With a new lead and turn-based combat, Yakuza: Like a Dragon shakes off franchise fatigue to deliver another winning entry. Save for a few performance issues on PC and some problems with the English voice-over, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio delivers another rousing success filled with intrigue and mini-games galore.
Platform: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Series S/X
Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio
Release date: November 10th, 2020
Price: $59.99 via physical and digital download, $69.99 Hero Edition, $89.99 Legendary Hero Edition
Stagnancy is common problem for long running game franchises. With seven mainline entries, as well as several spin-offs and remakes, it seemed dubious if reoccurring protagonist Kazuma Kiryu could continue to shoulder the Yakuza series. But cleverly, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio retired the resilient lead before his legacy could become tarnished. With the release of Yakuza: Like a Dragon, the developers have passed the responsibility to a new character, Ichiban Kasuga.
With a name that’s translated to “the best”, and a predecessor whose tough guy/kind-hearted dialectic won over a legion of worldwide fans, Kasuga faces a steep uphill battle. Personally, I approached him with the suspicion of a stepfather. But prejudice quickly eroded during Like a Dragon’s prologue, where I found yet another identifiable lead, written with dexterous complexity.
Kasuga’s relatability is rooted in his backstory, where he grew up impoverished and disconnected from his biological parents. Instead, he meagerly persisted through morally ambiguous odd jobs, while immersing himself in Dragon Quest at night. He’s more emotionally expressive that the stoic Kiryu and can be impulsive at times. But these qualities ultimately make him an intriguing character, especially when Kasuga is confronted with conflict. Often, he views the world through the lens of a devoted role-playing gamer, which is demonstrated by Like a Dragon’s shift from button-pushing brawls to turn-based battles.
But more importantly, there’s less dissonance when Ichiban participates in the kind of madcap mini-games that the series is known for. Here, Ryu Ga Gotoku stacks the game with extracurricular activities. Beyond the requisite SEGA arcade classics of Space Harrier, Super Hang-On, and Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown, you can spend time in a multitude of other pursuits. From games of shogi or mahjong, riding on a trike collecting cans, singing karaoke, hitting the batting cages and driving ranges, there always multiple recreations competing for your leisure time.
Drive Those Profits
Some of these activities are quite robust, like Dragon Kart, which parodies both Nintendo’s beloved karting franchise as well as the Japanese businesses that send tourists racing through actual streets. With four cup classes, a succession of new rivalries, and unlockable vehicles, there’s not only a wealth of substance but a surprising amount of polish. Budding entrepreneurs can tackle Like a Dragon’s business management component, where they’ll attempt to increase Ichiban Confections’ profitability, mirroring the aspirations of becoming a real estate mogul and hostess club tycoon in Yakuza 0. There isn’t there isn’t much assistance, so you’ll have to figure things out on your own, which keeps with Kasuga’s can-do demeanor.
Although these mini-games are almost universally enjoyable, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio persistently resists letting these diversions steal the spotlight. Save for the odd bit of redundancy, the game’s writing is exceedingly well scribed, and the true star of the game. As with previous series entries, Like a Dragon leans heavily on cinematics to do the exposition. But nearly every scene imparts some fascinating bit of detail about the game’s rather eccentric cast. Previously, the franchise didn’t have many entry points for newcomers. While Dragon offers a host of cameos, it can be enjoyed by those who are unfamiliar with the tangled loyalties and betrayals of the fifteen-year old franchise.
Expert Cinematography but Spotty English Dubbing
While skillful character arcs and a virtuoso handling of tensions are two of Yakuza’s reappearing achievements, the utilization of technology is another triumph. Character detail is exquisite, with the game frequently flaunting enough fidelity that to study a character’s pores. Likewise, extensive use of motion capture sells a scene when injury or intoxication take place. But there’s still a bit of work to be done with some of the nuances. The best screen actors can express what a character is thinking. Like a Dragon succeeds on the obvious facial expressions. But some of the more complicated expressions still miss the mark, which can tarnish the impact of an emotional scene.
Worse in the franchise’s new English voice over. It’s not inclusive, so occasionally you’ll meet an NPC who will greet you with Japanese sound bites. In other moments, there’s a disconnect when Japanese terms are used. Some characters will pronounce them correctly, while others offer sloppy articulations, and the discrepancy can be cringe-inducing. That said, if you don’t mind when the word “karate” is rhymed with “naughty”, you might not even notice the lack of consistency. At least the voice work of major characters is proficiently directed. Unsurprisingly, the game’s Japanese voice work is the track that series fans will want to listen to. Even if you aren’t fluent, the emotion and tonal shifts demonstrates a lofty level of professionalism.
Like a Joker
It’s fairly obvious that Ryu Ga Gotoku staff played Persona 5 during their off-time, as a few of P-Studio’s approaches are evident here. While Kasuga conceptualizes things in term of Dragon Quest, Like a Dragon shirks the role-playing franchise traditional menu commands for an interface build around controller face buttons. When street punks inevitable challenge your squad, you’ll decide to attack, guard, use a special or an item. Naturally, there’s still a lot of context-sensitive choices, so you can pummel a downed opponent or opt to use environmental objects to escalate your damage output.
This isn’t a TRPG, so movement is handling automatically. This can introduce issue when trying to hit a far-flung adversary; often, another foe can get into the way of your attack. Much like the action of the previous series entries, longevity is engrained in variance. While there’s some social bonding to boost stats (another Persona nod), you’ll also be able to give characters jobs that provide them with their own vocationally-inspired specials. Obligatory female squad member Saeko Mukuoda can become an idol, which with the ability to heal others through music and dance, makes her a bit of a cleric. For some, these subtle nods at classic gaming tropes will prove to be satisfying, as if Ryu Ga Gotoku staff grew up playing the same games as us.
When it comes to performance, Yakuza: Like a Dragon makes a competent showing on PC. Sure, there’s the rare instance of slowdown when running through the open streets of Yokohama transitions to a cinematic. But store the game on an SSD, and the sporadic load times are barely noticeable. What is perceptible is the amount of explorable space in Isezaki Ijincho, the game’s stand-in for Yokohama’s real life Isezakichō. Each street, alley, and soapland is brimming with so much detail, it can be difficult to not to stop and soak in the scenery. If you’re the owner of an Xbox Series S/X, you’ll also be privy to a persistently fluid sixty frames-per-second output. There are some instances where the game misses its target, but you’d have to be quite punctilious to notice.
Occasionally, I’ll approach a prolific franchise with an eye on the clock, counting down the hours until the credits roll. Like a Dragon, as with previous Yakuza outings, is the opposite. I worry about the tale coming to an end and not seeing the motley members Arakawa Family for another few years. But as Kazuma Kiryu taught us, leave before you’ve overstayed your welcome.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon was played on PC with review code provided by the publisher.