Yakuza: Like a Dragon is what I wish more JRPGs could be.

When the game was first announced, fans were worried. Would this be the same level of quality that they’ve come to expect from Yakuza games? What about the grind? Won’t it get repetitive and boring?

After a breathless 35 hours spread across a week of play, I can comfortably say that Like a Dragon doesn’t just meet the expectations the Yakuza series has created — it exceeds, standing shoulder to shoulder with Yakuza 0 as the best in the series.

It makes sense that I rank those two games together because I think Like a Dragon owes its existence as a JRPG to Yakuza 0. That game was the pinnacle of the series’ beat’ em up combat, to the point that 6, Kiwami and Kiwami 2 felt boring in comparison. Yakuza needed a change, and a JRPG was more perfect of a fit than I was expecting.

The game takes the genre-shift in stride, incorporating itself in every aspect of its themes and characterization. Kiryu Kazuma is replaced by new series protagonist Ichiban Kasuga, a Yakuza grunt with a love of Dragon Quest and an inability to watch his mouth. It didn’t take long for me to love Ichiban — he’s a clown and a himbo that has never learned what subtlety means. He also emotes in a way that Kiryu never would, and it allows for new, impactful storytelling opportunities as a result. He acts a bit like a shonen protagonist you’d see in an anime, but, you know, written well. Said protagonist is dumped in the town of Yokohama after jail time and a betrayal, and just like a JRPG lead, he has to start from level 1 and climb the way to the top to find answers.

Ichiban is also unlike Kiryu in that while he’s strong, he can’t just effortlessly beat anyone’s ass by himself. His strength comes from his friends (see what I mean by shonen protagonist?). Luckily, Kasuga’s pals, whom make up his party, are all extremely likable. They play out like a grown-up Persona cast, and their interactions are always heartwarming — or, in the case of the skits you can listen to around town, often hilarious. You can level up your relationships with your party by participating in battle and interacting with them in the bar that serves as your home-base. This is another parallel to Persona, but the conversations you have here feel more real, with the characters interacting like people instead of mouthpieces for several ideologies or romance options.

As I mentioned, Yakuza: Like a Dragon swaps out its punchfests for a JRPG combat system, and the result feels like an M-rated Earthbound. Ichiban and his pals use baseball bats, hand bags and batons to beat up yakuza, men in trash bags, otaku, and even stranger enemies that are best left as a surprise. Combat is semi-active, in that you can use timed button-presses to deal extra damage and reduce damage done to you, à la the Mario and Luigi RPGs. Each character has a set of jobs they have access to as well, which they can swap at a literal Job Center.

I’m going to be honest: Like a Dragon doesn’t really reinvent the JRPG wheel. But I honestly don’t think it needed to. My issue with JRPGs has never been that they’re boring or repetitive. Games have loops, and every loop can get boring with enough time — play 6 Yakuza games that involving pressing Square and Triangle, and you’ll start to get exhausted there too. In my mind what has sucked about JRPGs for so long isn’t its loop, but what’s built around it. JRPGs are inundated with spiky-haired protagonists, chosen ones, gross fan-service, terrible pacing, plots with too many Proper Nouns…the list goes on and on. They’re played out aesthetically. Like a Dragon takes that core of JRPGs and places it in a candy coating that I can’t get enough of. It stars characters that are adults, in a plot that’s engaging and human. It replaces The Kingdom of Who Cares with a city that you could walk around in real life. And the story it tells touches on things I care about, like immigration and society’s inability to help the “outcasts” that have fallen through the cracks of its system.

Any game can get stale 15, 20, or 30 hours in because every game reaches a point where it has nothing new to show you mechanically. At that point, it’s up to whatever game you’re playing to engage you in other ways. With Like a Dragon, that engagement comes from the story it tells, the characters it lets you interact with, the side-quests that will make you laugh and tear-up, and the mini-games that let you take a break from beating up stylists brandishing scissors on the streets of Ijincho. The combat doesn’t change that much from the beginning of the game to its conclusion, but I never stopped wanting to keep playing to see what would come next.

Except, that is, for one particular section, which is probably my biggest issue with Like a Dragon. Until this section, I would argue that the game’s difficulty curve is naturally sloped, not demanding much in the way of grinding for experience. But one spoilerific boss stopped me dead in my tracks and slapped me upside the head for taking it easy for so long. I had to grind quite a bit to power up my team enough to win, and it was close even then. Thankfully there’s nothing else after that section that’s nearly as painful in terms of difficulty, but it did leave a sour taste in my mouth. I also am not a fan of JRPGs where you automatically get a Game Over if your protagonist dies, which Like a Dragon sadly emulates. And while most of the Dragon Quest-based inspiration was welcome, it sucks that Saeko, one of your only female party members, is objectively the best healer in the game. We could have left that particular trope behind.

But these are minor bumps in the road for a game that did nothing but impress me in my time playing it. Yakuza: Like a Dragon is one of the best games I’ve played this year, and an incredible note to somewhat play this console generation out. As a fresh start to the series, I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone that wants to learn why I love Yakuza so damn much.

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