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Yakuza: Like a Dragon: A Heroic Punch-Up

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And they said playing RPGs couldn’t teach you anything about life.

Since I’ve only played the Yakuza games that are available on Steam, those being 0, Kiwami, and Kiwami 2, I guess I’m technically still a newcomer to this series. Even so, I absolutely loved those games, so when it was announced that the newest iteration would release simultaneously on PC, I was overjoyed. That joy was tempered somewhat when I learned that unlike the other games, Yakuza: Like a Dragon would be a turn-based RPG rather than a straight-up action brawler. But I suppose I should’ve known that if any series could handle a sudden jarring genre shift, it’d be Yakuza.

On New Year’s Day 2001, Yakuza grunt Ichiban Kasuga receives a fervent plea from his family’s patriarch, Arakawa: go to prison in the place of one of the family’s captains in order to preserve their integrity. Kasuga, being indebted to his patriarch, happily accepts, and spends the next 18 years in the can. When he gets out, he expects a hero’s welcome, but not only is his family not there to greet him, they’ve apparently defected to a different clan and meet him with outright hostility when he tries to find them. Down on his luck but certainly not out, Kasuga sets out to piece together what happened to his family and patriarch while he was locked up, all while getting wrapped up in a three-way stalemate between the crime syndicates of Yokohama.

Kasuga is kind of a meathead compared to the likes of Kazuma Kiryu; he’s a bit on the dim side, but he’s generally good natured and has a magnetic charisma about him. It’s thanks to that charisma that he draws in his “party members,” homeless former nurse Nanba, ex-detective Adachi, and cabaret bartender Saeko. Compared to Kiryu, who handles most of his business alone, Kasuga’s team offers some refreshing group dynamics and entertaining conversations. I should also add that for the first time in a while for this series, this game features a full English dub. I still prefer the Japanese voices, but if you don’t like reading subtitles, the dub is there, and it is quite good, even featuring some impressive faces like veteran actor George Takei as Arakawa. Fair warning, though, the game front-loads you with a lot of story in the first few hours, so be prepared to sit through a good chunk of cutscenes before you get to the meat and potatoes of things.

For the most part, Like a Dragon isn’t especially different from the other Yakuza games in terms of general game flow. You have more-or-less free reign of the city, Yokohama’s district of Isezaki Ijincho this time (based on the real-life Isezakicho) instead of Kamurocho, where punks roam the streets looking for a fight. As Kasuga explains, though, because he spent a good portion of his childhood binging Dragon Quest games, he fights like he assumes a “hero” would: by taking turns. It’s a funny way to frame the turn based combat, which itself is actually a pretty straightforward system. You’ve got attacks and special abilities that deal damage or inflict status effects, though there are a couple of Yakuza-esque wrinkles. For instance, if you go to attack an enemy and there happens to be an object on the ground like a traffic cone, you’ll automatically grab it and swing it at your foe. It’s a little weird at first not being able to do stuff like that on command, but it’s a very easy system to adjust to. There’s also a job system, in a similar vein to some Final Fantasy games, where you can assign your characters different sets of stats and skills, some of which will provide permanent buffs when you level them up. If I had a single gripe about the combat, it’s that while enemies do have weaknesses and resistances, it’s not always immediately apparent what those are, so you kind of have to bang your head against the wall a few times until you find something that works.

But much like the combat isn’t the main draw of the other games in the series, it ain’t here either. There’s a slew of engaging side-activities around the city, each yielding benefits like stat boosts or prizes to improve Kasuga’s abilities for the main story. In addition to series standbys like batting cages, arcades, and karaoke, Yokohama features Mario Kart-style street racing, a vintage movie theater where you battle sheep-men to stay awake, and a homeless entrepreneur that challenges you to collect cans on a bicycle, just to name a few. The biggest addition is the store manager, wherein Kasuga has to manage a struggling business conglomerate. It’s kind of like the real estate manager game in Yakuza 0, but a little more involved, requiring you to carefully manage your properties and who’s running them, as well as engage in meetings with shareholders to assure them the company’s not going belly-up.

If you were worried about Yakuza becoming an RPG, allow me to officially tell you not to be. While the combat is a change, Yakuza: Like a Dragon still maintains that “one more thing” addictiveness that made the other games so engrossing. You finish a story quest, then you spot a sub-story on the map, go take care of that, but then you’re right next to the kart racing, so you do a quick circuit, but then you’re a little low on cash, so you go manage your company for a while, but then- well, you get the idea. The change to turn-based combat hasn’t slowed this series’ pace at all, and whether you’re a longtime fan or a newcomer, there is so much to love here.