Yakuza: The Next Generation
HIGH Beating up a backhoe.
LOW Saving up for hours to buy just one weapon.
WTF The City Slicker.
I’ve previously discussed the extent to which Kazuma Kiryu, the original protagonist of the Yakuza franchise, is the best character in the history of videogames. If I’d been asked how the series could possibly go on without him, I would have said it was impossible. Even the samurai spin-offs that Sega stubbornly refuses to localize starred Kiryu, despite being set hundreds of years earlier. So, with Kiryu’s story wrapped up at the end of the sixth game, I thought that was the end of the series.
Thankfully the good people at Ryu Ga Gotoku studios knew better and kept right on creating, because their new game, Yakuza: Like a Dragon, easily earns its place alongside the rest of the franchise’s impressive library.
The plot closely mirrors Yakuza 1‘s, but this isn’t a case of developers repeating themselves — beats are reused not just to convince the audience that new lead Ichiban Kasuga is a logical heir to Kiryu, but also to highlight the new direction Like a Dragon takes while throwing the differences between main characters into sharp relief.
While Kiryu was trained since birth to be the best possible Yakuza, Ichiban is an orphaned punk who stumbled into organized crime. Kiryu goes to jail for years to protect the love of his life, but Ichiban is sent down because he’s expendable. Yakuza is no longer a tale about a noble warrior fighting for justice, it’s now a story of desperate people clinging to survival at the margins of society.
There have also been big changes in the mechanics, as well as the characterizations.
While the series featured realtime brawling for the first six installments, Like a Dragon makes the jump into being a turn-based RPG. The Yakuza series has always leaned into RPG elements with its leveling system, quest design, and random encounters, so this is perhaps not the drastic change that it might first seem. However, it is surprising that this new system feels every bit as kinetic and impactful as the brawling did.
All of Like a Dragon‘s fights take place where an encounter begins, so most of the time it’s out on the streets, which are just as full of wandering thugs and makeshift weapons as ever. Although characters take turns fighting, all of the combatants are constantly moving while the player plans their next move. Waiting for the right moment to strike often means waiting until the enemy is behind a garbage can or discarded bicycle that the player can kick into them for a free bonus hit.
Encouraging the player to use an extra level of tactical thinking not typically found in turn-based systems takes what would have been fairly basic RPG combat and makes it more dynamic. Suddenly, it’s not just about using an area of effect attack to hit a bunch of guys, it’s about using it on the right enemy at the right time to maximize damage.
Also, players can’t just strike anyone they want — if their attack forces them to run past idle enemies, there’s a chance the foes will lash out and interrupt the player’s turn. Active battle elements also appear, asking the player to hit buttons with the proper timing to do more damage, or deflect incoming hits. The only thing that keeps Like a Dragon from being a fully strategic experience is the lack of a true turn-order timeline. Players know who will get their turn next, but this isn’t enough information to plan out elaborate combo attacks.
This combat system is wildly successful, and what’s also notable is how this new genre reflects the story being told.
When Kasuga is sprung from prison after 18 years, his world has disappeared. His old Yakuza family is no longer recognizable, his surrogate father doesn’t seem to know who he is, and he has no resources of any kind. He soon finds himself homeless on the streets of Yokohama, where Like a Dragon‘s RPG classic tropes are reframed.
We’ve all played a JRPG where the hero’s home is destroyed by an evil empire, forcing them to become a sword for hire. It’s the same here, except that there are no local nobles to take Kasuga in and give him a quest — just a job center where he can apply for the kind of work that an uneducated ex-con is qualified for.
As the player works through the story, they’ll find characters whose goals align with Kasuga’s, gradually allowing him to put together a traditional RPG ‘party’. Each member can choose from a variety of roles at the job center, with their career defining what kind of weapons they can equip and which special moves they can execute in combat.
While this new iteration of Yakuza is certainly incredible for a number of reasons, it isn’t flawless. For starters, even for a JRPG, it’s extremely grindy.
In previous Yakuza games a player could rush through many fights without bothering to max Kiryu out because the combat was as much about skill as it was stats. In contrast, Like a Dragon‘s fights are fairly stats-intensive, as befits an RPG. It doesn’t matter how practiced the player is, if they’re fighting a team of enemies five levels higher, they’re going to lose.
Exacerbating this, where other modern RPGs offer streamlined casual modes to let players quickly level up and get on with the story, Like a Dragon is distinctly old-school, forcing the player to get into dozens of battles each time they want to raise their level. I enjoyed the battles, but I could see it getting repetitive for some. To be fair, the script name-checks Dragon Quest several times, so it’s easy to see where this influence comes from.
Also an issue are the translations. The work is largely very good, and even witty when it comes to naming enemies. However, the camera will slowly pan across a sign or poster covered in Japanese text — obviously something meaningful — but no subtitles are provided.
A bigger problem for me is the main character’s name, Ichiban. It’s not actually a name, it literally means “#1” and all of the characters who hear it respond with incredulity, as is appropriate. This name is integral to Kasuga’s journey as a person — he literally starts as a joke before doing the work necessary to grow into it.
English-speaking audiences are robbed of the chance to go on that journey with him because while they’re told what his name means, they don’t have an emotional connection when they hear it. It just doesn’t land the way it does in Japanese. Had they changed his name to ‘Hero’ or ‘Champion’ Kasuga, it might have gotten the point across more clearly.
Issues aside, Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a masterpiece that might also be of historical note, since I’m hard-pressed to come up with another series that changed genres without losing what made it special in the first place. Players come to Yakuza games expecting fantastic storytelling, a bustling open world, and intense combat. Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios have proven they can swap out one leg of that stool without sacrificing its strength, and that’s an accomplishment few can claim.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio and published by Sega. It is currently available on PC, PS4, PS5, XBO, XBX. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS5.
Approximately 90 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB this game is rated M and contains Blood, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, and Use of Alcohol. No kids, please. This is violent even by Yakuza standards. People get executed onscreen, there are flasher-themed enemies, the main character was literally born in a whorehouse… it’s as far from kid-safe as you can imagine.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I played most of the game with the sound off and encountered no difficulties. All dialogue is subtitled. Text cannot be resized. This game is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, the game’s controls cannot be remapped. There is no control diagram. In the open-world segments the left thumbstick controls movement and right controls the camera. In combat and menus the left thumbstick is used to select from menu options and target enemies, and face buttons are used to select items and trigger attacks.