In 15 years, the Yakuza franchise has blossomed from a obscure cult series, into a major pillar in Sega’s portfolio. It helped that the series was both a gripping crime drama, and also a quirky life-sim that is packed with mini-games.
The switch to turn-based combat might be the biggest change in Yakuza: Like a Dragon, but it isn’t the only one. An entirely new cast of characters and a sprawling Yokohama setting combine to enhance a story that, while entertainingly bombastic throughout, doesn’t really stray too far from the types of complex criminal conspiracies and preposterous plot twists that have become the standard for almost every mainline Yakuza game and spin-off to date.
Each main cast member has their own life stories to tell and gets a bit of the spotlight with Ichiban throughout the main campaign. But some of the more personal moments come through in what are called Drink Links--basically Persona-style social link scenarios where party members open up about their personal lives over glasses of whiskey at their home bar called Survive Bar. You increase a bond rating with them, improve social stats, and unlock combat perks along the way; more importantly, you really get to know the characters who are fighting alongside each other.
Job classes range from seemingly mundane chef, to outrageous break dancer and even sexy dominatrix class for the female party members. Every job changes the character’s utility in a big way. Some roles will allow some weapons that restore MP, and some classes will change the entire party dynamic like the defensive Enforcer who carries a huge shield.
Being a Yakuza game, Like a Dragon never suffers a shortage of street thugs waiting to bully you out of your bento box money when you’re just innocently heading down to the arcade to play some OutRun. Yet while you might assume that a switch to turn-based combat would slow the speed of each brawl down to a crawl, combat still manages to feel fluid and energetic despite the pauses in between individual attacks. Although you aren’t given any direct control over the position of each member of your party in the skirmish, every character in the scrap is in constant motion, and that helps each battle feel dynamic. Additionally, the option to reduce incoming damage by tapping the guard button in real-time and the ability to knock an enemy off their feet and then quickly follow up with a more damaging strike in the short window of time before they recover kept me locked in during every fighting moment.
For RGG Studio's first crack at an RPG, it's a damn fine result. It delivers what I love most about Yakuza and introduces new ideas that largely pay off. Ichiban isn't doing it alone, either. He has friends and mentors, ones who've helped him fight and overcome personal tragedies. It was an absolute thrill to watch him grow, and that's what's most important for a game so focused on its characters. Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a passing of the torch, and a fantastic entry in a beloved franchise that proves that it's in good hands with Kasuga Ichiban.