Shifting to an entirely different genre isn’t something every established franchise could pull off, but if there were ever one equipped to do it, it’d be the Yakuza franchise. From the settings to the humor to the endless barrage of side activities to do, Yakuza games simply have so much propping them up that even if a major change wasn’t executed perfectly, it could easily take a backseat to everything else. Yakuza: Like a Dragon isn’t content to rest on those past successes though and instead takes a bold new direction that pays off for the most part and feels like it has a lot of depth for players to explore.
In a hands-on preview of Yakuza: Like a Dragon that started off in Chapter 5, I’d been provided a full team of trusted party members armed with eccentric weapons like flaming sticks and battle-hardened handbags. The starting point leaves out much of the exposition detailing the ragtag group’s origins, but characters flitter in and out of your path so quickly in the Yakuza series that it doesn’t require much to welcome someone to your side. Besides, unlikely groups of traveling companions are a core component to any RPG or JRPG, so Yakuza had that groundwork laid even before Like a Dragon.
Though the streets of Yokohama beckoned with markers everywhere on the map trying to pull me away, the first part of Like a Dragon that needed to be tested was the combat system. The new Yakuza game almost entirely does away with the sidewalk scraps found in previous games and trades them for a turn-based system. AOE attacks, moves needing to be charged up, debuffs, and supportive abilities all affected by gear and classes – known here as “Jobs” – make for a sharp departure from what we’re used to. Some features like environmental damage and the fact that characters move between turns anchor it to parts of the old system, but it’s a complete overhaul otherwise.
It was easy at first, and therefore hard to get a feel for. Starting with a level advantage, decent gear, and high Job ranks meant most enemies were swatted away with a few normal attacks while the Job and character-based abilities were just overkill. The Perfect Guard system used to mitigate enemies’ attacks and the correctly timed inputs on teammates’ abilities to amplify their damage didn’t mean much when battles lasted only a few seconds.
But once you obtain the ability to change your Job, it’s an entirely different series of confrontations. From bodyguards to musicians to hostesses, you can assign different Jobs to characters to check another RPG box and unlock a myriad of team compositions. Every Job has its own Job Rank with damaging and supportive abilities unlocked as you progress through those levels, and more Jobs are available as you progress in the game.
After switching roles and starting at Rank 1 thus losing access to certain items and abilities in the hopes of more powerful builds in the Jobs’ futures, things started to look more familiar. Grinding to rank whatever to unlock a powerful move and combining that with another character’s AOE buff unlocked at the same rank meant you could envision how things would play out and decide what paths are worth pursuing. Those combat systems mentioned previously calling for well-timed inputs became more valuable when you’re starting fresh, and those countless restaurants inviting you in for meals to reinvigorate and buff your party looked more appetizing.
It’s not like players are locked to a certain Job either, so there’s no use stressing whether a Job is right or wrong. Like a Dragon seems to smartly do away with the idea of gating class progression through designated items used to upgrade or promote characters to new Jobs, so you’ll see results as soon as you start putting in effort. Even though you can switch classes relatively easy, progress-based restrictions on potential Jobs and pricy class-based weapons do make it so that players aren’t switching between Jobs all the time and have to put some thought into what they invest their resources into.
Getting rid of the old combat does take some getting used to though, and there are a few pangs to overcome when you think of what you would’ve done in a situation had the previous system been in place. The turn-based pacing removes some of the franticness of free combat, and I missed being able to respond to enemy attacks quickly without being restricted by who’s turn it was. Being able to plan several moves ahead based on enemies’ positions and healthbars has potential though, so this system feels like it’ll have its payoffs once strategies fall into place.
Aside from the combat that immediately felt more rewarding with the introductions of Job changes, another big change in Like a Dragon is its protagonist, Ichiban Kasuga. Expressive and outgoing, he’s a less stoic and more agreeable character than we’ve seen in the past. Yakuza’s a weird franchise, and Ichiban seems to embrace by rolling with things wholeheartedly rather than reluctantly. In a team-based game where he’s flanked by loyal allies, it’s easy to see from his personality why his companions follow him.
Back on the streets of Yokohama, there’s still just as much to do as Yakuza players are accustomed to. A new favorite minigame of mine is heading to a theater and trying to stay awake through the movie by deflecting sleep away with well-timed button presses. Challenges and freelance work make small-time scraps seem worthwhile even if you’re proficiently leveled to not need every bit of XP, and the side quests have as much charm packed into them as ever. Befriending a crustacean or a diaper-wearing yakuza member to help you in battle feels like an everyday occurrence in Like a Dragon made even more natural by Ichiban’s traits.
It’s hard not to like Yakuza: Like a Dragon, at least based on what was shown in the preview. It’s different, but it’s still Yakuza at its core. Like Judgment before it that gave us a brief deviation from the formula, this one takes a bigger leap that still feels like it’s able to retain the charm of Yakuza. A full playthrough will tell how well the changes hold up over time, but Yakuza: Like a Dragon so far feels less like a test and more like a confident departure.