Story, characters, RPG combat, karaoke, drama, and all the charming absurdity fill our Xbox Series X demo of Yakuza: Like A Dragon.
We've closed the book on our beloved protagonist in Kazuma Kiryu. Through seven mainline games, we grew to care about a man who fought for the people he loved most and tried to do the right thing no matter his circumstances--and also did his best to resolve some of the most ridiculous situations of everyday people. As we enter Yakuza: Like A Dragon, we begin anew in the series with fresh faces and revamped gameplay mechanics. And after putting a few hours into it on Xbox Series X, Like A Dragon hit me with everything I love most about the series while standing strong as its own spirited game.
Every time I talk about the Yakuza games, I also point to its perfect blend of outlandish humor and captivating melodrama--consistently hitting the right notes at the right moments. It has always been outward in its expression of modern Japanese culture and embraced it in a way that permeates every aspect of the franchise. All of that is intact with Like A Dragon as I explored Yokohama, sang karaoke, and beat up some bad dudes in the Series X demo. But in this departure from previous entries, we see the absurdity cranked up to great effect, a party dynamic that adds a wonderful narrative layer, and a welcome switch to a turn-based RPG system.
Drama In Yokohama
Meet Kasuga Ichiban, our new protagonist who is presented as the antithesis of Kiryu. He's louder, outspoken, and a lot less reserved. Kasuga is kind of a charming dork who tends to have a positive outlook and isn't shy about his love for Dragon Quest (yes, the real video game series). His imagination fuels the ridiculous premise of fighting in a turn-based RPG style, because that is how he's envisioning these street fights going down. But the personalities of Kasuga and Kiryu intersect in that they both have fists of steel and hearts of gold.
As the story goes, a young Kasuga in good old Kamurocho takes the fall for a yakuza family crime. After spending well over a decade in prison, expecting to be greeted by his yakuza family, he re-enters the free world alone and is eventually betrayed by the man he looked up to when he was running with the gang. He then finds himself dumped in Yokohama, having hit rock bottom with only the desire for truth pushing him forward.
The preview demo I played started in Chapter 5, however, and much of the setup had already passed. From what I can gather, Kasuga and his friends Adachi and Nanba were working at a soapland before the manager died, but they have a lead on what really happened and connect it to the city's Chinese Liumang gang. Despite being out of the loop of the core narrative, I was immediately enamored with the characters. Unlike previous Yakuza games where you played as one protagonist (switching to others depending on the game), Like A Dragon's party dynamic brings an exciting element to its storytelling.
Characters Are The Heart Of Yakuza
Kasuga isn't alone. With his friends, who are party members, he bounces ideas off of them to figure things out and shares moments of joy and strife, creating a consistent dialogue to carry the story. It may sound quite standard from an RPG perspective, but when you integrate this dynamic with Yakuza's already-strong character development and narrative style, you really come to appreciate the new approach. While Kiryu (and to an extent, Saejima, Majima, and Akiyama) kept people at arm's length and mostly fought alone, Kasuga embraces friendship and goes out of his way to fight for his companions.
For example, take Saeko Mukoda, a party member and the main focus of Chapter 5. You immediately see her introductory cutscene where it's revealed that she's directly affected by the murder of the soapland manager who was helping Kasuga and company. It was deemed a suicide, but she knows there's evil scheming going on and joins the group. In one moment, she has to leave the party to work as an undercover hostess, but Kasuga is hesitant to leave her without backup. At another moment, she decides to leave the group for the day, but Kasuga runs back to her to invite her to hang out and drink with the rest of the group. And when Saeko opens up about why she's so invested in uncovering the truth, Kasuga and friends uplift her to let her know they have her back moving forward. They seem to bring out the best in each other, whether it's in small cutscenes like going out for the night, tense moments in enemy territory, or unraveling the story's mysteries.
Friendship also manifests through a bond system, where you can manually develop relationships by fighting together and hanging out at the karaoke bar to learn more about your party and empower them, a la Persona's Social Link/Confidant system. When lovable characters have been one of the strongest hooks in the series, I can't wait to see how Yakuza: Like A Dragon makes the most of this new approach.
Like A Dragon Quest
In what was an April Fool's joke come true, Yakuza: Like A Dragon really is a turn-based RPG, and it's actually a really good combat system. When you encounter enemies, everyone transforms into the role they've equipped through the Job system. With four party members, you get to use a variety of attacks, spells, buffs and debuffs, and heals to take down the likes of evil chefs, bad dudes disguised as trash bags, unhinged baseball players, and of course, menacing men of various gang affiliations.
This is where the game goes from ridiculous to absolutely absurd. Like A Dragon ditches any notion of seriousness even as all the characters play their roles straight. You can cast lightning spells from the sky to zap a group of enemies, have Saeko swing her bag around for an AOE attack, or make Nanba breath flames into enemies for fire damage. If you switch to specific Jobs, like the Musician, you can toss CDs or play a concert that summons fans to stomp out your foes to inflict even higher damage. I'm particularly a fan of Saeko's Idol Job, where she uses the power of her stans to beat the shit out of an enemy with perfect choreography using glowsticks. The essence of Yakuza's heat actions lives on in these special casts and summons.
I'm only scratching the surface of the comical yet effective Job types and spells, and plenty were available in the demo. You'll be able to switch between Jobs at any time you have access to the Hello Work building in Yokohama, and each Job comes with its own perks, stat changes, outfits, and movesets. It's so damn hilarious that you can't help but fall in love with the way the game embraces it's new level of absurdity, especially when I'm beating the crap out of big yakuza men with a giant vibrator like it's a baseball bat or grinding pepper on top of enemies to inflict damage.
Things can get awkward in terms of positioning during battles since they happen on the spot in the game world. Characters walk around on their own within the defined area and might take a second to get around objects after issuing commands. The system lets you do follow-up combos on downed enemies for extra damage or use AOE attacks, but timing can be thrown off since the turn-based system doesn't use predefined positions or clear indicators for an attack's potential effects while enemies move around.
Admittedly, the fights in this demo were very easy and didn't allow for difficulty changes. I suspect that the party was set to be a bit overpowered and with good gear from the start, but I hope the game is able to let its wild combat system shine by challenging you to use it effectively.
The Xbox Series X Experience
Since it is an Xbox Series X/Series S launch title and I played it on our Xbox Series X preview unit, I want to shift to the more technical aspects of Yakuza: Like A Dragon. It runs on the Dragon Engine, which was used in Yakuza Kiwami 2, Yakuza 6, and Judgment, but now it's tuned for next gen.
When running the game on Series X, you'll have three enhancement options: high resolution, high frame rate, and normal. High resolution looks to be rendering true 4K for the best image quality, but the game will run at what appears to be around 30 FPS. High frame rate mode brings down the resolution in order to run much higher FPS, although the drop in graphical quality is very noticeable. In the video above, I set the visuals to normal and the game seemed to hold a consistent 60 FPS throughout combat and exploration without sacrificing too much in visual detail--I found it to be the best option since it does offer smoother gameplay than what we've had in previous entries that use the same graphics engine.
Those new to the Yakuza franchise may be put off by some of its quirks, such as the way characters sometimes awkwardly move in and out of scenes or the flow of non-voiced scenes. Remember that it's also a cross-gen title that hit the PlayStation 4 in Japan back in January this year. However, Yakuza: Like A Dragon can still shine with its visual flourishes and fine details that bring Yokohama and its characters to life. And like most modern Yakuza games, the detailed expressions and character models of the main cast stand among some of the best-looking in video games today.
The Smaller Touches That Make It Yakuza
If it wasn't clear towards the beginning, the Yakuza franchise holds a special place in my heart and it's pretty wild to see the traditionally PlayStation franchise at the forefront of the Xbox Series X/S launch. Yakuza: Like A Dragon is shaping up to live up to highs of its previous entries all while starting a brand-new story that newcomers can approach without prior experience. It's trying new things even as it's playing on the core Yakuza foundation that many of us know and love.
Take minigames as an example. A personal favorite, karaoke, is back, which plays as a rhythm game but also gives an opportunity for its characters to express themselves in such charming fashion. Nanba brings back the classic Baka Mitai, and Adachi offers his own rendition of Machine Gun Kiss. But Saeko gets her own song called Spring Breeze where she plays piano and the rest of the party enthusiastically cheers her on as an adorable ode to friendship. And Kasuga's own song, called The Future I Dreamed Of, shows a silly music video that actually fills you with determination and inspiration as he reflects on his own upbringing. There's just nothing quite like this in games outside of Yakuza.
Though less expressive, there's a competitive can-collecting minigame where you race against others to get the most cans by riding a bike through the streets while avoiding crashing. You have the Part-Time Hero side quests where you go around fighting bullies to clean up Yokohama's streets for rewards. There's a quiz minigame that's presented as an adult school exam series where Kasuga learns more about culture at large to boost his social stats like passion, style, charisma, and kindness.
That quiz minigame is also introduced through a substory where you encounter an American tourist who speaks English. Kasuga has a hard time responding, but an over-enthusiastic man helps you out and pushes you to go to the adult school. Another substory has you helping a man who's being punked out of his baby formula (silly, I know) that he needs to take back home--you find out he's been overworked, which strains his relationship at home. Substories have been one of Yakuza's greatest sources of laugh-out-loud moments and character development, and I still have yet to see many of the substories that litter Yokohama's streets.
These are the types of things that take you around the seaside town and give it life. It might not seem as dense or exciting as the seedy red-light district of Kamurocho, but Yokohama has its own personality and I'm eager as ever to explore it.
Even with just a small slice of the game in this Xbox Series X demo, Yakuza: Like A Dragon shows us why the franchise has won the hearts of so many and continues to stand out among its peers. I'm convinced that the move to a turn-based RPG can pay off, and I'm already invested in our new protagonist Kasuga Ichiban and his friends, because Like A Dragon pulls these things off in ways only Yakuza can. We'll be able to get the full picture when Yakuza: Like A Dragon launches for Xbox Series X/S, PC, and current-gen platforms on November 10 (although the PS5 version is due in March 2021).