Like a Dragon is the Yakuza series at its batshit best.
Bursting with oddball humor, over-the-top fisticuffs, and plenty of virtual tourist eye candy, Sega's latest installment of its do-gooder criminal adventure series is a silly delight. Full of soapy story twists, unforgettable weirdos, and a generous sampling of impeccably designed mini-games, Like a Dragon is right up there with Yakuza 0 in terms of sheer fun-factor and an almost dizzying abundance of stuff to see and do.
Whether you're clobbering goons in a shady alley, managing your budding rice-cracker empire, or treating your best boys to a night of boozing at the cabaret club, Like a Dragon is an infectiously cheerful time-sink to savor.
The new kid in town
This eighth (!!!) mainline entry in Sega's cult-hit series serves up a pretty dramatic gameplay shift. While previous Yakuza games have emphasized combo-heavy brawler combat, Like a Dragon shifts to the turn-based battles commonly associated with role-playing franchises like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. That's because our new hero, a former Tojo clan grunt named Ichiban Kasuga, fancies himself the hero of his own personal video game.
Like a Dragon leans into this endearing nerdishness constantly — from playing an 8-bit inspired fanfare when someone "joins your party" and introducing a Pokémon-inspired index of every foe you encounter, to Kasuga explicitly telling his new friends how much Dragon Quest meant to him as a kid. He's not quite as cool or successful as previous series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, and that's a big part of his charm.
On paper, it's hard to imagine how this new approach to fighting could retain the snappy momentum of the previous Yakuza games, but it absolutely works. Tapping the buttons in time with on-screen prompts will allow each of your party members to rack up bonus damage or block incoming blows. You don't have to do this — there's an auto-fight button if you're trying to blow through random encounters — but its a great incentive to stay engaged and keep things lively.
While you can't preemptively whack someone over the head with a bicycle anymore, the combat still makes abundant use of your surroundings, allowing your squad to incorporate objects like signs, chairs, and bottles into standard melee attacks for bonus damage. Random battle encounters wouldn't have such a bad reputation if they were all as spontaneous and hilarious as they are in Like a Dragon.
Like a Dragon's surprisingly robust job system incorporates magic-like elements and support actions — like spraying champagne to inflict "shitfaced" status on your enemies, or posing seductively to lower their defenses — allowing for a more strategic and varied approach to combat. Kasuga also retains Kiryu's fondness for unconventional weaponry — you'll be able to equip golf clubs, bottles of booze, a large kielbasa, and even a "personal massager" to take down your foes.
Like most fantasy games, you'll also be able to summon powerful allies to deal extra damage to tough opponents, but Like a Dragon isn't content with the usual faeries and krakens. Instead, thanks to a handy app called Poundmates, Kasuga can summon forth an army of snippy crayfish or a diaper-clad gangster with a baby fetish to bring the pain.
As is series tradition, Like a Dragon's story has more junk-food twists than a bucket of curly fries. By the time it's all over, you won't totally remember the details of what happened, you'll just remember it was ridiculous and awesome. Yet as much as the Yakuza series alternately revels in and mocks vice, Like a Dragon is a bit more plainspoken in its depiction of the troubling realities that give rise to society's seedy underbelly, without undercutting the escapist thrills at the core of its appeal.
I don't want to get into spoilers here, but suffice to say that while nearly every Yakuza game has featured a "soapland," Like a Dragon's the first to come out and call it a "brothel."
Down and out in Yokohama
The protagonist and combat system aren't all that's new in Like a Dragon. While most previous Yakuza games have taken place in Tokyo's vice district of Kamurocho — based on the real-life Kabukicho — the bulk of Like a Dragon takes place in Yokohama. While there are areas of the map that share the rabbit-warren feel of the earlier games, everything feels bigger and more expansive here, with huge swaths of open-air waterfront and historic buildings adding refreshing variety to the usual assortment of poky pachinko parlors, cabarets, and noodle shops.
Exploration mostly works the same as in previous Yakuza games — running around the city getting into fights, talking to people, and popping into stores. Thankfully, the developers at Sega's Ryu ga Gotoku Studio have made all that exploring a bit easier by eliminating the stamina bar, so Kasuga can sprint indefinitely. For the first time in the series, your allies and enemies can get hit by cars, which can have some pretty wild results, even if it doesn't happen all that often. Weirdly, Like a Dragon makes taxis a bit more difficult to use than previous installments in the series — you'll need to interact with a parked taxi to "unlock" that drop-off point later, which is annoying when you're exploring in the early hours of the game.
The usual assortment of mini-games returns in Like a Dragon — there's golf, karaoke, darts, batting cages, Sega arcade games and UFO catchers, and poker (at a secret underground casino, naturally). Of the new entrants, the go-kart racer Dragon Kart and Seagull Cinema are the most enjoyable, with straightforward mechanics and grabby visuals. Company Management, which sees Kasuga build a business empire from the ground up, makes a great way to earn pocket money to spend on more salami swords and health-restoring bento boxes, but never quite manages to hit the high bar set by Yakuza 0's cabaret and real estate mini-games.
Like a Dragon was released on PS4 in Japan back in January 2020, but playing it on the Xbox Series X felt like a substantial visual upgrade over recent high-spec remakes like Yakuza Kiwami 2. For the most part, loading screens whizz by too quickly to even read. If you're sharp-eyed, you'll notice fun little details like 8-bit renditions of your current party members marching under the "now loading" bar — yet another nod to Dragon Quest. The Yakuza series is already dangerously enticing with all its bite-sized activities and mini-games, so it's remarkably easy to blow through several hours at a time when you're not hobbled by load screens to remind you to pry your eyes away from the screen.
If you've been intrigued by the Yakuza games but never waded in before, Like a Dragon is a perfect place to start, with a slate of fresh new faces and storylines. If you're already a fan, this refreshing twist on an established formula is worthy of the name by every measure.
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