My team entered the Sotenbori Battle Arena, and successfully reached the 6th floor. Most of the enemies thus far had been standard yakuza thugs. Here, however, I found myself dealing with a top-hat-wearing man juggling purple flaming bowling pins, a lost surfer looking like a fish out of water, and a nine-foot-tall Captain Blackbeard lookalike with a massive trident. A few floors later, I was greeted by a tiger as the floor boss. A few floors after that, my team of four needed to defeat a 60-ton excavator. This battle arena was becoming more and more metal by the minute.
As bizarre as that sequence sounds, it’s par for the course for Yakuza: Like a Dragon, a soft reboot of the beloved Yakuza franchise. While I would probably be safe saying that they have carved out their own genre at this point, the title would be best described to a newcomer as a Japanese-inspired Grand Theft Auto-style adventure game. Yakuza: Like a Dragon debuts an all-new protagonist to the series, Ichiban Kasuga. The combat mechanics have been reimagined as well, trading the active fighting game style of the previous games for a turn-based combat system that will be familiar to Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest players.
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I was enamored with both the atmosphere and characters of the game almost as soon as I picked up my controller. While the Yakuza franchise is a powerhouse in its own right, this particular game reads like a love letter to Japanese games writ large. I met a mad scientist clearly inspired by Pokémon’s Professor Oak, who provided me with a smartphone app that categorized all of the unique ne’r-do-wells I’d meet over my travels. Our intro battle involved my team taking out a trio of yakuza in green, red and blue suits, a clear nod to the original starter pocket monsters. These homages to great games that came before continued throughout the adventure, and if I got the reference, I always smiled at how the developers were able to seamlessly weave in so many disparate ideas.
Making successive games about the seedy criminal underbelly of Japan sometimes needs a twist to keep the storytelling exciting, and the narrative here does not disappoint. Without spoiling anything, the titular hero Ichiban has a series of unlucky experiences and suddenly finds himself climbing up from rock bottom. Along the way, he meets quite a few friends, some of which join the combat party and others who support from the sidelines. These include, but are not limited to an ex-cop, a restaurant hostess, and an assassin. I was able to customize my party with a variety of different moves and personality styles, ensuring that entertaining banter always followed me across the streets of Yokohama.
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Yakuza offers a fully fleshed-out rendition of Yokohama, with convenience stores, vending machines, restaurants and traffic that made me feel right at home. While I strolled through the town, various thugs would initiate fights, giving Ichiban and I a chance to level up our experience. Unique enemies with outlandish attacks prowled around every corner. On the surface I might really be slugging it out with a salaryman who had one too many drinks at the bar, but due to Ichiban’s overactive imagination, I saw him as a 12-foot-tall giant with a telephone pole for a weapon. This creative license with the enemy composition meant that getting caught in a battle never became a chore.
The class system is cleverly disguised inside of part time jobs. Instead of choosing to be a mage at the beginning of the game, as in a typical RPG, I can go to the employment office and change my job to chef to quickly gain access to fire and pepper based magic attacks. The typical tank class is covered with the Enforcer job, a riot police type of role, complete with tactical helmet and shield. In cases when I need an ice-type attack, I look to the hostess, who is always ready to dish out champagne and other ice cold drinks for any enemy in her path. When I need area of effect debuffs, I look no further than the idol, whose angelic voice can bring even the toughest opponents to their knees with the sheer power of charm and cuteness. I had to do a little experimentation to find the best synergy for my playstyle, but the way that classes and special abilities are hidden in the game is incredibly clever.
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Combat has some other unique flair, too. I’m not the most talented JRPG player around, but I found that as long as I had a decent balance of attack and defense and made sure to upgrade my gear fairly regularly, I wasn’t running into too many do-or-die fights. While the system has turned from real-time to turn-based, they’ve included plenty of novel ways to keep me interested as a player. I was quickly introduced to a system called “Poundmates,” which are essentially a fifth teammate that you can tag in for a special boost or attack. Over the course of my travels I met quite a few folks who became Poundmate characters, but my top two would definitely be the gang boss wearing a diaper and a friendly crayfish.
Yakuza has an excellent sense of when to push for a joke and when to push for dramatic tension. The overall tone of the game and initial plot devices are quite serious. But those same characters can unexpectedly crack jokes and be put in such ridiculous situations that I can’t help but have a smile on my face. In multiple distinct sections of the game, I was near tears from the earnest emotion on display and then soon after dying of laughter at the antics on screen.
Many of these intimate moments are powered by the supporting cast of the game. My immediate teammates that help me in battle are all distinct characters with fleshed-out backstories and personalities. I was particularly interested in the first character, a washed up old detective with a chip on his shoulder, and wanted to learn more about his core motivations. When I saw the side story unfold, I decided to pursue all of my teammates’ side missions as well. The attention to detail is impeccable and helps to reinforce the sense of playing in a living, breathing world.
While the main story and combat absolutely justify a playthrough on their own, Yakuza doesn’t stop there. The experience is chock full of minigames, from karaoke to high intensity go kart racing with clear ties to a certain Italian plumber to the UFO catcher game synonymous with Japanese arcades. That game in particular deserves an honorable mention, because the sounds coming from the machine and the sense of frustration when I miss securing a plushie by 1 millimeter manage to perfectly capture the same infuriating feeling as the real thing. When I needed a diversion from the main story, Yakuza always had a batting cage ready for me.
Perhaps the ultimate minigame would be “Ichiban Confections.” Through a stroke of fate, Ichiban becomes the CEO of a struggling rice cracker company and is tasked with making it the most successful business in Yokohama. After dealing with debt, employee turnover, advertisements, and tense board meetings, I did finally make it to the #1 spot. Not only did this earn me a significant amount of in-game cash to fund my activities in the main story, but I also gained access to an incredibly powerful orbital laser, ready to purify unsuspecting enemies with the sheer power of my market share. Even multiple hours after unlocking the move, I giggled each time I used it, relishing that my dogged hours of grinding for the business had crowned me the king of capitalism.
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After about 95 fun-filled hours of questing and leveling through Yokohama, I was ready to finish the final chapter. Spoiler-free, I can definitely say that I am pleased with the way the story was wrapped up, but extra impressed with the epilogue’s treatment. I’m allowed to continue with my ultra powerful and rich character, finishing all the minigames and quests that I left incomplete before the final battle. Yakuza: Like a Dragon was an insanely entertaining game to experience, and has converted me into a true blue fan of the franchise. If you’re looking for a zany JRPG with lots of heart, look no further.