The latest entry in SEGA’s Japanese mafia-simulator is here. Yakuza: Like a Dragon is the seventh main entry in the long-running Yakuza series, which originated on PlayStation but is now available for both Xbox and PlayStation consoles. Like the switch from Sony to Microsoft, Yakuza has changed genres from brawler action-adventure to an action-RPG that is unabashedly inspired by Dragon Quest. But does this changeup land a home run for Yakuza, or does it strike out from being too different? Here’s our full review of Yakuza: Like a Dragon on the Xbox One X.
Yakuza: What's the Story?
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is one of the most beautiful love letters to a completely unrelated series that I’ve ever seen. The developers at Ryu ga Gotoku studios clearly have a deep nostalgia and appreciation for Square Enix’s classis RPG franchise. There are some deep cuts for fans of Dragon Quest, including small nods to reoccurring dialogue throughout the series, skill names like Giga Swing inspired by Gigaslash, and even enemies that mimic monster animations from prior Dragon Quest titles.
The story, however, is very much the kind of tale I would expect Kazuma Kiryu from previous Yakuza games to experience. The beginning cutscenes set the stage for new protagonist Ichiban Kasuga’s 45-hour long journey and is full of twists, turns, betrayals, and ultimately redemption arcs. The central driving theme of Like a Dragon revolves around “friendship” and the relationships that Ichiban creates and strengthens through adversity and hardship.
That said, Like a Dragon does not shy away from some deep topics and tough issues present in modern society. The entire story centers around “gray zones” in the law – areas that aren’t completely illegal, much like how yakuza oftentimes skirt the law in their business dealings. Topics such as illegal immigration, prostitution, and homelessness are constantly brought up and discussed. It’s refreshing to see a game that isn’t necessarily taking a political stand but is rather sparking conversation about potentially controversial subjects.
Gameplay: Like a Yakuza
One major difference between Like a Dragon and Dragon Quest that I appreciate is that Ichiban’s companions each have their own backgrounds, motivations, and flaws that make them feel more fleshed out and alive as opposed to tropey or stereotypical roles that one might find in a more traditional JRPG. Although some party members may appear to fulfill a particular role initially, their personalities remain separate to the job role that they play during battles. This means the “healer” character isn’t some flimsy pushover, but rather that there may be a dichotomy between a character’s personality and their job type.
There will eventually be a total of seven party members to choose from, although only four can be in the party at a time. I found it awkward to use anyone in my party besides the original four party members that initially become available. It felt like I had spent so much time investing in them – both in their stats by grinding, but also in their personal story arcs – that I didn’t want to take that same time with a new party member. There was really only one section of the main story that prevented a certain member from being in the party. Otherwise, I was free to choose whom I wanted.
In-between story beats, there is a cornucopia of side activities, quests, and minigames to keep things from becoming too tedious. If I wasn’t heading towards the next mission, then I was helping a little girl with charity donations, or playing Virtua Fighter in the arcades, or trying to complete Part-Time Hero objectives, or collecting bugs in the park. Nearly everything was beneficial towards increasing my party’s overall strength, whether it be from unlocking a new weapon or earning enough yen to purchase better armor – there were no useless activities.
The Part-Time Hero gig in particular provided different categories to complete objectives in, which motivated the completionist inside of me to aim for specific goals and check off every activity. Sometimes, this involved saving a civilian from a group of ruffians, or gathering items from around the city, or even simple “Kill X Enemy” goals that awarded money and materials. For each objective that I cleared, if felt like I was earning miniature-achievements every time.
Combat: Like a Dragon Quest
The combat in Like a Dragon changed up the usual beat-em-up formula from Yakuza and introduced a wholly new turn-based JRPG-style battle system. This system in many ways reminded me of the Persona series, had enemies had varying weaknesses across six different damage types. In changing things up from Persona and Dragon Quest, Like a Dragon also utilizes its 3-D space in battles and enemies are free to roam around the area. This can be quite annoying for Area-of-Effect based attacks that hit multiple enemies, since enemies are constantly moving and, thus, likely to walk away before the move takes place.
I do like how Like a Dragon made fights more dynamic by included a perfect guard system and Quick-Time Event (QTE) button presses for increasing skills’ damage. By pressing ‘B’ at the exact time that a party member got it, it would guard against the attack and lessen the amount of damage taken. This also prevented some attacks from knocking back my members, thus making them vulnerable for follow-up attacks. Most skills also feature a QTE in order to increase damage. By mastering the timing for these two techniques, battles can be ended much more quickly and much more efficiently.
A common issue during the battles was that my party members would frequently get stuck behind objects like cars, signs, trees, or corners of buildings when trying to attack enemies. Sometimes, this cause a loop where my party member was stuck walking back and forth until, eventually, they’re teleported in from of the enemy in order to attack. Thankfully, I never had this force me to restart and reload a save file since it always self-resolved, but it happened so often that it was definitely a concern.
An issue I have with the combat is that I wish I could see enemies’ weaknesses during fights, like you can in Persona. Supposedly, this was supposed to be included but due to an issue with the North American version of the game, the feature appears to be missing. In both the Japanese and PAL versions of Like a Dragon, there is a weakness indicator that shows up while targeting an enemy. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be a fix coming anytime soon as of the time of this writing. Gratefully, this issue never halted my progression, and most battles were easy to get through even without knowing an enemy’s weakness.
There were only two points in the game that I had to spend any time grinding. The first was when Like a Dragon’s first dungeon opens up around Chapter 6. I didn’t necessarily need to spend any time grinding at this point, but I wanted to explore the dungeon and in doing so I discovered an enemy like a Metal Slime that gave ridiculous amounts of both character and job experience. Unlike Metal Slimes in Dragon Quest, this enemy was a guaranteed spawn and so I would repeatedly run back and forth to farm this enemy. Because of this, I went from level 21 to level 41 in three hours, which allowed me to steamroll through the next 6 chapters.
Unfortunately, even with this prior grinding, there is a particular story battle in Chapter 12 that takes place which spikes up the difficulty to 11. This fight was against two level 50 boss-like enemies, and I died several times before eventually giving up, loading an earlier save file, and grinding some more until I could eventually beat them. That was the last time I had to grind before completing my first playthrough, and it was a little jarring to run into such a difficult battle out of seemingly nowhere.
Yakuza: Likes its Minigames
Grinding out levels wasn’t the only time-sink. In true-to-series form, Yakuza: Like a Dragon features an almost overwhelming amount of minigames. This included arcade classics such as Space Harrier, Fantasy Zone, and the aforementioned Virtua Fighter as well as golfing, batting practice, Dragon Kart, can collecting, karaoke, darts, mahjong, and more. In particular, there is an entire business management simulator that is practically an entire game unto itself. I invested over 10 hours in this one side game, which can potentially earn millions of yen for Ichiban and crew as well as is directly tied to one of the extra party members that Ichiban picks up.
The Ichiban Confections minigame sees Ichiban take over a locally-run business as its president, or CEO. You’re then able to hire employees from around town, manage properties, and attend board meetings which play out like rock-paper-scissors style battles. Hiring employees almost has a gacha-like quality to it, where employees have ranks that can go up to SSR rarity. Luckily, you can just recruit employees outright rather than rely on any RNG pull like in other gacha games. There are even employees that you can meet while exploring the city that you can hire instead of doing it through the minigame itself.
Usually in Yakuza, minigames are a fun distraction to break up the tedium of story beat after story beat. In Like a Dragon, minigames can be utilized for acquiring extremely powerful weapons early-on. The downside is some of the equipment will require a considerable amount of time invested to be able to acquire it. For instance, the Mario Kart-like ‘Dragon Kart’ minigame has a very powerful Chef’s weapon available, but even after beating all the grand prix races, I was only half-way to affording it.
Premium Adventure and New Game +
After rolling credits on Like a Dragon, I unlocked Premium Adventure mode, which just lets you continue playing from after the last boss fight. This is a great way to hop back in to play more minigames or take on new challenges. Challenges like the Final Millennium Tower dungeon, which I immediately received a notification about from a mysterious person called ‘The Manager.’ This is the final dungeon and requires a very high character level in order to complete but includes an additional cutscene at the completion.
Additionally, a New Game+ mode unlocks after completing the story, which lets Ichiban restart the whole adventure while keeping the previous levels, equipment, money, and items from the first play-through. Even better, NG+ mode unlocks new difficulty modes as well, with a Hard mode having a recommended level 50 requirement and Legendary mode having a level 70 requirement. This adds an extra spice for replayability so that you’re not just steamrolling through the entire story again. I really appreciate any inclusion of a New Game+ mode for RPGs, and I am definitely going to challenge my skills by starting a new Legendary play-through.
Despite its flaws, Like a Dragon still manages to impress and provide a quality Yakuza experience. The story was masterful and the comradery between characters felt deep and realistic. None of the main villains or party members lacked any depth to their character, and felt more believable than in previous Yakuza titles. The homages to Dragon Quest liberally sprinkled through Like a Dragon were satisfying and nostalgic, with deep level of love and appreciation for the franchise on clear display.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is surprisingly one of the best JRPGs that I’ve played since I beat Dragon Quest XI over three years ago. It’s especially impressive coming from Ryu ga Gotoku studios which has never made a turn-based RPG before. However, there are some glaring issues that take away from the overall experience; most notably the lack of a weakness indicator and wonky AoE moves during battles. If only the battle system was perfected, then Like a Dragon would be a top-tier JRPG. Regardless, I would recommend to any RPG fans that Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a must-play title.
Full disclosure: A copy of the game was provided by PR for review purposes.