Yakuza: Like A Dragon

Yakuza: Like A Dragon ((JP: Ryū ga Gotoku 7: Hikari to Yami no Yukue (Like A Dragon 7: Whereabouts of Light and Darkness) (龍が如く7 光と闇の行方)) – PS4, PS5, Xbox One, XSS, XSX, PC (2020)

This entry is part 14 of 16 in the series Yakuza / Like A Dragon

During April Fools 2019, Ryu ga Gotoku Studio released a fake game trailer that showed the usual Like A Dragon gameplay and subject matter, but transplanted into a turn based RPG. Nagoshi gave an interview at the time stating that it was originally going to be an action game, but the positive feedback from the trailer meant the series was indeed changing genres. This was later clarified to be a joke, and the game was always planned as an RPG reinvention of the series, but it still hyped up the gaming audience for something fresh and new. One has to wonder if there were some complications during development with that shift, though. We might have some form of venting in a Lost Judgment substory, where a game developer who’s been working in crunch is having to deal with an abusive producer who dresses like a yakuza and has tanned skin. In a completely unrelated note, here’s a picture of Toshihiro Nagoshi.

Patriarch of the Monkey Ball Family

All that said, the final game is one of the best in the series. The genre switch wasn’t perfect, you can tell the team is still figuring out the details of the systems behind the genre, but how those tropes and gameplay styles are recontextualized via the new genre bring new life into things. Add in the top tier story and new cast, and you have a modern classic that managed to handle a switch to a new genre with grace.

We also have a new protagonist in Ichiban Kasuga, his names read last to first translating to “lowlife into number one,” which itself is both a description of his story and the core gameplay loop. Unlike demigod Kiryu, Ichiban is a scruffy guy who gets the short end of the stick, and lacks overwhelming power, having to rely on street smarts. He’s also a nerd obsessed with old-school Japanese RPGs (even name dropping Dragon Quest) to the point he starts to visualize the world during fights in a way that has random shlubs turn into monster men. This is the perspective we’re occupying, and one that perfectly fits a classic style RPG – working from low levels into the high ones, and the story reflects it.

Ichiban was raised by a soapland owner and the women working there (the same soapland Majima crashed a truck into from the first Yakuza). He became a no-good punk come his teens, and at a time he bit off more than he could chew, he invoked the name of a Tojo officer he heard of named Masumi Arakawa. To his surprise, when his captors called Arakawa, he came and made good on the mess that Ichiban made by chopping off his own finger without batting an eye. Once away from the goons, Arakawa threw Ichiban in the trash and informed him he did this not out of the goodness of his heart, but to protect his reputation, the most important thing to a yakuza.

Naturally, Ichiban was starstruck and waited outside the Arakawa family office until Arakawa finally let him sign up, ready to follow that man to hell and back. The two formed a strong bond as Ichiban also looked after Arakawa’s wheelchair bound son, while also failing in doing crime and becoming a headache for family captain Sawashiro. Things went bad at the turn of the new millennium, however, as Sawashiro accidentally killed a member of another family, and Arakawa needed someone to take the fall. While neither men wanted to say it, Ichiban eventually volunteered and got a 15 year sentence, bumped up three years after Ichiban got in a fight. However, he served the rest of his sentence quietly, with a letter from Arakawa helping him remember that people were waiting for him on the outside.

Then Ichiban’s sentence ended and he found nobody was waiting for him on the outside. Well, besides a very old ex-detective who keeps bugging him about going to Yokohama. Turns out that Arakawa has betrayed the Tojo clan to the Omi, and ends up shooting Ichiban when he tries to get to the bottom of things. His body is ironically dumped in Yokohama, and he’s saved from the big one due to an ex-nurse turned homeless guy named Nanba patching him up. Ichiban tries to rebuild his life after that big shake-up, but it isn’t long before Yokohama finds itself in a massive gang war and political conspiracy, leading to Ichiban teaming with Nanba, the detective he met earlier named Adachi, a cabaret club owner named Saeko, and two members of the local Korean and Chinese gangs (plus a bonus secretary party member named Eri) to deal with the threat – and maybe just sort out his past in the process.

Yakuza: Like A Dragon has one of the best stories in the franchise, bar none. A big part of this is that it no longer feels insular, Ichiban’s status as an outsider is a stark contrast to Kiryu constantly being bugged by his old crime life. Ichiban does as Kiryu did in the first game and makes allies outside the Tojo, and the various factions he deals with are much more fleshed out, and more directly connected to the core plot.

This also means we get to explore more things from outsider perspectives, pushed further with Ichiban’s past of being raised by sex workers. Where Kiryu is just naturally sympathetic to marginalized groups because he’s a good dude, Ichiban has more direct experience with those people, and gets even more from immigrant groups during the events of this game. The game actually explores the world outside the yakuza, and makes the central plight the one faced by immigrant communities and sex workers. It’s also very clearly a major part of the point, since one of the major villain factions, Bleach Japan, is made up entirely of right wing reactionaries obsessed with removing the legal “gray zones” of Japan, very specifically to push back against people in these groups.

The other half of the equation is that Ichiban and his heroes of tomorrow are just instantly lovable morons that it’s very easy to root for. They’re all completely out of their depth, but are fighting against insane odds to find a better future and help those in their community. They also have great chemistry, each of them having a unique perspective and personality that bounces off of one another to great comedic success, a fantastic collective unit of outcasts banning together to do something none of them could do alone. They make for a fantastic RPG party, especially Zhao and Han (a body double of Han from 6 using his name) filling in the roles as the more morally dubious members due to their lives in the underworld.

Substories are also a strong mixture of hilarious, bizarre, and often heartfelt, bouncing Ichiban from straight man to the source of comedy through his weird worldview. You don’t get experience from these anymore, but you do get useful items and other benefits, and a possibility of personality boosts. In a clear idea ripped from Persona 3 and on, Ichiban has personality stats that affect some of his hero job moves, and unlock new areas in the map, like a gambling hall or special weapon shop. It’s an under-cooked idea here, what you can get being few and far between, but it’s a unique idea that would be explored better later.

The battle system is solid turn based goodness, amusingly contextualized by Ichiban literally waiting for his opponent to attack because that’s how Dragon Quest works. Attacks, spells, a guard option, items, etc. You know the deal. The Like A Dragon twist is that everyone moves around during idle periods, and positioning can affect how many enemies can be hit by an attack, the chance of being able to knock them into a wall, or even grabbing an object near you to modify your attack. You can even do big damage by attacking an enemy after another party member knocks them down. The downside is you can’t control where everyone walks during fights, so these aspects are mostly taking advantage of an opening if it lines up for you.

What works better is the pacing of progression. The unique chapter by chapter pacing of the Like A Dragon games mean the whole adventure is very neatly chopped up into clean parts, meaning deciding what parts of Isezaki Ijincho, Yokohama (based on the real life Isezakicho) you can go to and the general strength of enemies is easy to plan out. This allows the game to have a good blend of difficult sections that make you think about your actions in combat, and breezing through mobs as you get stacked. The inclusion of dungeons disrupts this a bit, as you can grind hard in them, but dungeons also give diminishing returns as they are always stuck on a single difficulty.

Ijincho is notably larger than any previous map, meant to make fully opening the map an accomplishment in and of itself. It’s chopped up into different neighborhoods, each with a unique vibe to it, and with different enemy types and general difficulty (the latter you can check on the map). It gives the place a lot of variety so you don’t tire of it during the longer play time, starting in grungy slums and moving into a vibrant Chinatown area, a large open park, a cleaned up business area, and even a large hub area for trains and buses.

Alongside the usual distractions, Ichiban eventually gets to help run a business in a simple but addicting management game, where you’ll get most of your funds. It even comes with a goofy board meeting minigame, where your bizarre collection of board members handle the anger of your shareholders. You’ll need it if you plan to take part in Dragon Kart to upgrade your cart, which plays out like a drift heavy Mario Kart. It even serves as a sequel to the pocket circuit stories from previous games. The last big minigame unique to these games is can quest, a ridiculous display where you peddle around to gather up cans on the road, while trying to avoid other riders or knocking into them to steal their cans.

Eating out no longer grants experience, but can get you temporary bonuses with specific food combos, and can unlock a large variety of party chat convos. There’s been an expansion of collectibles, including being able to catalog all enemies in a “sujidex,” and using keys to unlock chests around the map and in dungeons for chances at rare items. Ichiban also has several unique minigames based around raising his personality stats, the two big ones being vocational school quizzes and trying not to fall asleep at a movie theater while tux wearing sheepmen try to cast sleep spells on you (as we have all experienced). Part time hero is the one meh addition, mostly a checklist of collect X item or defeat X number of specific enemy quests. The rewards are worth it, the quests just usually aren’t very engaging.

The real thing that will keep you busy is the job system, amusingly contextualized as the party literally getting jobs at the local Hello Work employment agency. Everyone has a starting default job, Ichiban with two, and give them specific party roles. However, they’re a bit lacking in parts, especially when it comes to healing or having access to a wide variety of skill types. The additional jobs help out with this, with unique stat layouts and skills that can help modify your party to your liking. There’s even enough depth to the system to make builds with all the stat bonuses you can get from leveling jobs that carry over to your base stats, allowing you to focus on getting to rank 30 with two jobs. Unfortunately, what you can do with that is minimal.

Each job has about two skills that get added to a character’s given skill set, regardless of job. You don’t get to pick those skills, and one of those skills is always deep into the job’s leveling line. That isn’t great because getting that far into the line will take a *very* long time. This means job dabbling will be almost entirely for getting an early level skill that has a damage type your character normally lacks, in order to take advantage of enemy weaknesses. You also have to pick a job and stick with it as your main one, as jobs are what decide your stat layout more than base character leveling, which gives out very little. Doing a second job in prep for the post game dungeons is mostly just for the little stat bonuses, and nothing else. It’s a great foundation and a fun system overall, but there’s clear limitations here that stop the job system from meeting the complexity of other contemporaries. Thankfully, Infinite Wealth would change a lot of this and make a more rewarding system.

Unsurprisingly, the game’s presentation is stellar, especially the really cleaned up UI and menus, clearly taking notes from Atlus’ work. The funny outfits you get from job to job gives a lot of personality to Ichiban’s gamer brain filtered fights, and the skill animations (especially the “kiwami” ones) are always fun to watch. This extends to Poundmates, the Final Fantasy-style summoning system of the game where Ichiban calls up a character he met in a substory or such to do a big flashy move and help out, though for some yen as trade. The goofy designs of the enemies really add to this…though there is this bizarre thing where some black enemies end up doing 50 “Bitch Took My Skull” Cent era gangster rap cosplay that’s kind of weird and not in a good way, especially for a game released in 2020.

The soundtrack is very varied and energetic to match the new protagonist, Ascension Point in particular making for a great base battle theme. It mirror’s Ichiban’s eccentric personality well, without being too energetic to ruin the flow of a turn based fight. Pellagra also makes for a great boss theme for similar reasons. The minigames have a ton of fun themes, some even using retro 8-bit mixes, but the real highlights come almost exclusively from the boss tracks. War Maker might be the shining jewel of the bunch with its sick drop, despite being used for a minor antagonist. Brutality is also such a strong piece that it got a remix in Infinite Wealth. ism will probably go down as one of the best final boss themes a RGG game has ever had (with touch competition from the Judgment series), while Wailing Warrior sticks out as one of the most unique Amon theme, switching out high energy for a grinding, threatening sound that perfectly compliments the scrappy Ichiban facing one of these demi-gods.

Worth noting that we got two promotional games for this entry and Ichiban himself. The world first got a taste of the new guy with Ryu ga Gotoku Online, a Japanese only mobile game still running as of writing (unlike earlier failed experiments). It’s in its own continuity, allowing it to make some wild story decisions, though some tales could be clearly worked into canon (like Nishiki and Tanimura meeting before the first game). Ichiban is notably using a prototype design, more scraggly than how we’d see him in his finalized design. There was also Streets of Kamurocho released about nine months after Yakuza: Like A Dragon, where Ichiban was a playable character. It was a limited time free game that retold the story of the first game in a Streets of Rage presentation and gameplay style.

Ryu ga Gotoku Online promo image

Ichiban in Streets of Kamurocho

While the gameplay foundations still need some work, the clever ways they’re placed in the world, the wide variety of fun activities, and the absolutely gripping main story make for one of the finest games in the entire franchise. Yakuza: Like A Dragon is something special, a perfect storm of creativity and heart, and a promising sign that Ryu ga Gotoku Studio were moving in the right directions and becoming aware of their worst impulses (though they still have a ways to go). After a return to Judgment and a remake of Ishin, we’d finally return to the Ichiban saga – though with a pit-stop with Kiryu first.

Series Navigation<< Yakuza Kiwami 2Like A Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name >>

Manage Cookie Settings