Yakuza: Like a Dragon review for PS4, Xbox Series X, Xbox One

Platform: PS4
Also On: Xbox Series X, Xbox One, PC
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio
Medium: Digital
Players: 1-2
Online: Leaderboards

Backlogs are a 1st world problem. Having so much to enjoy that you can?t enjoy anything is something that I would play the world?s smallest violin for. In 2006, SEGA released an open world brawler set in a stylized version of Japan where players control a Kiryu Kazama, an stoic and honorable ex-yakuza who took the fall for a crime he didn?t commit. Over the course of seven titles, players saw Kiryu pull back into yakuza affairs as well as the affairs of civilians in various regions of Japan. I however only followed the exploits through videos and wikipedia articles because I never found time to start the title. This all changed at the precipice of a new console generation. With Yakuza: Like a Dragon, the series focuses on a new leading man, whose life path is extremely similar (went to prison for a crime he didn?t commit, expelled from the yakuza, teams up with a cop to uncover the mystery of what occurred while he was incarcerated), but he stands as his own man.

Ichiban Kasuga is a man who should not be as honorable and upbeat as he is. Born and raised in a soapland (think a combination of bathhouse/brothel), he abandoned schooling after his adoptive father passed and he lived on the streets until a fateful incident allowed him to cross paths with his benefactor. After running afoul of some yakuza, he unwittingly blurted out the name of an infamous yakuza boss. The plan didn?t quite work, but miraculously said yakuza boss showed up and helped set him free. Indebted to the man, Ichiban eventually joined the yakuza family of that man and became a loyal follower ever since. In 2001 Ichiban took the fall for a crime committed by his boss?s right hand man and found himself in prison for nearly 20 years. Out of prison he finds the landscape has completely changed and his attempt to reconnect with his old boss results with him nearly dead and dumped in Yokohama. Now he needs to carefully navigate the underworld of that region as he tries to get his life back on track.

Traditionally the Yakuza games are an open world brawler, with Like a Dragon, the formula changes as Ichiban treats fighting like an RPG battle (he?s a big fan of Dragon Quest). Unlike Kiryu who?s a bit of a loner, Ichiban ends up recruiting an assortment of personalities including a homeless ex-nurse, a disgraced cop/DMV employee. Battles take place in the overworld and like previous titles Ichiban can utilize environmental objects to aid him in battle (although that?s rare…but it?s a nice nod). Ichiban and company can actually do the RPG thing and take on jobs which will give them access to a variety of abilities. Players can roam the streets of Yokohama as a B-boy crew, or a mishmash of a construction worker, casino dealer, chef, and bodyguard. Enemies are just as wild as you can come across run of the mill yakuza, homeless men, and literal garbage people.

The battles are very fast paced and the fact that it takes place on an open field means that there?s some level of strategy when using attacks. If favor smiles upon you enemies can bunch up allowing you to hit multiple people with a singular attack. If you want to shut your brain off you can even turn on the auto battle feature which allows the computer take care of business utilizing 3 types of tactics. My gripes with the combat system are the following, if Ichiban gets knocked out, the battle is over regardless of the status of his companions and the open world nature can lead to skirmishes where characters need to run a marathon just to perform their actions. The poundmates (summons) system while hilarious is somewhat gimped. There are many restrictions to using the service and between the cooldown, monetary cost means it?ll be a seldomly used feature.

While the combat system received the biggest overhaul many hallmarks of the series remain. A dramatic main story which features the affairs of the greater japanese mob as well as the local criminal element. The light hearted and even touching human stories of the citizens of Yokohama. If interacting with these elements are not interesting, players have a bevy of side activities such as gambling, kart racing, shogi, ufo catchers and even arcades (which features 3 iterations of Virtua Fighter). For more intellectual pursuits, Ichiban can even earn vocational certificates which will boost his stats that can affect his battles and side activities as well as run a corporation to take it to the top.

For all the impressive elements there are some puzzling decisions that were implemented. The game canonically takes place in 2019, but some things are tethered to a differ era. Banking can only be done at ATMs which are only available at convenience stores…whose locations are somewhat scant and less than convenient. Changing jobs requires you to backtrack to the local job center and there was a section where the game forcibly switches your job and unfortunately for me my job level for that career was dismally low and making combat a hassle until I had the opportunity to switch back to my preferred job. However these are minor quibbles that don’t mar the experience too much.

As stated one of my bigger regrets was not jumping on board the Yakuza train when it first left the station (I?m pretty sure I have every physical edition of the various releases sealed at home). Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a perfect jumping in point for anyone who?s ever been curious about the series, however it does not abandon long time players as it includes enough call backs and familiar elements that they expect. Just as we are in a console generation change, this series is going through drastic changes and manages to pull it off seamlessly. I look forward to following the exploits of the Dragon of Rock Bottom for years to come.

Note: Sega provided us with a Yakuza: Like a Dragon PS4 code for review purposes.

Grade: A