If you've never played a 'Yakuza' game, start with 'Like a Dragon'

'Yakuza: Like a Dragon' is a great addition to a classic series — and a perfect entry point for new players.

The Yakuza series first burst onto the scene in 2006 and has built a massive Japanese (and a sizable Western) audience in the 14 years, 8 games, and multiple spin-offs since then.

If you've never played a Yakuza game before, you're in for a treat. I'd love to say "If you like X, you'll love Yakuza!" but Yakuza games are pretty wholly original productions — mashing up an open world, battle mechanics, RPG elements, long cutscene story elements, mini-games, side-quests, parody sequences, and an extremely good mix of comedy and drama. Yakuza's secret formula is offering something enticing to every kind of gamer but keeping things varied enough to push nearly everyone out of their comfort zone.

While longtime fans are fiercely loyal to the series, it's admittedly hard to break into — especially for Western audiences who may not be familiar with the references to and commentary on Japanese culture. Compounding this are the many, many plot points, characters, and intricate group dynamics that have played out across several console generations. Breaking free of all that baggage is exactly what makes Yakuza: Like a Dragon such a breath of fresh air.

Like a Dragon features Ichiban Kasuga, a new protagonist in the mainline Yakuza series, who is more impulsive, hotheaded, and immature (in the best way) than previous main character Kazuma Kiryu ever was. While Kiryu has been our companion for over a decade, Kasuga is freshly endearing at every turn: He loves Dragon Quest, he accidentally screwed up his perm, and he has never tried peking duck. It would be impossible to replace Kiryu, so, smartly, the game doesn't try. It just hopes you like Kasuga for the character he is.

Kasuga's story — sacrificing everything for his Yakuza boss by taking on a 10-year prison sentence for a murder he didn't commit, then being betrayed by that very boss — is well motivated and packed with memorable characters, incredible voice acting, and enough twists to justify the game's extensive cutscene sequences. It would have been a lot easier for a soft-reboot to simplify and "streamline" the game's story for Western audiences and, while there's a bit of fat trimming, at no point do the devs disrespect their audience's intelligence. You've seen anime. You watch prestige cop dramas. You're expecting some differences between Western and Japanese culture. You can handle it.

It would be impossible to replace Kiryu, so, smartly, the game doesn't try.

Like a Dragon also features a new turn-based battle system. While turn-based RPGs have fallen out of vogue in recent days, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio has cracked the code and turned what could have been a slog into a complete blast each and every time. Surprisingly deep RPG systems are made simple to understand thanks to the humor injected into the battles. Does a character seem like they'd have bad breath? That's now a weapon. Picked up a baseball? Bean someone in the head with it. Standing by a traffic cone? Smash it into a foe immediately. Also, there are magical summons. Sure!

While the new protagonist, battle system, and fresh plot make for a perfect entry point into the series for new players, Like a Dragon isn't designed to leave hardcore fans high and dry. Many elements of the story are greatly enhanced if you've got a working knowledge of the Yakuza universe — it's just not essential. By dropping the cost of entry and dissolving the invisible barrier that usually separates longtime super-fans from casual players, Like a Dragon gives itself room to breathe and grow in unexpected ways. Kasuga does not have any existing connections in his new town of Yokohama (heck, he doesn't even know how smartphones work) so it's a lot easier to slip oneself into his loafers than having to play catch up on existing relationships.

Thank god for Yakuza's sense of humor.Sega

Then there's the side activities. Yakuza games are known for picking up where Shenmue left us hanging in the mid '00s and absolutely bursting with mini-games and side-quests. Like a Dragon changes nothing in this regard, as Yokohama is loaded with jobs to do, gambling to partake in, money to make, and diversions like Dragon Karting (think Mario Kart or, since this is Sega, Sonic Racing) that you'll easily sink hours into.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon could have been a disaster. But unlike so many game series reboots, which often chase new audiences by taking existing brand names and slapping them on completely different games, its soft-touch approach pays off spectacularly for both new and old fans alike. Whether you're a longtime fan of the series or you're just getting into AAA gaming, Yakuza: Like a Dragon is an exciting, delightful, emotionally gripping way to spend a hundred hours.

A copy of Yakuza: Like a Dragon was provided to Input for review by Sega.