I am, admittedly, a huge Sega fan, and part of the reason why is because sometimes, for reasons known only internally, Sega will just do stuff that's totally weird and unexpected. Something like, say, taking one of their international crown-jewel franchises and completely changing its genre. I mean, you wouldn't expect Ubisoft to wake up one day and say, “Hey, let's make Assassin's Creed into a first-person shooter!” because it would be risky, and how the hell would that even work?
And yet here's Sega, who just casually turned their 3D open-world-lite crime drama 3D action beat-em-up into… a 3D open-world-lite crime drama turn-based role-playing game. Those genres are practically polar opposites! What are they thinking?
But you know what? It works. And it works beautifully. Yakuza: Like a Dragon is easily one of the best installments in the franchise, boasting a fascinating and memorable cast of characters, a twisting story chock-full of underworld and political intrigue, a massive new area to explore, plenty of absurd sub-quests and addictive minigames, and combat that gets across the satisfaction of whooping serious ass despite its turn-based nature.
The reins of the Yakuza series have been handed over from stalwart hero Kazuma Kiryu to rookie Ichiban Kasuga. They share a similar background story: coming into the yakuza through parental figures, being asked to take the fall for a murder they didn't commit, and being freed from prison to find the world they remember turned upside-down as the people and organizations they believed in transformed into something completely different. But where Kiryu was a stone-cold straight man with a burning sense of personal justice, Kasuga's more of an idealistic, happy-go-lucky goofball, desperately wanting to believe in people even after he finds himself betrayed by many of those he's trusted.
Kasuga's great as a leading man, and his more outgoing personality plays well off of the people he meets who join his quest to uncover the plots happening behind the scenes in Yokohama's seedy Ijincho district. Many who join and help him are people who live on the fringes, keeping with Yakuza’s tradition of sympathetic portrayals of those proper society leaves behind. In fact, the story focuses heavily on how society simply wants the people on its bottom rung – the homeless, sex workers, and so on – to be eliminated, without considering their circumstances or basic humanity.
YLAD's twisting, intricate plot is filled with all sorts of players and personalities from the underworld to the police force -- and even the highest rungs of the political ladder. It's told through excellently choreographed and voice-acted cinematics that know exactly the right time to turn up the volume on the melodrama and intrigue. While the Japanese voice cast does an excellent job, the English dub track is also extremely good: Kaiji Tang's performance as Kasuga is absolutely spot-on, with plenty of appropriately emotional and intense moments alongside being an endearing doofus.
So the story's great, but what about the gameplay? Longtime series fans will be happy to know that, despite the genre change, the actual flow of game progression hasn't changed much: after a lengthy combination story introduction/tutorial section, you're dropped into Ijincho, which you're free to explore at your leisure in-between advancing the overall story. It's not the hugest open world out there (though it's quite large compared to the areas in previous Yakuza titles), but it's packed with personality and flavor that really makes it feel like part of a living, breathing city. It really is fun and rewarding just to run around and see things in Ijincho, especially when you find a little staircase or hidden alley with a prize squirrelled away.
Of course, given that Kasuga is ex-Yakuza and gets himself mixed in with a bunch of folks who live very roughly, he'll get into a fair few fights even when he's out scurrying around the city, leading to scuffles with enemy gangs in turn-based party battles. This is where things have changed the most: instead of a lone, extremely capable badass beating up a gaggle of foes with button and controller combinations, you're controlling four characters taking turns and picking commands from a menu. For those who love the head-bashing, curb-stomping, knock-down-drag-out fights of other Yakuza games, this sounds like a serious downgrade on paper. But here's the thing: even though the gameplay isn't action-driven, the attacks you use, the enemy reactions, and the environments all work together to deliver the same sort of ass-kicking satisfaction you got from previous games. In fact, now that the fighting is a bit less grounded in martial-arts semi-realism, everything gets turned up to eleven. Ever wanted to just slam some jerk into the ground with electrified tongs? Perhaps turn yourself into a human blowtorch with booze and a lighter? Or perhaps summon a storm of vicious crawfish to pincer-attack all of a foe's vulnerable spots? Then YLAD absolutely has your number.
The excesses of combat are just one of the many ways YLAD carefully balances the serious and the ridiculous. Yakuza is known for an abundance of bizarre humor that lives just outside of the dead-serious central story, ready to show its face through substories, mini-games, and character interactions. One of my favorite new additions on this front is party chat, where at certain spots you'll be prompted to have a conversation with your teammates about things you encounter in Ijincho. Mini-game wise, there's lots of strong stuff here: in particular, the business management game is a satisfying time sink, and Dragon Kart is a charming little racer that's better than 90% of the kart-racing shovelware out there. And the substories… well, I'd really rather not spoil anything, but there are a couple that are up there with the most memorable exploits from prior outings.
However, the transition of Yakuza from an action game to an RPG isn't without a few hiccups. Previous games would have lengthy stretches where you'd go through a large area fighting hordes of foes along the way, and that's still here in the form of dungeon-like locales. However, these locations tend to be quite bland overall, consisting of sewers, secret passages, and buildings. In the older games, the locales being rather uninteresting wasn't much of a problem, since you were more focused on beating down all of the enemies that were constantly hounding you – but with the switch to slower, turn-based combat, you start to really notice just how drab a lot of these areas are.
Another issue is difficulty. It tends to feel like enemies are either really easy or very tank-y, without much in-between. This leaves you feeling like you're either way overpowered or way underpowered depending on who you're fighting against, and it's especially disorienting when you have those one-hit-kill mooks and massive attack sponges in the same group. This also makes it difficult to fully explore the game's job system, since switching to a new job involves a massive stat downgrade that puts a character at a severe disadvantage unless you specifically set out to power-level.
But while it has flaws, Yakuza: Like a Dragon hits the right notes more often than not. It's got the elements of previous Yakuza games that people love—story, characters, exploration, and humor—combined with RPG elements inspired by genre greats like Dragon Quest and Persona and enhanced with that trademark Yakuza weirdness and savagery. If you've never played a Yakuza game, there's no better place to start – and if you're still a skeptic, at least give it a shot: I think you'll find the game winning you over in the end. YLAD represents the things that make the series – and Sega themselves – so beloved by many.