It says something about how bizarre it actually is, when Yakuza fans thought Sega was pranking them when Yakuza: Like a Dragon was announced. Think for yourself, how would you react if Bethesda announced that the next Doom would be a role-playing game? That's pretty much exactly what Sega did when they took the gaming world's perhaps best fighting system in open-world adventures and replaced it with what can only be described as a very traditional Japanese role-playing game.
Now it's time for Yakuza: Like a Dragon to be released in Europe as an updated version, and I have spent countless hours with this very strange game, which actually also works as a soft reboot of the entire series. If you have not played Yakuza before, then this is a great title to start with, as here a completely new main character awaits you in a completely new city that also sports some really nice graphics.
But before I get into any of this, I want to return to the fact that this is a Japanese role-playing game disguised as a Yakuza adventure. And I do mean J-RPG in the most classic sense. What awaits you are turn-based battles where you control groups of up to four characters through menus during the fighting. In the battles, you can then choose; attacks, specials that cost magic points, to eat things to regain life or suffer status changes, and even to perform a kind of Summons.
After the battles, there is a screen that compiles everything you get (maybe the angry capitalist you just clubbed down had his pockets full of sushi?) and distributes experience points that can unlock new abilities. It will also show if you also go up in level, where your HP and MP will be restored. Oh, and you can change jobs to gain new skills. Seriously, it's actually somewhat reminiscent of older Final Fantasy games, if I just squint a little - and it must be said straight away it's something I actually appreciate.
Such a radical intervention does, of course, change Yakuza from the ground up. Personally, I started to get a little tired of the series, so for me, it is a welcome addition, and I actually appreciate how old-fashioned it feels in several ways. It also ties in nicely with the new main character Ichiban Kasuga, who loves video games and regards the Japanese role-playing game Dragon Quest as some kind of answer to life's riddles, and comments on things in a way that is close to getting the fourth wall demolished.
Ichiban Kasuga has much more in common with Naruto in terms of temperament than the protagonist Kazuma Kiryu of the previous six regular parts. This means that he overreacts to everything, is as easy to read as a book, and has a heart of gold - even if the brain cannot always be described in the same way.
Kasuga comes from simple circumstances and was born and raised in a Soapland (a kind of Japanese light-brothel), and through hard work and loyalty has gained a foothold within the Japanese mafia. But when something happens, his loyalty is put to the test. Kasuga ends up in prison for a murder he did not commit after taking all the blame to protect the family but dreams about getting released almost two decades later when he also expects a better reception.
Without spoiling too much, I can say that it will not be exactly as Kasuga intended and he will soon end up in Yokohama in the fictional district of Isezaki Ijincho. And this is where the game really starts. The town is much bigger than in previous Yakuza games and there is a lot to discover and do. Thanks to modern technology, it also looks more impressive than before and Isezaki Ijincho lives in a different way than I feel that the predecessor's capital Kamurocho did.
Anyone who knows their Yakuza will find everything you can expect such as karaoke, arcade halls with real games, bars, small shops, casinos, and so on. It really is full of things to do and around every other corner, there are low-life thugs just begging for beatings. In addition, we find new mini-games such as garbage collection, kart-racing, and even running companies. It is also fun to gather new people to take on adventures, which of course also affects the story.
But unfortunately, there are some minuses with the game as well, which come from the fact that it has old remnants in it and ironically has so much new that Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio has not really been able to optimise everything. An example of the former is the insane Japanese narrative, which takes place almost exclusively via cut-scenes. All gameplay is just gameplay, while the narrative is driven forward by video. And since there is quite a lot of story, some clips are so insanely long that the screen is sometimes dimmed due to inactivity. A modernised narrative combining story and gameplay would have been nice, but now the storytelling is basically unchanged since the first game in the series was released for PlayStation 2. In addition, not all dialogue is spoken, but some is menu-based, something I think felt unbalanced.
When it comes to the newer problems, we find the fact that Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio wanted more than they managed to realise. The job system is clearly underdeveloped and adds too little, and since the game is now a role-playing game, you can no longer rush through it in the same way as before. Since I initially just wanted to get ahead in the story, I noticed how some fighters could be mercilessly difficult. You simply have to do at least some side quests to have a high enough level to take on enemies.
It still feels like minor complaints and the fact is that I could not put Yakuza: Like a Dragon down during my review period. The story is exciting, its gameplay varied and the much talked about J-RPG battles are completely to my liking. In addition, a lovely gallery of characters and some really nice twists in the story can also be found here, which means that my interest is maintained. There is also some fan service for those who played the predecessors, without the newcomer feeling that something is missing.
The graphics are mostly really elaborate and sharp (I have tested the Xbox One version), and the surroundings are so convincing that I am reminded of what it is like to stroll around on rain-soaked, smaller Japanese streets with neon lights and colourful advertising everywhere. It's an "authentic" Japanese feeling I have not experienced as strongly in a game since I played Shenmue for the first time on Dreamcast. However, some animations feel like remnants from previous parts and the texture work has some old stuff, but overall, both technology and design get high grades from me.
My expectations for Yakuza: Like a Dragon, were pretty lukewarm beforehand as Sega had, as I said, changed a lot, and I was tired of the series. Fortunately, this soft reboot is exactly what Yakuza needed and the retro-inspired combat system is something I really love. I'm grateful that Sega took the step and dared to do something new, and if this is the foundation the Yakuza series will build on from now on - then all fans of the Japanese mafia will have a bright future.