The Yakuza series has never once deviated from its standard beat-em-up gameplay over its fifteen-year history. The combat styles have changed slightly to keep things fresh, but apart from that, developer Ryu Ga Gotoku has been content relying on the formula that made the series popular. Yakuza: Like A Dragon is their first foray into something different. With a whole new cast of characters, Yakuza has shifted from an open-world beat-em-up to a more traditional JRPG. Has Ryu Ga Gotoku pulled it off, or have they fallen flat on their faces? Read on to find out!
Story – New World, New Protagonist
You play as Ichiban Kasuga, a yakuza obsessed with video games who is shot and left for dead by the man he trusts most in the world. Right from the start, Kasuga is a very admirable and likable protagonist. Clearly, the man is the least intelligent playable character in the Yakuza series, but it makes his corny one-liners feel genuine and endearing. On the outside, Kasuga is hot-tempered and reckless, but spending any considerable length of time with him reveals his true dorky, charismatic nature.
Throughout his journey, you’ll slowly start to gain party members until you have a team of lovable weirdos, each one with their unique personality and quirks. Yakuza has always been a series that focuses on character relationships, but in LAD there’s even more emphasis on them. Having a party full of characters travel with you instead of being individual characters being isolated gives you a stronger sense of camaraderie. You become attached to these characters more than in previous entries, and it makes the story’s dramatic twists and turns more impactful.
And for those of you wondering, yes Yakuza: LAD till has the wackier aspects of the Yakuza series. In fact, it leans into that side of Yakuza more than any other. New mini-games have been introduced to truly befuddle any newcomers, and there are a lot more of the weird and wonderful substories that have made the series so renowned in the first place. In terms of the narrative feel, Yakuza: LAD is more Yakuza, and that’s not a bad thing.
Gameplay – Bold But Bumpy
However, the gameplay is anything but Yakuza. Likely in an attempt to keep things fresh and exciting, Ryu Ga Gotoku has swapped genres. Instead of the fast-paced beat-em-up style fans are used to, Yakuza: LAD’s combat system is much more slow and methodical. The use of turn-based combat is definitely jarring at first, but the developers have done an overall great job introducing players to a whole new way of playing a Yakuza game. There are some bumps here and there, but you expect them from a developer trying something new.
Any fan of traditional JRPGs like Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy will feel right at home. You have your standard HP and MP gauges that you need to manage as well as weapons and gear that contribute to your attack and defense respectively. Partway through, the game introduces you to the “jobs” system. This is essentially how you pick what class each character will use, each with their individual strengths and skills. It’s your job to balance your team so it can cover a variety of different situations.
Ryu Ga Gotoku has approached the switch in genres so confidently that you have a hard time believing it’s their first crack at turned-based combat. In the battles themselves, everything exudes that familiar Yakuza flair that has been present in every game in the franchise. Whether you’re spraying enemies down with a freezing bottle of wine or pelting them with a swarm of pigeons, Yakuza: LAD maintains the series’ charming sense of humor.
What’s more impressive is how everything that you do in the game contributes to the combat in some way. You can improve different aspects of Kasuga’s Personality by completing mini-games which, in turn, improves the efficacy of certain abilities. Hanging out with your friends will improve your bond with them, increasing the chances of them following up on attacks and having them gain more experience when not in the party. Eating at restaurants also improves the bond between Kasuga and his allies.
Everything that you do in Yakuza: LAD is connected to the combat, whether you’re bowling, playing golf, completing substories, or grinding for materials. It doesn’t seem like much at the time, but everything comes together, adding to the feeling that you’re getting more powerful as the story progresses.
As you’d expect, there are some teething issues and baffling design choices. The jobs system that allows you to choose classes becomes more pointless the further into the game you go. As your level increases, you gain stat boosts, similar to every other JRPG out there. However, your job level also contributes massively to your overall stats as well. This then leads to the issue that if you want to change a character’s class at some point, their job level resets and removes the stat increases from your character.
This means that if you want to change classes in the latter half of the game, said character will take a massive hit to their HP and MP levels. You either have to soldier on with a massively weak character, or stop all story progress and go grind. It’s a bizarre method of changing classes and removes any incentive to experiment with different setups. You’re much better off sticking with a class you really like for each individual character until the credits roll.
And then there’s the map. I’ve always admired the Yakuza series for how it bucks the trends of modern open-world game design. Smaller, denser worlds have always been Ryu Ga Gotoku’s preference, but Ijincho feels barren in comparison to Kamurocho or Sotenbori. Nothing has really been removed, but mini-games are spread out to cover more ground. You have to either rely on the fast travel system a lot more, meaning you end up missing Ijincho’s smaller details. I would’ve preferred a denser map rather than one that is significantly bigger, but more vacant.
Graphics and Audio – Dripping With Style
Whilst the Yakuza games have never been graphically phenomenal, their frequent dalliances with the absurd always gave Ryu Ga Gotoku room to experiment. Yakuza: LAD is another example of this. Ijinicho looks good, but grounds itself in realism. However, the wacky nature of the combat allows the developers to create visually stunning animations that will leave even the most hardened Yakuza player gobsmacked. One such animation has vicious crawfish falling from the skies onto understandably terrified enemies.
The stark contrast between the flashy combat and realistic setting is likely intentional. Kasuga obsesses over Dragon Quest, with himself describing fighting people as pretending he’s in a video game. You fight through the eyes of Kasuga, so it makes sense for combat to be silly yet stylish.
And that phrase sums up Kasuga as a whole. The English voice actor for Kasuga (Kaiji Tang) does a great job of getting across his furious yet sincere personality. Before Yakuza: LAD, I was certain that the English dub was going to be too strange for me to get used to, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. There are a few questionable performances, but the core character’s voices are wonderful and even contribute to the sillier vibe that the game is going for.