‘Yakuza: Like A Dragon’ – seamlessly reinventing a legacy

By Sean Cabot, Staff Writer

The “Yakuza” series has carved out a unique niche in the gaming landscape, combining melodramatic stories, bizarre combat, and even more bizarre side activities. But after a sendoff to series hero Kazuma Kiryu in “Yakuza 6,” SEGA has decided to focus on a new hero and a new gameplay style.

“Yakuza: Like a Dragon” does not merely adopt the series’ Japanese name as a subtitle to signify a new beginning for its story – the entire direction of the series has changed. What was once a series of open-world action brawlers with bombastic real-time combat is now a turn-based RPG.

Whereas the previous games focused on the unflappable Kiryu, this game’s story follows Ichiban Kasuga, a bright-eyed Yakuza punk with a bad temper. When his patriarch Arakawa tells him to take the fall for a murder, Ichiban serves 18 years in prison only to find that no one is waiting for him when he gets out.

Though Ichiban manages to reunite with Arakawa, he is shot and dumped in Yokohama – home to two different immigrant communities and their own organized criminal elements. He proceeds to get himself tangled in a conflict surrounding these factions and an anti-crime movement called Bleach Japan, with disgraced detective Adachi, former nurse Nanba, and a barmaid named Saeko by his side.

The story and characters are all endearing, genuine, and superbly acted, with themes commenting on classism in modern Japan – a large subplot criticizes how its postwar policy disenfranchises those of Korean and Chinese heritage. Ichiban himself is particularly compelling – his many on-paper similarities to Kiryu, the Dragon of Dojima, end up highlighting just how different they are in execution.

He is “like a dragon,” but has not completed his journey to become one just yet.

Kaiji Tang and Greg Chun give standout performances as the optimistic Ichiban and the sardonic Nanba, and the cast even features “Star Trek’s” George Takei in the role of Arakawa, who blends in seamlessly with his lesser-known castmates.

Yokohama initially seems like a nest of crime, pollution, and poverty, but gradually evolves in complexity and beauty as the player explores it. It gives Ichiban a chance to find purpose in his life – his goal being to become a hero like those in his favorite game, “Dragon Quest.”

The references to that series don’t end there – “Yakuza’s” new turn-based gameplay liberally borrows from it. To bolster the fun and fast-paced combat, Ichiban’s party has access to different Jobs that change how they fight.

While in classic RPGs the term “Job,” refers to types of fighting styles like knight or mage, here it is literal – the classes consist of careers such as foreman, musician, chef, or even breakdancer. These jobs serve similar roles as their fantasy inspirations, but the urban aesthetic gives the game a unique identity.

Even summons are endearingly bizarre, being interpreted here as an app that lets Ichiban call various allies to help him fight, one of which is a crawfish named Nancy.

In addition to the main plot, Yokohama has many side activities to engage with – substories that walk the line between absurd and heartfelt, karaoke, “Mario Kart” races, and in-depth business management. That last activity is especially important – one of the game’s seven playable characters is recruited and upgraded by growing Ichiban’s business.

As is the usual with “Yakuza,” the tone masterfully rides the line between absurd and profound. The only real blemishes are a rather slow beginning and grind-heavy progression, but otherwise?

The legacy of the “Yakuza” series remains strong.

A joyous romp through Japanese gangland.