After serving 18 years in Prison for a crime that he did not commit, all that Ichiban Kasuga wants is a fresh ‘Punch Perm’ hairstyle as they were all the rage with Yakuza hard men when he went inside.
No one from his crime family meets him outside the prison gates, a young hair stylist botches his blast from the past hairdo and then to make matters even worse his old Master shoots him in the chest as soon as they are reunited. This has to be the bad day of all bad days, welcome to Yakuza: Like A Dragon.
The ways of the Yakuza have changed greatly during the time that Ichiban was in prison. The well-known faces of the previous games such as Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima are long gone from Kamurocho and the place is certainly no longer what it was. With this formally prosperous area in a sad state of decline the action moves to Yokohama.
Ichiban wakes up wearing just his trousers in a homeless camp after his almost lifeless body is found by scavengers in a pile of rubbish. Finding a blood splattered bank note in his jacket printed only on one side and with a bullet hole through it he sets out on a quest to find out why his boss joined another Clan and betrayed him.
After making some friends he gets a job in a Soapland (a brothel like the one he grew up in) and things are going ok until he returns one day to find the manager hanging from the ceiling. When it becomes apparant that suicide was not the cause of death Ichiban investigates.
This soon leads him into conflict with a deadly trio of Yakuza, Triad and Korean gangsters who all play equal parts in a money counterfeiting scheme with links extending to everyone from Politicians and Anti vice Organisations to the highest levels of the Police.
Being a Yakuza game, a labyrinthine plot is expected as standard and is always delivered by Ryu Ga Gotoku studio.
Doing good deeds for strangers along the way Ichiban makes friends who drop in and out of the story helping him and betraying him when he least expects it. As well as lots of fighting, he also finds the time to take over the management of a rundown business in an attempt to become a corporate mastermind in his spare time.
This is the first Yakuza game that has the ability to be played with English dialogue since the original game. Obviously, this is an attempt to make the game more attractive to western audiences (many of whom are instantly put off by subtitles) and so should be applauded. Being a fan of the series, I chose to play the game traditionally with Japanese audio and English subtitles.
In terms of gameplay art style, Like A Dragon has pretty much the same look as Yakuza 0 and the previous releases on Xbox. Flashbacks are told using a very different style that looks like very dark matt paintings that is very stylish to look at. Cutscenes are also slightly different in style with a lot of detail being apparent. A man’s hair being disturbed by a Wrecking Ball barely missing his head was a pure joy in slow motion and the imprint of tape removed from someone’s mouth was also nice to be able to spot.
The Yokohama location map is huge compared to the Kamurocho map. It must be three times the size and this means a lot more time is spent travelling from place to place than previously. The map is obscured at the start of the game and is revealed as you travel around it. Having been to Yokohama it was very pleasing to travel to the park as Ichiban and instantly recognise the area. The Red Brick Warehouse where the twice-yearly Oktoberfest is held, the Landmark Tower and the docked NYK Hikawa Maru (with its name changed) are all where they should be.
Exploration is a must as handy locations and items are distributed liberally around the whole area. Taxis can be used to speed this up but money is hard to come by for a long period at the start of the game so I tended to just run everywhere.
There are the standard food shops to keep you and your party fit and well. A change in this game is that choosing certain combinations of food and drink from the menu gives your party various perks such as extra attack damage or a defence boost for a limited amount of time.
Weapons and armour can be purchased from the various weapons shops or upgraded at the Romance Workshop (unlocked several chapters in) while the standard Pawn shop can be found in the back streets to trade your unwanted gear for cash or better equipment.
Crossing the street in previous games has always been a breeze with polite Japanese drivers stopping to let you cross. Possibly in a nod to real life in Japan where no one ever illegally Jaywalks, cars no longer stop for you except at a proper crossing. I can report that if one hits you they do a lot of damage so they are best avoided. They can however be useful to throw your enemies under during street fights.
Fighting design is the biggest change that has taken place in the style of the game. Whereas previously your character engaged in a street brawl style of combat involving different fighting styles and environmental objects, this title has gone down the route of JRPG Turn Based Combat.
Fighting in a team of three or four you take turns to attack the enemy or try to block attacks against you. Different powered up attacks can be called upon using Magic Points which soon get depleted like health. Different powered up attacks are available to each character by going to the Job Centre and changing jobs. For example, a Chef can fight with Whisks and has powerful attack with a mini blow torch whereas, an Assassin can fight with Barded wire Knuckledusters and has a powerful attack with two Pistols.
Hitting Y at the right time or mashing X can do extra damage if timed correctly on some of the powerful attacks. The Hostess character is particularly handy to have in your team as she can act as a medic and restore health to the whole team with a magic ability. It is worth noting that certain powerful moves stay with you as standard while others are lost when you change job. The longer you remain in one job the more proficient you become and your Attack, Defence and Magic rise proportionately.
If after an attack an enemy falls near one of your Party and stays on the floor, that nearby ally can get an extra attack in on them. This is handy but does not make up for the lack of environmental attacks Yakuza fans are used to. Characters will automatically kick nearby environmental objects towards the enemy before they attack them but these are few and far between and very rarely do any damage.
Various characters met during sub stories become Poundmates. These are powerful allies that can be called upon via mobile phone during difficult battles. Following an amusing cutscene, a perk will be delivered for the party. The perk differs depending on which Poundmate is chosen and ranges from a massive damage strike to HP or MP being totally refreshed. In my experience the best Poundmate by far is the hockey mask wearing Jason Voorhees doppelganger who although expensive to call in does massive damage to the opposition.
There is a focus on heavy machinery fights for some reason in this title. I came up against a Yakuza wielding a wrecking ball and a Chimpanzee controlling a mechanical digger as well as others as I fought my way through the game.
Boss fights get progressively harder as you would expect. Having a team of four on your side really amplifies the amount of damage required to overcome each boss towards the end of the game.
While a fan of the Beat Em’ Up style of fighting in the previous games I was not enamoured with the Turn Based approach initially but I must say that after an hour or so I had adapted nicely to it and can now say that I do not mind either style going forwards.
Personality Traits are something else that needs to be worked upon during gameplay. Passion, Kindness, Confidence, Charisma, Intellect and Style are all pretty low for Ichiban when he gets out of Prison and these need to be raised in order to unlock events and locations during the game.
Taking Exams on various subjects, fostering relationships with your party and helping people in sub stories are some of the ways in which these traits can be raised although there are many more. Allocating time to doing this makes Ichiban a more rounded character and he becomes far more powerful as the game progresses.
Having three other characters with you at all times becomes second nature and taking the time to bond with them (by having a conversation at a bar for example) reaps rewards as they start to gain experience when they are not in the active party and everyone else is levelling up. Swapping a character with lower experience into the active party before a boss battle would not be a winning tactic in this game believe me.
Cash is king as always as you need to upgrade everything to have a chance of beating the evolving enemies as the game goes on. The best way to get it is by taking part in the myriad of Mini Games available to you.
Carrying out orders for the Part-Time Hero service (generally beating up bullies) is a way of making big money fast, but other games such as, collecting cans for recycling on a Tricycle, Dragon Karting (Mario Karting Yakuza style) and collecting Tojo clan badges are all fun and worth playing as you get rewarded for it. Karaoke is available as always at the Survive bar where long-time fans of the series will recognise the barman.
The best Mini Game takes place at a small Cinema. The object of the game is to keep Ichiban awake during the film whilst Sheep in suits try to lull him to sleep. The Sheep pop up in different seats and hitting the correct button sends them away. They speed up as the film goes on and it can get quite tricky but the party member bonding rewards gained by staying awake make it very worthwhile. It is worth noting that the Lady characters are not impressed if you fall asleep or take them to see the wrong film.
A favourite side quest (or 10-hour long game in itself) of mine was running Hostess Clubs in Yakuza 0 and Yakuza Kiwami 2. That is not repeated this time around but has been replaced by managing a confectionery company.
Taking control when the business is nearly bankrupt you are able to buy properties, hire staff, get dodgy finance and take part in another form of battle ‘Stockholder Meetings’ A complete game in itself this took me a while to work out what I was doing but it is a great way to earn literally Millions of Yen for use in the main game and we already covered how important cash is.
Borrowing heavily from Arthurian legend our hero comes across a Baseball Bat wrapped in Barbed Wire or ‘Excalibat’ if you will, stuck in concrete by the side of the road. Obviously only he can draw it out of the concrete and this convinces him that he is a hero’s quest.
By some strange logic this means that before combat starts all enemies morph into creatures that look like something a Hero would fight. One big dude was suddenly covered in lube and seeing him slip over mid fight was pretty amusing.
There is also the matter of Sujimon (no connection to any other collecting game) where using a Sujidex on your phone the more of these morphed villains you find and fight the more rewards come your way from a dubious collector.
All of the usual Yakuza tropes can be found in this game, Shirtless fighting, schmaltzy heart-rending music upon completion of sub stories, Ghosts, Wild old ladies and being kind to children.
The series has not lost its very Japanese sense of edgy (to western audiences) humour with references to Flashers, Yakuza who relax by dressing up as babies and a Masochist who feels no pain until his mum tells him off in a Dominatrix sub story called 50 Shades of Play.
The game does have its faults however, such as the Dungeon level that made up most of Chapter 6. I was not prepared for over an hour of fighting and went into it with very little in the way of Magic Points for my team. You can only save when the dungeon is complete so with a lack of powerful attacks available to me it became a grind to complete and was not fun. This was partly my fault but a lack of funds at that stage meant that I could not easily stock up on Magic replenishing items.
It is supposedly possible to play the main story in 30 hours with there being enough peripheral content to last around 100 hours. Unlike previous games in the series where it was possible to mainline the story without spending too much time on the side quests this game is very different. Having played for 23 hours I was unable to progress beyond a difficulty spike during the boss battle at the end of chapter 9 until I had played another five hours of general gameplay levelling up my characters and making the money to better equip them defensively. A dodgy save point just before the spike caused me to have to replay another hour as I was just not prepared for what was to come.
The end of chapter 12 when I had returned to Sotenburi in Osaka had another major difficulty spike. With 44 hours play under my belt I was reunited with a character from the past games which was a nice surprise. Unfortunately he was an enemy and a level 50 character while I was only up to level 42. After 25 minutes of battle and numerous other enemies joining the fight it became apparant that I could not possibly win so it was back to a previous save for several hours grinding towards level 50 myself.
In Chapter 15 this was repeated again. Having level 52 characters after 60 hours play it was still necessary to grind my way to level 60 to be able to compete with the under boss. As you can imagine, these spikes can be a bit of a nightmare, especially when you have to fight your way back to the boss at the top of the tower after levelling up your characters.
Having played the game on both the Xbox One X and The Series X it is pleasing to report that the loading time from the menu on the Series X is about a third of what it was on the One X.
In fact, the Series X is so fast that the loading screens mid game disappear before you can read the game tips or story reminders on them.
Also, the slight pause before cutscenes that was evident (but not disastrous) on the One X has completely disappeared on the Series X.
In conclusion if you are a fan of the Yakuza series (as I am) this game is for you although it would also be a great introduction for anyone new to the IP.
As is standard for the series, the game does not hold your hand and some parts have a steep learning curve but that is all part of the challenge in a Yakuza game.
The major design changes to the gameplay have not spoilt the experience and many hours can be happily spent running around Yokohama.
As the one launch title that I was really looking forward to I have to say that the game delivers everything that I hoped it would.
Will Ichiban go from sleeping on a damp mattress above a Soapland to being the head of a major corporation?
Will he ever get a decent if somewhat unfashionable Punch Perm?
That is down to you.