Leap of Faith
It has been 15 years since the first release of the Yakuza Series. Sega took a leap of faith placing their trust in Masayoshi Kikuchi and Toshihiro Nagoshi in an era where the yakuza were hardly celebrated, much less sold to a younger generation.
And while the game managed to get a little more traction in Japan, eventually spawning 8 sequels to the series, it wasn’t all that popular in the west until the latest series of Yakuza 6 and Yakuza 0 set the internet ablaze. Popular deepfake meme of the Karaoke song ‘Bakamitai’ or more commonly known as ‘Dame Dane’ sparked much interest in the largely obscure franchise.
The Ryuu Ga Gotoku (Yakuza) series had spent all 7 (from 0 – 6) following the main character of Kazuma Kiryu. It is then of no surprise that fans did not take well to the news of switching to a new main character Kasuga Ichiban. Sega had once again, taken a leap of faith, this time to introduce a new character in an effort to keep things fresh as well as introduce newer concepts to a game that was threatening to die of repetition.
It is understandable that the writers had hit a roadblock and that they no longer had much wiggle room to keep Kiryu in the forefront of the Yakuza franchise without making the game stale. After all, it did seem like if you had played one Yakuza game, barring the story elements, you might as well have played them all. One can only explore the evolving streets of Kamurocho and Sotenbori so many times before they tire of the same few attractions that keep the game going.
Starting from Scratch
When you dive into a Yakuza game, you’re usually guaranteed the same few minigames available. Mahjong, Casinos, Shogi, Baseball, Golf, Darts, Pool, SEGA Arcades (RIP) and who could forget the Karaoke. These serve as fun little side stuff you can do when you want to take a break from the heavy story sequences that usually take a toll on your emotions. However, after a few generations of this, you can’t help but feel like these games are simple copypastas from the previous ones; only there to serve as a distraction above anything else.
While mostly optional, these minigames usually threaten to overtake the main game, often locking some powerful rewards behind hours of mini-gameplay grinding. Just as the sun rises from the east, Yakuza: Like a Dragon comes with the same minigames with the same grind-locked rewards.
However, with the introduction of Kasuga Ichiban, writers did manage to bring something new to the table. Aptly named ‘Like a Dragon’, Kasuga is very similar yet so diffferent from Kiryu in many ways. Like Kiryu, Kasuga is Lawful Good. Ironic considering they are both Yakuza in the first place.
In terms of differences, Kasuga is more devious and tactical than Kiryu’s headstrong punch-first approach. He’s also more emotional, often getting himself into tough situations because of said emotions.
While Kiryu is a powerhouse on his own, Kasuga derives his strength from his friends. Thus leading to the departure from the one-versus-all approach in previous Yakuza series to… A TURN-BASED RPG?
A Dragon’s Quest
It turns out that the combat that we see in Yakuza: Like a Dragon is something we see through the lens of Kasuga’s wild imagination. Having played too much Dragon Quest when he was younger and after deciding to pursue the dream of becoming a Hero, the world starts to warp into an RPG for Kasuga.
This was a stroke of genius. The introduction of Job Classes in a Turn-based RPG opened up new possibilities in the combat system. You can imagine me curling up in a ball of laughter after watching a Homeless party member use his Bad Breath to lower enemy defenses. I definitely fell on the floor watching some of the cutscenes of the ‘Summons’ aka ‘Poundmates’.
Unfortunately, along with the good came the bad. The introduction of the turn-based RPG elements also came the intense grind that accompanied it. One couldn’t simply get from one place to another without running into enemies left, right and center. What made this even more frustrating was that sometimes when you beat a battle, they respawn at a spot further down the road where you will have to beat them again.
The game itself realizes this and thus gave us the option to Auto-battle: where the game takes over and controls all your turns for you. While this eases the tediousness of battle, it highlights a couple of other problems.
Lack of Strategy in Combat
While there are different types of attacks, mostly split between weapon types and elemental types that will affect enemies differently, the fact is you can mostly brute-force your way through anything in your way. This in itself makes it even more puzzling that the game still tries its best to extend an already super long game experience.
This is made worse with near-pointless and lengthy dungeons that pack in as many battles as possible.
The AI really isn’t all that Smart
When you allow the AI do all the attacking, all you usually have to do is add in the extra damage via quick-time inputs and block incoming damage via perfect blocking. However, sometimes the AI just seems to want to use the most mana-inefficient way of finishing your opponent off. It’s either that or spamming normal attacks. No in-between.
There’s a certain character that works better when drunk. But when the AI’s at work, the ‘Drunk’ status is always considered bad, so you have to resign yourself to saying goodbye to an all-expensive all-cure remedy. Ouch.
The Sub-par Substories and Part-Time Hero Gigs
As a personal preference, I feel like the best parts of any Yakuza game are the Substories. They bring so much to the table while also showcasing the character traits of your hero.
I do have to say though, that compared to Yakuza 0, the substories in 7 just don’t match up in terms of hilarity and variety. Granted, there are some memorable stories like the super-hot Kimchi but they really don’t compare to that of Kiryu’s stint with the Dominatrix, or Majima’s encounter with the Munan Chohept cult.
Substories in 7 feel more like a chore than fun side-content that help bring levity in a very serious story. Some even requiring multiple returns to a location just to see it through. With taxi stands only appearing once you’ve taken a taxi from that stand, fast-travelling was a pain to unlock, much less use for questing.
Heck, even the Business Management minigame felt somewhat cumbersome compared to that of the Caberet Club businesses in 0 and Kiwami 2.
Carried by Story
I won’t lie. When I started Yakuza: Like a Dragon, I got bored really quickly. It was exposition after exposition and I simply couldn’t wait to be rid of it all so I could explore the streets of Ijincho.
However, in the end, it was the story that carried the game through a passing grade to a solid A. Kasuga’s journey is one that takes many twists and turns and never ceases to amaze.
When you’re holing in with the homeless people, you can almost smell the piles of garbage, feel the grime on your skin and the dust on the ground as you scour from under a vending machine for coins to make ends meet. It feels horrible, and that’s the point. I usually can’t wait to move on to the next chapter, only to find myself under-leveled and requiring to grind for money, new gear and items.
With more party members in tow, Yakuza 7 juggles each member well enough to bring forth a party full of character. By the end of the journey, you fully believe that the party will stick through thick and thin for one another.
That ending though. Is something to behold. A fully voice-acted game in both English and Japanese and excelling at both? That is something else indeed.
Like a Dragon
Ultimately, Yakuza 7 follows in the footsteps of its predecessors while still bringing something new to the table. The game is bogged down by its own excessive amount of content with each twist and turn requiring more time-investment than the next. A little trim on the edges might fix these issues. But when it comes to Kasuga Ichiban, he’s no Kazuma Kiryu, but he’s most certainly like one.
The torch has been passed. And now it’s your turn to pave the way of the Yakuza, like a dragon.