The Yakuza series has captivated a niche, but passionate audience for nearly two decades now; unfortunately, I haven’t really gotten in on the fun until now. My only prior experience was a few hours of Yakuza 0 a few years ago, but Like a Dragon was my first real entry to the series. As a famous disliker of turn-based JRPGs, I’d be forgiven for guessing this wouldn’t really be my cup of tea. But not so! It is somehow simultaneously the most hilarious and heartfelt game I have yet encountered. Not only is the series reboot Yakuza Like a Dragon the best turn-based game or JRPG I’ve ever played — it is one of the greatest games I have ever played.
The first thing that people run to when recommending Yakuza Like a Dragon is its protagonist, Ichiban Kasuga. Other folks will back me up on this — Ichiban is the most likable protagonist in all of video games. His unbreakable determination to do the right thing in the face of evil, betrayal, loss, and the unrelenting selfishness of the world around him… well, it fills you with determination. Like Aang in Avatar The Last Airbender or Jason Sudekis’ Ted Lasso, Ichiban leads a story about a man who has the audacity to believe in a world that continues to beat, break, and degrade him at every opportunity. I’m jealous of him in that regard; I wish I could have such firm resolve in the inherent good of humans.
Ichiban Kasuga was born and abandoned on New Year’s Day, 1977. He was lovingly raised in a soapland (brothel) by Jiro Kasuga and the sex workers at Shangri-La in the city of Kamurocho. Ichiban grew up in poverty and was considered “trash” by society’s standards. To escape this harsh reality, he’d hole up in the back office every night, playing Dragon Quest and dreaming about one day being a hero like the ones on the screen.
After his adoptive father’s death, a teenage Ichiban took to the streets until he was taken in by Masumi Arakawa, head of the Arakawa yakuza family. Arakawa molded Ichiban into a man of values and informally adopted him. All was well, until Ichiban was asked to take the fall for murder for the benefit of the Family. And so, trusting idiot that he is, he marches into prison with his head held high to serve 19 years for Arakawa. (Some light spoilers for Chapter 1 in the following paragraph).
While in prison, Ichiban waits, cut off from the outside world. His trust in Arakawa never wavers, even when he doesn’t write, but by the time he is released and is expecting a warm welcome — well, the world has changed a lot by 2019. Yakuza no longer work out in the open, the numbers have dwindled wildly, and the Arakawa family has joined a rival clan, the Omi Alliance, promoting Masumi Arakawa to acting head of the clan.
Desperate to reconnect and believing there’s simply been a mistake, he confronts Arakawa at a meeting of the Omi Alliance, and his adoptive father shoots him point-blank in the heart. This is the first real example of who Ichiban is — in a world where he spent 19 years alone in prison for this man he trusts, only to be shot by him with no remorse, he still has the fucking nerve to get back up off the ground.
Dumped out in a river in the city of Ijincho, Ichiban is rescued from the brink of death by a homeless man named Nanba who used to be a nurse. Together with Adachi, a disgraced former cop who wants to expose a broken national police system, and Saeko, a washed-up hostess bar manager, they set out to save Ijincho from the invading Omi Alliance and make their way to confront Arakawa.
Right off the bat, Yakuza Like a Dragon has set itself apart from every other JRPG. These are not a young, ragtag group of sexy teenagers with hope in their eyes. This is a crew of tired, middle-aged people whom life has cheated. They have all, in some way or another, thrown everything away for the benefit of others and received nothing in return. The world has left them behind, but despite that, Ichiban renews their determination. You’re never too old for a second chance.
This theme is reinforced not only in the story, but in the abundance of excellent side quests. Yakuza Like a Dragon has the best side quests in video games, bar none. Each one has a great and interesting story about realistically weird people that are just trying to live their lives, from bubble guy to the trash store to the naked masochist who can’t feel pain. Most of them involve combat, but it’s always creative and thematic, and some of them don’t at all. It really never begins to feel samey. Step aside, Witcher 3. There’s a new side quest king in town.
Like a Dragon boasts the most innovative turn-based combat I’ve ever laid eyes on. Unlike the previous Yakuza games, which feature beat ’em up combat, Like a Dragon is a fresh start for the series in every way. This multilayered combat system and deep RPG mechanics work together so smoothly, and in a way that never gets overwhelming. The well-designed menus and graphics make navigating your RPG systems pleasing to the eye and totally intuitive.
In the real world, when the party encounters a gang in an alley, they throw fists much like a normal fight. However, the player sees the fight through Ichiban’s imagination, where he processes the fights as turn based combat (“Just like in Dragon Quest!”) where the party and enemies utilize super powers, crazy costumes, fantasy weapons and over-the-top abilities to duke it out. And it never stops being funny, earnest and heartfelt when Nanba belches out a stank burp that actually kills a man with the intensity of a thousand suns in his eyes.
The thing that makes Like a Dragon’s combat stand out so much is that positioning on the battlefield is of grave importance. Characters move around during the fight, and your positioning in relation to allies and enemies matters greatly. AOE attack results and enemy targeting actually change second-to-second, so there’s a lot less careful planning and a lot more acting on your first instinct. Ichiban can also call for help on the phone during a battle and “summon” a number of NPCs with different powers to assist, which you unlock through means of side quests. The crazy animations, the hilarity of it all, is why the whole affair works so well.
To add to the ridiculousness, characters use the mundane environments around them in combat on the fly. Ichiban will kick a trash can at a fat pervert on the sidewalk before breakdancing the guy to death while Saeko grabs a bicycle and hurls it at a man wearing only a trash bag. It’s flawlessly funny and mechanically useful to know how to use the battlefield around you. In the same way as Persona 5, it makes turn-based combat as exciting as live combat — but does it even better.
Gear consists of accessories, a shirt, a hat, and shoes, each with special effects and stat changes. The real fun of it is that the class sytstem is totally flexible; at any time, any of your seven playable characters can switch jobs and get a whole new set of attacks and abilities. And the classes themselves start to reveal how ridiculous it all is — breakdancer, pop idol, chef, fortune teller, gambler, etc. Pairing the right gear and weapons with the right combination of classes is the key to success!
There’s also a great management mini-game (alongside the traditional suite of Yakuza mini-games) that you can spend hours in, opening up a cookie store called Ichiban Confections. You’ll hire and manage NPCs you meet out in the world, put them where their skillsets best fit, open up on the stock exchange, discuss quarterly results with shareholders, and become the most profitable busines in Ijincho! It’s way more fun than it should be once you get into it and understand how it all works, and it’s a great way to make a lot of money quickly. And get to know the owner, Eri, a unlucky college student who is in way over her head. We’ve all been Eri. Bless her heart.
The music is absolutely incredible. Just to list off a few tracks you must listen to: Receive and Turn You, Cold-Blooded, and Yokohama Beatdown are my favorites. The battle music is an intense fusion of drum ‘n bass, dubstep, classical Japanese folk music and hip hop. It all comes togther in such an impressive way; I still get pumped up and ready to fight when I listen to the soundtrack. Yakuza is one of those soundtracks I keep listening to even weeks after finishing the game. It’s phenomenal.
The English voice acting is also incredible — Ichiban’s VA, Kaiji Tang, puts in some of the best work I’ve heard in recent years. In addition, Masumi Arakawa is played by the immutable George Takei. Keep an ear out and you might even notice ProZD (Sungwon Cho) as the voice of Mitsuo. Every single cast member oozes talent and dedication — you can hear in their voices that this is a project they cared about and HAD to get right.
I could keep rambling about this game, but I’ll stop here. My only complaints with Yakuza Like a Dragon is how two boss fights became huge difficulty spikes and required about 2 hours of grinding each to get to the right levels. It was a bit annoying, but I was enjoying the game and the time flew by. Additionally, there just weren’t many women. Out of your party of seven, only two are women, and there are very few women involved in the main plot. The ones that are present are phenomenal characters that boast true agency and competency, but I hope the next game features more women overall. Outside of that, it’s pretty nearly perfect. It’s quite long at 55 hours, but it feels like it needed to be that long to tell the story it wanted to tell. And god dammit, that story is so heart breaking and well-written it’s worth it.
Final Verdict: 10/10
Go play Yakuza Like a Dragon. At its core, it’s a story about a good man who is hellbent on doing the right thing, when giving up would be the sane thing to do at every turn. Sometimes I wish that I could be as optimistic, loving, and faithful as Ichiban, but it just can’t be done. Suffice it to say he’s maybe the first video game character I’ve seen as an actual role model. It has well earned its spot as one of the greatest games of all time, and you’d do yourselve a disservice not to play it. Believe, for a moment, like Ichiban does. That even though the world has tossed you in the gutter like trash, the people in it are worth living, dying, and fighting for. Like a dragon.