The Yakuza franchise has long been a cult series in the West, but with Yakuza: Like a Dragon being one of the signature releases on Xbox Series S/X, it is about to make its way into the mainstream.
Introducing a new protagonist and main setting in Yokohama is risky but one that Sega have pulled off. The game acts as a pitch perfect introduction to the series and its very weird Japanese sensibilities - sensibilities and characterizations that any fan of anime and manga would be familiar with. Ichiban is a low-level Yakuza, loyal to his family and boss; so loyal that when his boss asks him to take the fall for a crime to protect someone higher up, he does so without hesitation. Spending eighteen years in prison doesn’t embitter him at all. When he leave,s he is still the same loyal Ichiban, but the world and his family have changed and he has to unravel the mystery behind it.
To do that, Ichiban must gather a party of heroes, all of whom have something to prove or uncover. Breaking the traditional brawler roots, Like a Dragon changes tack to that of a JRPG, and the setting in a modern Japanese city works. The fact that party members can heal each other or perform what looks like magical spells in combat does not look out of place or odd, it just fits into this universe and the weirdness that you will encounter. When you first summon the baby special attack you will know what I mean by weirdness.
The switch from brawler to turn-based mechanics doesn't impact the experience at all. It actually enhances the game, especially after you find out that Ichiban is a Dragon Quest fan as this then makes the JRPG mechanics more meaningful in context. The mechanics also allow you to ease yourself into the wackiness of Yakuza as you have time to plan your battles and moves. It also allows for the wackiness to be dialed up to 11 as the developers had to find believable real-world attacks to mimic spells and special abilities.
While playing a turn-based game and controlling four PCs seems like it would make for an easy experience, knowing each character and their skills and abilities is key to enjoying the game and beating the enemies. Without that understanding, you will not get the full experience of a JRPG and will probably quit due to frustration.
To help or complicate your learning curve is the Job system, allowing you to change each character’s skills and abilities and role in the party. Doing this can lead to some amazing team combos and costumes but the fact that when you change jobs you will start at level 1 or whatever previous level that character has levelled that job, which disincentivizes you from experimenting. I ended up finding a job for each character that I liked and stuck with it.
For long-time fans you needn't worry that the JRPG mechanics has taken anything away as all the fun is kept intact. The minigames can still be found around every corner, the movie minigame where you have to fight off sleep by battling sheep is a particular favourite of mine, and as mentioned, the summons are suitably hilarious and over-the-top for the series.
As one of the signature games for the launch of the Xbox Series S and X, you would think this game would come with all the bells and whistles, however, none of the fancy raytracing is present. On the Xbox Series X, you have a choice of two settings: 4K/30 or 1440p/60. Both ran well and, on that machine, it depends on your preferences, mine being lower resolution and higher framerates. On the Xbox One X it runs at 1080/30 which is acceptable but is not the ideal experience. Sadly, Microsoft’s Series S seems to be the loser here with reports of the game running at 900p/60 or 1440p/30. I didn’t get a chance to test it on that console but it doesn’t bode well for the long-term life of that console.
What I did appreciate on the Series X was the load times and the Quick Resume feature. These made jumping into and out of Yokohama easy for short playtimes when you have just thirty minutes or so free to game. Couple that with the convenience of Smart Delivery making only one purchase necessary and cloud saves enabling me to play on either my Series X in the lunge or my One X in my study when my wife wants to use the TV, and you have a brilliant quality of life enhancement.
Graphically the world maintains the standards of previous entries in the series. Cities are well-populated with decent sized crowds milling about. Where Yakuza tends to shine is on the attention to detail given to main character models. While many NPCs, especially random enemies, will be recycled assets, the main characters are wonderfully distinct and detailed. A lot of attention has been paid to the character models to make them distinct and attractive.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a long one at over fifty hours, but I feel as if half of that is taken up by cutscenes. Like a Dragon is slow to start with what seems like a cutscene every five minutes, but the writing is so good and the characters so endearing that you will find yourself not skipping these scenes.
If you wanted to experience the wackiness of the Yakuza series but did not want to wade through all the backstory, Yakuza: Like a Dragon is the perfect gateway with a new protagonist to guide you into the game. The length may put many off, but it should not as the writing and the weirdness will keep you entertained for all those hours.
Grumpy Old Man who still collects toys (THEY. ARE. NOT. DOLLS), PC Gamer lured to the Dark Side of console gaming, comic book reader and fan of all things pop culture.
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Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio
PC, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series
20 November 2020
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