Yakuza is one exemplary series that has seen a resurgence last generation. It was considered a niche before, but perhaps this is no longer the case after the franchise has gained mainstream recognition and released on multiple platforms including PC and Xbox One.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is the seventh entry in the series, and the first one to feature a brand new protagonist, Kasuga Ichiban. It also features a dramatic overhaul of the combat system from the original series. This is a radical transformation no less, from an action-based brawler to a turn-based RPG. However, it is also fascinating to see how it all works out in the game.
I have always been a fan of the Yakuza series that perfectly blends the stylish action of a Japanese gangster movie into a humorous adventure with a likable cast. Despite the loss of the main lead, Kazuma Kiryu, who received a great final arc for his story in Yakuza 6, the series has managed to retain its level of quality and originality, never offering a single dull moment.
In Yakuza 7, we play as Kasuga Ichiban who starts as a low-level yakuza in Kamurocho. This is a familiar setting for most fans as this has served as the main location for the majority of the Yakuza games. As expected from the Yakuza series, the opening prologue deals with the fall of Ichiban from a low-level thug to becoming homeless in Yokohama as he is banished from his yakuza family. There are betrayals, plot twists, and some glorious cinematics, all woven into the opening chapters setting up the background for the rest of the game.
There are elements of classic Yakuza integrated into the new game design. The game offers the same open-world exploration that is expected from the series with a world that is full of minigames, side stories, all in the backdrop of an urban Japanese setting. I greatly enjoyed how heartfelt the story was during certain moments even though it offers a good dose of plot twists, conspiracies, and a lot of melodrama. If you are disappointed as a fan to see the big transformation in its game, then the good news is that this is the only significant change as far as the basics of the series are concerned, because most of the traits from the classic yakuza games are retained in this new game.
Speaking of the changes, combat is obviously the big one even if the core of the series remains intact. There are obvious disadvantages of this combat because it now makes the open-world encounters a bit tedious, but when it does work out well, it is excellent and a great adaption of the traditional yakuza experience into a turn-based RPG. There are even throwbacks to other JRPG giants in this new combat from Dragon Quest to the Final Fantasy series. Fights play out in a dynamic environment so you can easily move around, but attacks are performed using a set of commands. There are status effects, buffs, and debuffs like a standard JRPG but the presentation is stellar and some of the animations are genuinely fun to watch unfold in combat.
This new system comes with some disadvantages too, the major one being the balance. In the past, roaming around the open world usually led to encounters with low-level goons that could be quickly ended with combos, but now they lead to turn-based battles. There is no indication of how the enemy of the level scales in terms of power so sometimes battles can take a long time to complete, which is a major turn-off considering the world in Yakuza: Like a Dragon just calls out to be explored and with these random goon battles taking time, it feels like the charm is toned down. However, the difficulty of the game is actually quite easy and there are plenty of ways to continue even if Ichiban is killed in battle.
Yokohama is a new city in Yakuza: Like a Dragon. While it offers less of the iconic landmarks from the previous locations, as a new addition to the series, it shows the potential to grow into a new favorite. Despite the larger size, it feels less sparse overall and more padded to add extra content, collectibles, and sidequests to the game. If the developers can improve on it with a potential sequel, then it can be considered as good and fun as Kamurocho, but it doesn’t come quite close right now. Most of the traversal in this open map feels smoother now but if you are playing on a PS4, there are occasional issues where textures pop-in close to the character.
As a stepping stone for a new Yakuza game that not only brings in a new protagonist but also revamps the core gameplay loop, Yakuza: Like a Dragon is an excellent example and a great game overall. There might be some issues with the pacing of the combat and complaints of the balance, but overall, there is a lot of positive things to discuss when it comes to this entry.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon Review (PS4)
Game Reviewed on: PS4
Game description: Ichiban Kasuga, a low-ranking grunt of a low-ranking yakuza family in Tokyo, faces an 18-year prison sentence after taking the fall for a crime he didn't commit. Never losing faith, he loyally serves his time and returns to society to discover that no one was waiting for him on the outside, and his clan has been destroyed by the man he respected most.
Final Score - 9/10
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is one of the most satisfying JRPGs released this generation and a great example of how to deal with a series while changing its genre to something completely different.