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Kasuga Ichiban hitting an enemy in the face with a baseball bat wrapped with barbed wire in Yakuza: Like a Dragon Image: Ryu ga Gotoku Studio/Sega

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Yakuza: Like a Dragon reinvigorates the series, but can’t shake all of Yakuza’s flaws

Ichiban Kasuga proves his worth as the new protagonist

Yakuza: Like a Dragon will be the latest entry in the Yakuza series, which spans seven mainline entries and numerous spinoffs. Since the release of the first title in 2005, Yakuza has been a mainstay for the Japanese gaming audience, providing an experience akin to a playable crime drama; in recent years, the franchise has also found a new breath among the Western audience. Like a Dragon seeks to appease old fans and capture a new audience with a daring new combat system and a different protagonist who is both earnest and charismatic. I’ve played the Yakuza series since 2005 (including its Japan-only spinoffs), but I felt skeptical going into this one; it was hard seeing the series step away from Kazuma Kiryu as the protagonist. To my surprise, Yakuza: Like a Dragon has managed to create an entirely different experience from previous Yakuza games, reinvigorating the series in ways I didn’t think were possible.

For those unfamiliar with the Yakuza franchise, these games provide a unique and cinematic experience offering narratives on par with some of the best Japanese crime thrillers. Coupled with incredible acting on behalf of what is usually a star-studded voice cast (with high-profile actors showing up in entries like Yakuza 6: The Song of Life and Yakuza 0) and writing that touches on prevalent social issues while offering exciting twists and turns, the Yakuza game narratives are second to none. However, those in the West might know Yakuza best for its side stories, which serve as prime examples of absurdist humor centering larger-than-life figures you only meet once but will have a hard time forgetting. Previous entries in the series followed Kazuma Kiryu, a former yakuza, and his transition from an ambitious young man to a more humbled and wise adult. With Kiryu’s arc over, Ichiban Kasuga has taken the spot as the new lead of the series in Like a Dragon. Not only has Yakuza changed its protagonist, but the game has changed from a beat-’em-up with role-playing game elements to a fully fleshed-out turn-based RPG with a party system.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon protagonist Ichiban standing inside of a maid café Image: Ryu ga Gotoku Studio/Sega via Polygon

The first few hours of Like a Dragon start slow, with exposition filling in the gaps left by the Japan-exclusive mobile title Yakuza Online. The introduction makes good use of still-image vignettes, similar to those seen in Yakuza 0, to provide enough backstory for the new hero Ichiban to feel like an already established character throughout the prologue and first chapter. Like with any Yakuza game, a lot of story unfolds over the course of Like a Dragon, with some cutscenes lasting roughly thirty minutes to provide all of the contextual information necessary to grasp the gravity of specific events or situations.

Ichiban Kasuga might be a new protagonist, but the conflicts brought to a head in Like a Dragon are not. Those who are new to the series may feel like fish out of water when organizations and plot threads from previous games come up. Although it’s billed as a stand-alone title, that isn’t entirely the truth; your experience with this new entry will greatly be enriched if you have played all seven of the mainline entries. Still, Like a Dragon does a good enough job at keeping a newcomer informed.

Ichiban gears up to deliver a huge, light-up attack in Yakuza: Like a Dragon Image: Ryu ga Gotoku Studio/Sega via Polygon

Gameplay in Like a Dragon is vastly different from before. Ryu ga Gotoku Studio has hung up the more action-oriented combat of previous titles to usher in a real-time turn-based system. Characters shuffle around the street after transitioning into a combat sequence, with some appearing larger than life or as gross exaggerations of how Ichiban might otherwise perceive them. Combat is strictly turn-based, since this is a game inspired by Dragon Quest — as series creator Toshihiro Nagoshi has mentioned in interviews, and as the game itself lets you know, with Ichiban professing his love for the series several times within the first few hours. Certain aspects of the environment can be used to deal additional damage to enemies, or even stun them if you’re lucky enough. However, positioning in combat is too random to be tactical, with characters positioning themselves and adjusting to your commands, be they attack or defend. Additionally, characters can sometimes get stuck on parts of the environment, which can lead to complications in combat. Thankfully, the system repositions them after a period of time, so it doesn’t break the game.

Your eventual party of four (though there’s a total of seven party members you can choose from) can also be assigned different jobs at the job office. Jobs effectively function the same way as character classes, with damage-specific jobs, healing-specific jobs, and even tanking-specific jobs available. Different jobs for Ichiban can be unlocked by increasing his different traits through side quest completion, time spent taking multiple choice tests at a vocational school, and leveling up. Your party members must advance their affinity rank in order to unlock specific jobs. Unfortunately, jobs are gender-locked, so you won’t be able to have Ichiban trotting around as an idol, as that role is strictly locked to female party members. Jobs can only be changed at a job office, and it can be a little tedious to walk or take a taxi back there in order to do so.

In general, it’s hard to get around town in Like a Dragon, with some areas prohibiting taxis (the staple fast travel method in the Yakuza series) until the main story has progressed past a certain point. Until then, you’re forced to walk from various points around the map, dodging cars if you’re not using crosswalks. (Yes, I was hit by cars several times in my playthrough, and I genuinely advise you to stick to crosswalks to avoid some pretty extreme damage.) Even after unlocking access to new taxi locations, the game unfortunately begins to suffer from pacing issues, which combine with the new RPG mechanics to stretch out segments of the game for much longer than necessary.

Ichiban walks down a busy city street in Yakuza: Like a Dragon Image: Ryu ga Gotoku Studio/Sega via Polygon

Those familiar with the Yakuza series will find themselves at home in locales like Kamurocho, and new players will be able to revel in just how large and detailed these re-created environments truly are. It was nice to wander around Ijincho, the new series locale and fictional red light district of Yokohama, and drink in the new sights for the first few hours, but it soon became tedious and somewhat tiresome just due to the sheer scale of this new city. There are more than a handful of different districts, and players can quickly find themselves in areas that are beyond their level. Losing combat encounters in these regions will halve your total amount of money. That sometimes puts you back at square one if you were trying to grind for cash before unlocking the more profitable business management minigame, or the Part-Time Hero quests, which have you running around and beating up enemies to fulfill requests for cash and equipment.

In addition to minigames, Like a Dragon has plenty of side activities to keep players engaged. The side stories are just as absurd as in previous Yakuza games. Finishing some of them can also grant players access to summons to help them in combat, although they’re fairly expensive to use and not really worth the cash. Fan favorite minigames return, like karaoke and the option to visit hostess clubs. New ones include Dragon Kart (Like a Dragon’s version of Mario Kart), a can-collecting minigame, and a business management minigame that you won’t be able to access until around 10 hours in. But that can be said about most of the features in Like a Dragon.

In one Yakuza: Like a Dragon mini-game, Ichiban must fight imaginary rams as a symbol of his attempt to resist falling asleep while watching classic films Image: Ryu ga Gotoku Studio/Sega via Polygon

It takes a very long time to get access to basic functions, like being able to change your job or have a full roster of characters. Crafting weapons and armor won’t be available until around nine to 10 hours in, depending on how much grinding you decide to do between story segments. Cutscenes can drag on, adding to feelings of fatigue. Like a Dragon is best enjoyed in short bursts to appreciate the story and what the game has to offer, since you will likely be playing it for upwards of 60 hours. One story segment in particular is blocked off until you earn a specific amount of money to progress. This can take a very, very long time to accumulate if you haven’t already built up your business before that point.

The localization is also odd at times. Certain characters have received English voice work where others have not, which ends up breaking immersion. Shopkeepers, for example, do not have English voice tracks, and random enemies you encounter walking around the map will shout at you in Japanese even with the English audio option selected. Even more strange is that some characters who have English audio in cutscenes don’t have it for combat encounters. The entire main cast and other critical characters have received English voice-overs, but it really is a shame that the rest of the game didn’t get the same kind of attention. That being said, the performance of the English voice cast is great, especially Kaji Tang, who gives a performance as equally convincing as the one by Kazuhiro Nakaya, Ichiban’s Japanese voice actor.

Most of the new characters are likable, and you get to learn more about them through a new conversation-based mechanic. It functions mostly like the old hostess club minigames, but now there are no wrong answers, and what you choose will affect which personality trait of Ichiban’s will grow. Instead of only getting to know characters through moments in the main story, you can spend time with them in a more intimate setting to glean more information about their background, interests, and motivations. This will keep players grinding for affection either through combat or through listening to short conversations that can intermittently pop up while on the map. (A bonus of this system provides more experience for characters with whom Ichiban shares higher affection, so that’s a benefit to getting to know your party members as well.)

Masato Arakawa, followed by Ichiban Kasuga, enters a cafe in Yakuza: Like a Dragon. The hosts bow to the men as they enter Image: Ryu ga Gotoku Studio/Sega via Polygon

Unfortunately, while Like a Dragon tries to provide unique narratives for each new character, it fails to avoid the tropes that bogged down the previous games, stepping right into the same kind of sexism that series veterans will be more than familiar with. Saeko, a new addition to the cast and one of the only female party members, is often subjected to sexual harassment from ex-nurse Nanba and former detective Adachi, as well as in various situations scattered throughout the story. The timing and delivery of these scenes make it clear that sexual harassment is being played for laughs, even when Saeko retaliates against her attackers or assures the party that she can handle herself. Her character does defy some social and cultural conventions, but in its overall portrayal of Saeko, Yakuza reminds us that it is designed first and foremost for Japanese men.

Other key members of the party, like Joon-gi Han and Tianyou Zhao, attempt to buck the negative stereotypes associated with Korean and Chinese characters, respectively, in the Yakuza series, but that’s undercut by the fact that their affiliation to other organizations is still insidious in nature. Like its protagonist, Like a Dragon tries to put its best foot forward with good intention, but gets caught up in the same old problems.

Like a Dragon’s story attempts to touch on certain social issues that are relevant in present-day Japan, such as classism, social status, sex work, and government corruption on a prefectural level. However, the writing often lacks the nuance or range to address the topics at hand, and doesn’t give any of them adequate room to breathe. The second half of the game gains some measure of focus as plot threads tie together and result in genuinely surprising twists, but when Like a Dragon drops the ball, it drops it hard. Despite this, the Japanese cast’s performances sell the story with evocative deliveries that breathe life into the characters. The finale is an emotional one that brought me to tears and moved me, just as most previous Yakuza games have.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s protagonist Ichiban, looking solemn while standing in a graveyard Image: Ryu ga Gotoku Studio/Sega

As tedious and tiring as some parts of Like a Dragon are, that conclusion and the lead-up to it solidified my opinion on it being a great entry in the series. Even on my second playthrough, it still retained that same feeling, the same impact it had the first time I experienced it, when I played the original Japanese release of the game almost a year ago. Even moments early in the game still hit hard when I played through them again — like the scene when Ichiban finally leaves prison, idyllic and hopeful that the leader of his clan and surrogate father figure will be there waiting for him. The writing for Ichiban is superb, especially where he has moments of deep self-reflection where you can see his character grow into something that fills the shoes Kazuma Kiryu left behind. I cannot wait to see what Ryu ga Gotoku Studio will have in store if it chooses to move forward with Ichiban as the main protagonist from this point onward.

What Ryu ga Gotoku Studio has created is an ambitious new entry in a franchise that has managed to endure for over 15 years. Series veterans might be turned off by this new direction, but it manages to retain the same essence as its predecessors. And by the end, Ichiban Kasuga and Yakuza: Like a Dragon both prove to be a worthy successor to the franchise.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon will be released worldwide Nov. 10 on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X; the PlayStation 5 version is scheduled to be released March 2, 2021. The game was reviewed on PS4 using a pre-release download code provided by Sega. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.