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A selfie taken in-game in Yakuza: Like a Dragon showing the protagonist, Ichiban Kasuga, and other party members. Image: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio/Sega via Polygon

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You don’t need to play Yakuza: Like a Dragon before Infinite Wealth, but you should

Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio turned the ‘ridiculous’ meter until it broke

Cameron Faulkner (he/him) is Polygon’s commerce editor. He began writing about tech and gaming in 2013, and migrated from The Verge in 2023.

If Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio’s Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth is going to be your entry point into the Like a Dragon series (formerly known as Yakuza), first of all, welcome. You’ll probably have a good time. However, I implore you to consider playing its predecessor, Yakuza: Like a Dragon, before moving on to the newer release. While you could certainly still enjoy Infinite Wealth without playing Like a Dragon, it lays the groundwork to get the most out of the latest entry in one of gaming’s most entertaining franchises, introducing you to delightful characters and a bizarre world where you’ll be asked to save people stranded without toilet paper in public restrooms and fight a tiger with your bare hands. And it’s also on Game Pass, which never hurts.

Tonally, Yakuza: Like a Dragon isn’t all that different from previous games in the series. It offers a dramatic — often violent — tale of betrayal and chasing innocence, intermixed with the most varied side quests in gaming. It borrows many of the same activities you can engage in when you aren’t fighting, like spending time in an arcade filled with fleshed-out Sega minigames, or getting delightfully out of character at the karaoke with PaRappa the Rapper-style rhythm-based challenges. There’s even a whole business simulator you can stumble upon (I highly recommend it). For new and even returning players, it’s a lot to have washed over you, but it feels so good to bathe in.

This variety spoiled me in ways that no other RPG has so far matched. As I ran through the streets of Yokohama and Kamurocho for nearly 76 hours, it wasn’t the temptation of earning more XP that kept me going, or completing side quests just for the sake of checking boxes. It was that, around a surprising number of street corners, my curiosity was rewarded with something unpredictable. Often, it was something goofy, but sometimes protagonist Ichiban Kasuga encounters people in situations that emotionally disarm him, and in turn the player, which can be genuinely heartwarming. And just as quickly, you’ll go back to bludgeoning punks with a vibrator or a wok.

In place of Yakuza’s long-standing protagonist, tough guy Kazuma Kiryu, you play as Ichiban Kasuga, a goofier, more lovable character right off the bat. Ichiban was abandoned as an infant, then taken in and given a pretty comfortable life by a man who turns out to be high up in a yakuza clan. Eventually, Ichiban is asked by his father figure to take the fall for a murder, and ends up serving an 18-year sentence for it. You assume control of him after he’s back on the streets following the tech boom of the 2010s. It’s an all-new world, and the power structure of his father’s yakuza clan changed drastically while Ichiban was locked away.

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

In addition to laying the groundwork for Infinite Wealth’s characters and plots, Like a Dragon marked a minor reinvention for the series. The game eschews previous Yakuza games’ repetitive real-time fighting for more strategic turn-based combat with chosen party members, who are all delightful and flawed in their own ways.

The turn-based combat operates similarly to Dragon Quest (Ichiban’s inspiration for taking the hero’s path) in that battles are made easier by exploiting elemental weaknesses to gain the edge. Those constant battles avoid becoming too repetitive thanks in part to the game’s job system. In place of the vast skill trees of previous Yakuza games that you slowly chip away at, in Like a Dragon you can level up a class (or job, as it’s called) for your party members, like hitman, fortuneteller, musician, chef, pop idol, and more, gaining new class abilities along the way. You can change them constantly, and some of them change your role in battle drastically, providing freshness to your party that’s slightly reminiscent of Dragon’s Dogma.

Compared to the real-time fighting in older Yakuza games (as well as the newer Like a Dragon Gaiden and Ishin) the turn-based system makes it easier to focus on your characters absolutely laying into fools. The animation and sound design collide magnificently, and there are so many clever ways to inflict chaos of all sorts on your enemies. Like many other RPGs, Like a Dragon includes summons, but with a signature twist. Instead of demons and gods, you’re calling upon “Poundmates” like a sumo wrestler, a gigantic crawfish, a lady who works in a soup kitchen, or a masochist who can feel no pain. Ryu Ga Gotoku turned the “ridiculous” meter until it broke.

Ichiban Kasuga standing in a day care in the game Yakuza: Like a Dragon. Image: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio/Sega via Polygon

Yakuza: Like a Dragon has its faults, including mid- and late-game difficulty spikes that all but require you to grind levels in a maze-like underground dungeon that does not live up to the joy of the rest of the game. And it’s frustrating that the game’s many classes are gender-specific, and sometimes specific to certain characters. Depending on the player, it’ll either be a perk or a turn-off that Like a Dragon continues to introduce new features and game types dozens of hours into the adventure. I don’t necessarily expect Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio to fix any of these things in Infinite Wealth, but that won’t stop me from playing it.

Like a Dragon proved that reinvention can be good, even when you’re on the umpteenth entry. And with Infinite Wealth around the corner, the franchise that was once an underdog may finally — deservedly — explode in popularity.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon is available on Game Pass for PC and Xbox, and on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.