You’d be forgiven for having overlooked Yakuza: Like a Dragon amongst the flurry of next-gen excitement, however, we highly recommend reconsidering that stance. The game arrives as something of a reboot for the Yakuza series, with the traditional brawler-style combat being completely replaced with a turn-based RPG gameplay loop. I am happy to report, Yakuza: Like a Dragon is all the better for this overhaul of such a long-standing system.

The Yakuza series has made a name for itself through a blend of over-the-top comedic flair, endearing characters and masterful storytelling. Despite this, many people who have been loyal fans of the series have expressed some fatigue with the formula after seven mainline titles, namely due to overly similar combat systems and the same primary characters appearing again and again in each entry. Like a Dragon throws all of this out the window and delivers an entirely new protagonist and accompanying secondary characters, a completely different combat system and a brand new setting. While long standing fans may be apprehensive of such a seismic shift in their beloved series, I would like to allay your fears, Yakuza: Like a Dragon feels fresh and exciting and delivers an extremely memorable story with a cast of characters who exude charm.

Ichiban Kasuga, a fiercely loyal, low-ranked Yakuza with a rough past takes centre stage. Ichiban joined the Arakawa family at a young age after the patriarch bailed him out from a sticky situation where he lied about being among their ranks to save his skin. From then on, Ichiban waited outside the family’s office every single day begging to join the clan and repay the patriarch until one day, he was welcomed in, due to his unwavering determination. Many years later, to repay his debt to the patriarch, he agrees to take the blame for another member’s mistake and serve time in prison for the family.

Ichiban’s life gets turned upside down when he finally gets released eighteen years later and nobody is there waiting for him, his patriarch doesn’t even acknowledge him and has betrayed the clan and switched allegiances, while climbing up the ranks. From here, Like a Dragon properly begins and you are thrust into homelessness with a wacky cast of similarly hard-done-by characters who are all trying to get back on their feet. As a result, the story essentially serves as a redemption arc; Ichiban and his friends, Nanba, Adachi and Seako, to name but a few, begin with nothing and are alone, confused and out of their depth and must work to get back on their feet. RGG Studio have done a stellar job of creating this new cast of characters as they are truly the stars of Like a Dragon. The personalities which have been developed throughout this game means that these characters will go down among my favourite video game personas of all time.

As you play through the game, the characters will grow in their bonds with one another and you’ll learn more about the backstory of the other characters, as they transition into secondary protagonists. The character development in this game has certainly taken a few notes from their supremely popular sister JRPG franchise, Persona, and Like a Dragon is all the better for it. You will likely come away from this game feeling a true connection to the team of crazy people you’ve gone through so much with and, in traditional Yakuza style, with a mountain of laughter along the way.

As expected with Yakuza, Like a Dragon also contains a huge number of sub stories alongside the main narrative: over fifty in total, making this a very long game to fully work through, but never one that will drag along the way. Each substory has been written with just the same care and attention as every primary story beat and many of them will leave you on the floor with laughter. Oftentimes I was left wondering, with admiration, how the writers at RGG Studio manage to come up with such hilariously insane side quests.

To give you an example, one of the earlier substories in the game which stuck out to me was a scenario where you encounter a newly-made father who is being harassed by some yakuza for baby formula. Ichiban, being the pure soul that he is, steps in, fending off the yakuza and saving the man, who talks about his recent relationship stress from the new baby. During this conversation, you hear a cry in the nearby massage parlour and the father wonders if there’s an orphan child who might need some support, just as Ichiban himself was. The father heads off for towels and tasks Ichi with getting some hot water. When they return to feed the child, they discover that the parlour is in fact filled with a number of adult yakuza all of whom are wearing diapers/nappies and are being fed milk by a woman in a maid costume. The situation plays out hilariously and this is just one of the many hysterical, lighthearted substories which brought a huge smile to my face while playing.

The main narrative, on the other hand, isn’t quite as lighthearted at certain times and there are many shocking twists and turns that will certainly play with your emotions as you come to care about these kind, lovable characters. It’s quite amazing what RGG have managed to achieve when you consider they have started afresh with a clean slate after such a long time with the same cast of people and it is something to be commended. It was a brave decision to shake up their beloved franchise so much, but one which has, in my opinion, paid dividends. I don’t want to spoil too much more of this brilliant story, as I wouldn’t be able to do it the justice it deserves.

Moving on to combat, this is where some opinions may begin to differ. While I am a fan of turn-based combat, many people may not enjoy this gameplay system and if you don’t, then I can’t really recommend Yakuza: Like a Dragon. If you are a fan of it or even just don’t mind it, however, I think the game certainly does enough to deliver a fun, fairly deep gameplay experience which drives the story forward. You can fight using a mixture of physical and ability based attacks, the latter costing MP to use. The damage done by your physical attacks depends on whatever weapon you have equipped to the character in question and you can find or buy new weapons throughout the game, ranging from baseball bats to umbrellas. The abilities on offer, however, are far more interesting. Each character has its own unique slate of abilities, including status effects, stat boosters, special physical attacks and elemental attacks. The system which I enjoyed most, however, was the job system. In Like a Dragon, you can gain access to a large number of possible jobs for each character and the current job you have equipped is the determining factor in which abilities are available to you, with the job level having implications on the magnitude of those abilities’ effects. Again, I think this takes some nods from Persona with equippable personas determine your abilities, however, I am glad it has adopted its own unique take on a successful mechanic, as it adds a substantial amount of depth to the combat.

Many of the abilities are ridiculously over-the-top, in the best way, just as you might expect from this series. Nanba was my favourite character initially due to this, featuring a fire attack where he swallows alcohol and spits it out through a lighter, creating a flamethrower-like effect. He also has an attack where he throws bird feed on an enemy to cause a flock of pigeons to descend for an attack. These zany abilities make Like a Dragon truly a joy to play through and I was continuously excited to see what new attacks would appear after levelling up or finding a new job for one of my characters. Many of the abilities also involve some timed button pressing elements to increase the interactivity in the combat and each of these aspects combine do a good job of making the system feel fresh and varied.

Outside of this, there is the usual raft of RPG items to find or purchase which can heal or recover your party, along with equippable clothing and accessories which can boost your characters’ stats. There is also an elemental strength and weakness system in play, which you must pay attention to, particularly as you progress and the combat becomes more challenging. Personally, I really enjoyed this new vision for Yakuza’s combat system and I found it to be an excellent implementation of a turn-based gameplay loop. I’m excited to see where the team can go by developing and refining this system further in future games, should they decide to stick with the new format.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon is also complete with a huge number of mini games which can help you make money, a vital resource in any RPG game. My favourite of these is the surprisingly deep business management simulation mini game, which allows you to invest in businesses, hire staff to work in them and even argue with shareholders at oftentimes hilarious meetings. There are a huge number of other mini games outside of this, however, ranging from can collection, to defeating goats like Whack-A-Moles in a movie theatre to stay awake during the movie, to an entertaining Mario Kart rip-off. Honestly, RGG Studio have gone above and beyond with stuffing Like a Dragon with content and there is more than enough meat in this game to keep you chewing for a long time, should you choose to keep coming back for subsequent helpings.

If you’re looking for a game which will bring you through a rollercoaster of emotions but at the end of it all, brighten your day, make you laugh and deliver a cast of characters who you’ll fall in love with and come to care deeply about, Yakuza: Like a Dragon is the perfect time sink and exactly the type of optimistic story we’ve needed in these recent times. RGG Studio have absolutely nailed this fresh vision for the Yakuza series and I’m incredibly excited to see where they go with it next!

Yakuza: Like a Dragon is available now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S and PC, with a free PlayStation 5 upgrade promised in early 2021.

DISCLAIMER: This review was carried out on Xbox Series X with a review code kindly provided by the publisher.