Yakuza: Like A Dragon - A Fascinating Transformation into a Full Fledged Turn-Based RPG
Not many long-running series quite have the audacity to completely switch things up, especially in their eighth mainline entry. Ryu ga Gotoku Studio, a branch under Sega that formalized the development team of the Yakuza series after its Japanese title, decided to make good on their 2019 April Fools video teaser and turned their newest entry into a full-on turn-based RPG. Although the localized title is Yakuza: Like a Dragon, this is not a spin-off like the infamous Yakuza: Dead Souls. It’s even titled Ryu ga Gotoku 7 in Japan, meaning that this is the next main Yakuza game.
Does that mean you’ll be completely lost without having completed Yakuza 0 all the way through Yakuza 6: The Song of Life? I haven’t played the full game for myself yet, so I can’t answer that at the moment. I did replay all the previous mainline Yakuza games earlier this year to refresh my memory, just in case. It was about a 120-hour endeavor overall, if you’re sticking to the main story for the most part.
I’ve put a few hours into Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s English release and, wow, jumping into this so soon after playing through the previous ones is night-and-day. Stumbling upon bizarre sub-stories, visiting small convenience stores, losing terribly at mahjong, and fooling around at the waitress club all felt distinctly like a Yakuza game. The menu sound effects, the little chimes when you encounter or complete a sub-story, and the general atmosphere all make it feel like the Yakuza you remember, if you’ve played one. Once you get into combat though, this is a whole new ball game.
The preview build of Yakuza: Like a Dragon I got my hands on starts off roughly 5-6 hours already into the game at Isezaki Ijincho in Yokohama. Much like how series staple Kamurocho was based off of Kabukicho in Tokyo, Isezaki Ijincho is modeled after the real-world Isezakichō district. This new entry features an entirely new protagonist, Ichiban Kasuga. Vocal about his thoughts, loud about his feelings, the life of the party; he is the complete opposite of Yakuza’s previous protagonist, Kazuma Kiryu. Ichiban isn’t alone. His companions Koichi Adachi, Saeko Mukoda, and Nanba were alongside him already in my time with the game. I won’t be talking about any story or plot-related events that transpire, so rest assured, this will be a spoiler-free preview of Yakuza: Like a Dragon.
Past Yakuza games would sometimes have NPCs aid you here and there throughout the story, and they acted on their own independently from the player. In Yakuza: Like a Dragon, its entire gameplay structure has been revamped; there’s a traditional party system now. Ichiban and the others travel together all the time, barring any story bits separating one or two of them briefly. They'll sometimes chit-chat with one another when they pass by specific places of interest that spark up a conversation. What caught me off-guard right away was that the map itself had to be uncovered first. You’ll get a general grayed out lay of the land on your map, but this basic blueprint won’t unveil its locales or places of interests until you run by that area yourself to uncover it.
Obviously, the most immediately noticeable change in Yakuza: Like a Dragon is that it is now a turn-based RPG. When you run into enemies, it does that all-too-familiar swirl animation transition, prevalent in older RPGs, signifying that it’s time for a battle encounter. All actions are done through a combat menu now. Those familiar with the interfaces of Persona 5 or The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III will feel right at home as each face button corresponds between Skills, Etc., Guard, and Attack.
Further embracing its full transformation into a RPG, Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s characters all have MP bars for their skills. Previous Yakuza titles did have a secondary gauge aside from health with the Heat bar, though these had different applications since it was a beat’em up brawler that ranged from special finishers, entering a powered-up state, and such. Heat actions aren’t completely gone in Yakuza: Like A Dragon, though. The series’s love for button quicktime events in combat remains as several skills do further damage if you do them successfully. You can expect a wide array of abilities that you’d find in a traditional RPG - with its own contemporary twist on things.
There’s a fascinating aspect of this new Yakuza that dares to imagine what a turn-based RPG would look like in our heads if it was set in the world of today. Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s class change system, for instance, doesn’t have the classic fantasy selections of a knight, wizard, thief, and priest. Instead, you have jobs suited in a modern setting like a musician, bodyguard, foreman, barmaid, hostess, idol, chef, and more. Each skill set cleverly embodies its role, too. The hostess’s Ashtray Crush, as it implies, hits enemies with an ashtray that may lower their accuracy; an idol can replenish HP with performances in battle; Koichi’s exclusive detective class even has him talk smack to provoke all enemies at once. The act of switching classes is even contextualized in the world as visiting a Hello Work business agency that specializes in helping customers find work.
That doesn’t mean Yakuza: Like a Dragon is strictly down-to-earth with its battle mechanics. Nanba’s starting class, Homeless Guy, can wield canes (an umbrella apparently also counts as one) and he can belch fire with them to inflict the burn status ailment on foes. RPG players can expect to see a multitude of different buffs, debuffs, status ailments, and even special abilities that involve multiple characters at once to spice battles up.
If there are a handful of skills you use often on a specific character, you can assign D-pad shortcuts to them to access them right away when it’s that character’s turn. There are even summons you can call upon with the Poundmates in-game app, as long as you have the dough to afford them. Auto battling can also be toggled on if you feel that your party is sufficiently strong enough to wipe the floor with foes on their own; there are some toggleable configurations to give them a better sense of how you want them to fight in auto battles.
It’s been captivating seeing the evolution of the series’s switch to the relatively new Dragon Engine evolve from Yakuza 6 to Yakuza Kiwami 2 to Judgment and now to Yakuza: Like a Dragon. The series has been slowly flirting with the idea of incorporating more RPG-esque stat progression systems throughout the past two Dragon Engine entries before reinventing itself. My time with Yakuza: Like a Dragon for this preview was on PC and it ran smoothly at 60fps. Isezaki Ijincho feels more open compared to Kamurocho. There’s a wide open street with cars frequently passing by near the center of the map and I, admittedly, got frightened for a second when I realized that poor Ichiban got hit by a car and knocked off a chunk of his HP out of nowhere. There is still so much more to say about Yakuza: Like a Dragon but for now, I just wanted to share my surprise and bewilderment on how much more different it feels to play, yet still somehow preserves that enduring Yakuza spirit.
Check out the Yakuza: Like A Dragon gallery below for more new screenshots of the game featuring the Gear select screen, the Sujidex enemy index, the Poundmates summon interface, ordering food at a restaurant, Ichiban getting into a car accident, and a random conversation that popped up as I walked around the streets of Yokohama. Yakuza: Like A Dragon launches on Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC on November 10. The PlayStation 5 version is releasing later on March 2, 2021.