In Japanese, Kasuga means ‘spring day’, a time of new life if you will, while Ichiban can mean ‘first’ – or more often, ‘the best’. There isn’t a more fitting name RGG Studio could have picked, then, for Yaku-za: Like a Dragon’s new protagonist in an instalment that also reboots a 15-year-old series.
Of course, you might not be able to tell at first glance, as it still likes to indulge in its tradition of lengthy cutscenes, with meticulously detailed close-ups of faces, all the better to show off just how faithfully the new English dub matches the lip-sync (rest assured, purists can still opt for the original Japanese audio).
But once you’re in control of Ichiban Kasuga and thrust into your first brawl, the difference is im-mediate. Instead of real-time fights, combat has changed to turn-based battles like that of a JRPG. I say ‘like’, but that’s genuinely the genre Yakuza: Like a Dragon has stepped into; rooted in our new hero’s childhood obsession with Dragon Quest as it is, and seeing you accrue a rag-tag party of allies to fight alongside.
Despite the references to Square Enix’s series – one that’s always been traditional to a fault – Like a Dragon revels in off-the-wall experimentation. Most obvious is how it reimagines classic fantasy JRPG tropes in a real-life contemporary setting.
Underground sewers become dungeons, and powerful allies are summoned with a smartphone app, while job classes are actual jobs like a chef, office clerk, pop idol, or construction worker. The results are as absurd and surreal as you might expect – a perfect fit for a series that’s always balanced realism with the weird.
There’s also a dynamism in its turn-based battles, which factor in environmental context and but-ton prompts. The transition isn’t flawless, like how enemy area attacks are at the mercy of unpre-dictable enemy movement you don’t have control over, and there’s a disincentive to experiment with jobs since you can only switch at one location (a job centre, no less).
Die-hard fans may still pine for being able to deck someone with a bicycle straight away, but the results are nonetheless a surprise, with some hilarious animation sequences reserved for the most powerful attacks. It probably helps that RGG Studio has taken plenty of inspiration from sister firm Atlus and the acclaimed Persona series, from the button-based battle interface to stats that ex-tend to personality and relationships.
Another big shake-up is the relocation from the familiar neighbourhood of Kamurocho to Yoko-hama’s Isezaki Ijincho – a much larger area that takes a while to get to grips with. But even if you feel like an outsider adrift at first, as you make your way from its homeless camp and seedy soap-lands (brothels) to the pierside park and a bustling Chinatown, things open up and it eventually becomes a welcoming home, not least because of all the pleasant diversions on offer.
This is, after all, a game where you could be on an urgent hunt for a crime boss, only to find a few hours have passed and you haven’t moved to the bright pink spot on the map because you couldn’t help but play tourist, taking in the detailed sights and sounds of the city, most of which opens up to you early on. Instead, you’ll be playing a game of darts in a basement bar, hitting balls at a golf or batting centre, playing classic Sega games at the arcades (Virtua Fighter 5, Super Hang-On, OutRun, and more), or even driving around the city in a surprisingly decent and meaty Mario Kart clone.
Better still, you’ll run into the locals and help them out in many hilarious side quests. In other words, the best things about the Yakuza series remain intact here.
But as serious as Like a Dragon is about having a laugh, it’s also serious about telling a compelling story, one unafraid to venture into mature themes of history and politics, while also taking a more confidently progressive stance.
Incidentally, female characters and gang members from other Asian minorities, in the past often portrayed as victims or villains respectively, both have playable roles for the first time. As underdogs, your party is both representative and sympathetic to the marginalised who have fallen through society’s cracks.
Much of this is anchored by an outstanding voice cast who deliver on both the melodrama and the razor-sharp banter, making you cry and laugh. It’s arguably the best dub I’ve ever experienced, feeling like nothing has been lost in translation.
While that’s a collective effort, just as you might expect in a party-based RPG, it all comes back to Ichiban Kasuga, surely the most optimistic protagonist ever seen in a game, despite a life spent on the bottom rung on the ladder followed by a betrayal that would leave most on a path of venge-ance. A wild contrast to Yakuza’s stoic former leading man, Kasuga is a loud-mouth, dumb as bricks, sporting an explosion of a haircut others rarely miss the opportunity to take a crack at.
But his heart, as big as that of a lion – nay, dragon – more than fills the shoes left behind by Kazuma Kiryu. “It must be nice to be Ichiban,” a more cynical character quips. It really is, actually. Consider-ing the hellscape this year has been, as other zeitgeisty games double down on dystopia, escaping to a modern-day Japanese city with ordinary heroes who can and do make a difference is a breath of fresh air.
You’ll do well to invest your time in the management minigame, which sees Ichiban become a benevolent capitalist at a company of his namesake. It’s certainly the best way to make lots of dosh, but where else can you put up cheesy TV commercials or battle a room of angry shareholders using the persuasive powers of your staff, including a pet chicken, a circus monkey, or a giant Roomba?
A wacky surprise and blazing triumph with an unapologetic dollop of heart, Yakuza: Like a Dragon is one of the best games of the year.
Format: XB X/S / XBO / PC / PS5 / PS4 (tested)
Developer: RGG Studio
Release: Out now (PS5 2021)