the banners scattered around. Inside and outside the various buildings and shops, the amount of work put in is noticeable, although the level of textural detail is inconsistent, with some unexpected invisible walls immediately ruining the immersion.

Indoors, shadows manifest their poor approximation, and global lighting is just standard. Overall, nothing spectacular for a decently dense open world, which you’ll explore more by the end of the game. You’ll know when you make it there because level-50 enemies will start appearing out of nowhere, forcing you to grind.

And that’s only after you’ve already experienced many of the world’s uninspired and empty dungeons. As an added note, on many occasions the lens flare effect looks like a sticker glued to your screen to create a bogus effect.

Despite all the uncertainties and it not being a great game strictly speaking, it’s not difficult to see how Yakuza: Like a Dragon could easily become one of your favorite games of the year.

A new superstar is born, and his name is Ichiban Kasuga. After all, how many chances do you get to play as a Japanese doppelganger of Colin Kaepernick, beating gangsters senseless with a baseball bat and banding together with an upgraded version of the homeless guy from Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy, who, in loading screens, is himself a Gordon Freeman look-alike with an umbrella?