Yakuza: Like a Dragon Review
A somewhat rocky change of pace for the series
Console launch games are strange, clunky creations that usually are so obsessed with utilizing new hardware and power, gameplay-wise they end up a little disposable. I mean, I get it. There's a certain charm to the Killzone: Shadowfall's and Dead Rising 3's of the world, but those games were quickly lost to the sands of time - little more than trivia answers. Yet, while Yakuza: Like a Dragon, is not a “launch game” in the traditional sense since it's also available on other platforms, it feels like it in many ways. Stylistically, tonally, it resembles much of the Yakuza series and even manages to get most of the important things right, but gameplay-wise, it feels clunky and uneven as it switches the long-standing melee brawler gameplay into an RPG.
Since ditching long-standing protagonist Kazuma Kiryu in Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio has struggled a bit in figuring out what exactly the future of the series would be. Last year, the studio released Judgment, a spiritual successor to Yakuza set in the same fictional Tokyo district, Kamurocho. While Judgment played like other Yakuza games, its tone was a little off. The long-standing cast was missing and that void wasn't convincingly filled with the new characters. Like a Dragon has the opposite problem. It quickly works to build a cast and team that have the right kind of dynamic, but the new JRPG combat feels like it's been forced into a Yakuza game, rather than having the game designed around it. It makes for a compelling story, that for large swaths of time is unpleasant to actually play through.
The game follows new protagonist Ichiban Kasuga, a dutiful Yakuza who is obsessed with Dragon Quest. Whereas Kazuma and even Judgment protagonist Takayuki Yagami are playing things straight and cool, Kasuga is nerdy and goofy. In previous Yakuza games, he seems like the kind of character Kazuma might help get out of a jam. He has the personality of a golden retriever - curious, loyal, and dumb. It only works because of the cast of characters around him, which is essential to the JRPG formula working as well as it does. Since the gameplay consists of fighting alongside companion characters, seeing them interact is an important part of making the game work. And it does. The homeless Nanba, the stoic Adachi, and the playful Saeko make for a good core group in Kasuga's adventures.
The story itself is emblematic of the kind of affair this series is known for at this point, wildly bouncing between personal grievances and matters of national security, silly slapstick humor and serious character development. The pacing of the story is wrapped up in the gameplay and both grow stale when you hit the 18-ish hour mark (a little less than halfway through the game.) The mystery of the game isn't as good as it is in some of the series highlights, and the reveals are a little underwhelming. It has some highs to be sure, but this is a rocky outing for the studio. Part of that is the early part of the game is so busy doing the groundwork and pushing characters together, the real meat of the story is clearly an afterthought.
While the story is uneven, the gameplay is underwhelming. The turn-based RPG mechanics are in definite need of polish. As I said before, thematically, it works well. Kasuga is a JRPG fanatic who sees himself as the hero of a fantasy story, surrounding himself with a cast of characters to take into battle. There's nostalgia for JRPGs a-plenty from the corny music that plays when someone joins your party, to the pixel art versions of the characters shown during the loading screen. That nostalgia for the genre is well placed, and Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio uses it as a calling card to make the transition from brawling beat 'em up to RPG feel more natural.
It doesn't help that there are still pieces of the old combat left in Yakuza. While in combat, characters will wander back and forth as you're selecting your move and enemies still seem to have hitboxes, so as characters are getting up or have their pathway randomly blocked, attacks will always miss. It also makes it annoying to use area-of-effect attacks because a few enemies might be grouped together when you select the attack, but then drift apart while it's in action. It's this weird three-quarters measure of trying to keep some real-time elements of the series, but leaning heavily on JRPG mechanics.
It almost gets there at times. In some ways, the Yakuza series is a natural fit for an RPG. The many enemies roaming the streets are the equivalent of random encounters; the series has featured experience and level-up elements - it's not that much of a stretch. But as the mechanics are introduced, you realize how many unforeseen issues rear their heads. The encounters in most Yakuza games take only a matter of seconds as you quickly mash the attack buttons, but in Like a Dragon they take minutes (and happen far, far too often.) The environments include improvisational weapons that are designed to be picked up and used in action combat, not for RPG AI which rarely makes use of them. There aren't enough interesting weapons or armor to equip for characters and the crafting economy feels uneven - if not just broken. There are so many little things... the game faces death by a thousand cuts. It's not that any one element is a deal-breaker for Like a Dragon, it's just that collectively they make for an unpleasant gameplay experience.
The game is also hindered by rough pacing issues. Around the mid-point, it leaves you with a party of three characters, when you're specced to fight with four. It also starts forcing you to play through a painfully dull and tedious leveling dungeon to make sure your squad is appropriately leveled for the story. Another time it refuses to progress the story until you do enough side content to accrue three million yen. The game also dumps two of your three companions into the party after the halfway point, not giving you enough time to get acquainted with them.
This becomes a larger issue with the bonding of characters. The more you fight with characters (and eat/drink) the more you will raise your bond meter. Needless to say, the two characters I played with through the first half of the game were highly leveled, whereas the characters that were introduced later weren't. It led to me using certain characters just because their rank was higher. Characters can also work different jobs, but of course, those introduced early were higher-leveled in their jobs, giving me little incentive to swap them out. It doesn't help that there aren't a lot of different jobs - only about ten - so you'll likely find a foursome that works well for you and roll with that.
Another way the Yakuza skeleton lends itself to the JRPG anatomy is through the shops/locations that have always been part of the game. You've always been able to eat and drink, restoring health and gaining experience. Yet, the important points in Like a Dragon are so scattered, getting from location to location can be a pain. This is somewhat intentional as the game's new setting, Yokohama, is filled with lots of side content. There are mini-games, side-quests, collectibles, and some money-making ventures. So ideally, while you're walking across the map, you can stop and do a side quest or some paid hero work. The problem is that I found all of this stuff to be tedious at best. The sub-stories (side quests) are the most engaging, usually through good characters, but so much of the game feels like it is padded with content. Collecting missing cats, finding tokens on the ground, and collecting cans for homeless currency just feels meaningless. It's the empty video game calories that are ultimately forgettable. However, the game keeps pushing you into this stuff, especially the “management” mini-game which requires you to run a small business. It's long and uninteresting and the game really, really wants you to sink a lot of time into it.
I'm also not quite sold on Yokohama as a new location for the series. While I understand Yakuza games needed to find another place to create chaos after the previous games had milked Kamurocho to death, Yokohama feels a little milquetoast. The series has visited other cities before and they usually had distinct features that made them feel different, indicated by industry or aesthetic, but Yokohama just feels like lateral movement. It's not bad, but it doesn't stand out. The character work is more impressive. Like most Yakuza games, the cutscenes have a photo-realism and film-like quality that are fun to watch, even more so on the new Xbox Series X. The rest of the game looks alright, though the difference between generations is more difficult to spot in-game.
The soundtrack has really great moments, but they're just moments. Certain tracks - especially the combat music - are excellent, but a lot of it tends to repeat over and over. What's more impressive is the English voice cast. I'm still partial to the Japanese tracks myself, but it's clear serious work went into the English dub, so the option is there if you're looking for it.
While the visual improvements are marginal on the Series X, the way the game runs is night/day difference. The Xbox One version is slow and cumbersome - especially on the older models. However, the game flies along with loading screens so fast you can barely read the text on the Series X. The game also runs at a much higher framerate on the newest Xbox hardware, adding some fluidity to the combat animations. The game isn't unplayable on older consoles, but it's got a lot of long loading screens that are going to annoy most players.
I feel like I'm coming off overly negative on Like a Dragon, because it's not a bad game. There are moments when the tone shines through, the cast is as strong as it's ever been, and the JRPG format definitely has potential. That potential is what allows me to see the flaws. There's a great RPG that's buried under the janky combat, the mediocre side content, and the exhausting grind dungeon. A more focused game, that allowed the characters and relationships to be in the spotlight and more evenly paced the story is something I'm really looking forward to. While Like a Dragon isn't your typical launch game, it has those same issues; it feels like a game that's desperate for iteration and refinement. It has the core of a good idea, but it needs that confident hand to make it better. With that in mind, I'll be the first in line for the sequel.