For 15 years, the Yakuza series has been a benchmark for modern-day beat ‘em up gameplay. While this genre has its pros and cons, it’s not great from an accessibility perspective. Some games, like the recently rereleased Scott Pilgrim vs. The World can minimize the non-stop button mashing with a turbo controller, but this 3D adventure couldn’t quite avoid that pitfall. With Yakuza: Like a Dragon, we get the first mainline entry in the series not starring the “Dragon of Dojima” Kazuma Kiryu and shift to a new protagonist Ichiban Kasuga, who is on his own quest for redemption. Unlike the other main entries, this is a turn-based RPG, and while that may seem bizarre on the surface, it actually fits the series quite nicely.
As a character, Ichi is definitely the nicest protagonist we’ve seen in the series. While there have been other playable protagonists in the fourth and fifth entries, none were quite as easygoing as Ichi is. He takes life as it comes and shows undying loyalty to anyone he feels has done right by him. If someone in his life has as much as held a door open for him, he’s down with doing something for them later on if need be, leading to a redemption story after a stint in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
It’s a compelling story and one that keeps players glued to the screen from beginning to end. The redone gameplay manages to fit in nicely with the existing framework because, while it’s turn-based, it does still involve fast button presses to do more damage with special attacks, and proper timing allows users the opportunity to either minimize damage or avoid it altogether. It’s a great system and one that encourages paying attention throughout the entire battle to really get a feel for the combat and party members’ strengths and weaknesses. Some are better at magic and healing, while others can deal out a beating quickly but also take a lot of damage and act as glass cannons that have to be protected as much as possible.
The series works quite nicely as a JRPG, and it helps that it always had a some JRPG-like qualities from the start. Much like how River City Ransom opened the doors to beat ‘em ups having more depth thanks to stat progression, the same held true for Yakuza. As a result, it’s a fairly seamless transition and done so well that I wasn’t pining for the standard brawler gameplay at all. The main action is still fast paced enough to scratch that itch, and if players have a thirst for hand-to-hand combat, then the various Virtua Fighter arcade games throughout the in-game world will accomplish that goal. The diversity in overall gameplay is pretty high since there are a handful of classic Sega games to enjoy as well, including Out Run, Space Harrier, and mini-games like the Crazy Taxi-like can collecting game that’s surprisingly addicting.
From an accessibility perspective, Like a Dragon is far from perfect. The shift from action to a timing-based JRPG means not even something like a turbo controller can help in battles, and there are many. In theory, a turbo button press could be used for basic strike combat, but that strategy isn’t very efficient because it renders healing and team attacks impossible. Overworld enemies may be trounced by simple strikes, but prepare to take more damage in the process. It’s nothing that can’t be recovered from with a healing station or in-game food, but it’s far from ideal. What would be nice (and would fit with a more modern JRPG framework) would be an auto-battle system of some nature.
Games like the modern Final Fantasy rerelease enable auto-battles with maxed stats and other similar buffs, while newer games like Alliance Alive and Xenoblade Chronicles feature an auto-battle system that takes care of most of the combat but still enables users to hop back into standard play with the press of a button. It’s a great system overall because players can still experience the story and the game’s world without having to worry about the precise combat, especially boss battles. Players don’t have that luxury here, and it makes the combat seem a bit archaic.
Visually speaking, Like a Dragon is a gorgeous game full of rich detail. Nighttime scenes and character models have always shined in Yakuza games. The rich facial details are always used to convey emotion wonderfully, and no Yakuza story has been as accessible as Like a Dragon since the original thanks to its English dub. The dub allows low-vision players to enjoy the story without having to rely on subtitles, which have never had text size options—a trend that unfortunately remains true here as well. It’s one area Yakuza could stand to improve upon since the franchise routinely uses large text for things like character debuts and has largely relied on subtitles in past games.
Like a Dragon’s soundtrack is solid and gets the blood pumping but never reaches that memorable next level. Earlier entries had memorable original soundtracks that hooked players into the adventure, and this one just doesn’t quite get there. Fortunately, it does have a top-notch voice cast that delivers some excellent work that winds up making this the most compelling story in the series from beginning to end. Like a Dragon’s cast plays everything straight, which makes all the difference in the world compared to the terrible dub of the PS2 release. No moments in the narrative are undercut by the wrong kind of comedy, and all the funny bits are contained as ridiculous but enjoyable scenarios like riding a bike to collect cans.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a must-buy game for anyone who enjoyed the prior Yakuza games for their narratives and those who like a well-crafted turn-based RPG, but it’s an accessibility mixed bag. The franchise’s formula of keeping players on their toes is retained with a fast, timing-based battle system, and the series works just as well as an RPG as it did a beat ‘em up. It looks and plays wonderfully but would benefit a lot from an auto-battle system. It would enable those who have trouble with faster button presses a chance to enjoy the story, and even without factoring in a disability, it would speed up the pace of the adventure quite a bit and cut back on grinding for cash and XP.
Thankfully, the series’ first dub in almost 15 years makes it far more accessible for low-vision players, as we no longer have to strain to read small subtitles to follow the story, but larger text options would be better for both low-vision and hard-of-hearing players. Like a Dragon features one of the franchise’s best stories, and it makes for a fine first game in the series for a newcomer thanks to its dub and the beginning of a new, largely self-contained story arc. It’s a remarkable game and one that continues the Yakuza tradition of offering a gripping story and exciting gameplay.