How ‘Like A Dragon’ Takes Yakuza Into the Role-Playing World-news

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(Image: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio)

Sega’s Yakuza franchise originally took its DNA from the company’s fighting games and brawlers—most notably Virtua Fighter, the rich 3D arcade game. That game’s fighting system made its way into Yu Suzuki’s ambitious Dreamcast title Shenmue before finding its final expression in the first Yakuza game in 2005.

Six sequels later, it feels like the franchise has wrung just about every ounce of juice it has out of punching, kicking, blocking, and slamming heads into car doors. So for Like A Dragon, the eighth game in the series, developers at Sega’s internal Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio decided to mix things up and take the system in a totally new direction: turn-based RPG combat. Let’s take a close look at what that means for your hostess bar brawls and side street shakedowns.


Stylish Fists

The previous games in the Yakuza series have starred Kazuma Kiryu, a taciturn and upright enforcer for the Dojima Family who works his way up through the ranks while tackling a number of schemes and conspiracies. Kiryu’s no-nonsense attitude and strong moral code are reflected in the way he deals with his foes. Eschewing handguns and fancy weapons, he batters goons with fists, feet, and stuff he finds on the street.

Although Kiryu has allies, most of his battles are fought alone, using a combat system that taps into classic brawlers like Streets of Rage. Kiryu can learn new stances and moves, but the basic strategy behind each fight doesn’t change much. Wear your enemies down, build up your Heat to unleash special moves, exploit the environment, and brush the dust off your suit when you’re done.

Although other games have featured different playable characters in certain scenes, Like A Dragon is the first to step away from Kiryu entirely. New lead Ichiban Kasuga is a very different type of person—more outspoken and social—and that personality is reflected in the game’s combat system, which sees him battling alongside allies and taking turns with enemies to strike.


Special Attacks

The Yakuza series has always had a big chunk of role-playing in its DNA, letting players equip Kiryu with clothing that reduces defense, drink potions—excuse me, alcoholic beverages—that give him temporary buffs and wield a variety of weapons and special items. But they were all filtered through the action-based mechanics that rewarded dexterity and timing.

Like A Dragon makes the RPG part explicit. In combat, you can target individual enemies and opt to attack them directly, kick objects in their direction, or spend MP (which I’m going to believe stands for Machismo Points) to perform powerful special attacks. Unlike more traditional turn-based RPGs, where allies and foes stand in straight lines opposite each other, the free-wheeling brawls on the streets of Isezaki Ijincho sprawl in every direction. Maintaining optimal positioning can let your party’s special attacks hit multiple enemies at once or otherwise turn the battle to your advantage, so it’s more complex than just a few menu choices.

The change in battle system is, hilariously, reflected in the game’s narrative—Kasuga is a huge fan of classic JRPGs like Dragon Quest, and he drops references to them throughout the game. It’s rare to see a game that’s so mechanically and thematically harmonious, and although I’m still not sure if the system is an improvement, it’s at least different and interesting.


Get a Job

Your combat options are significantly more varied once you start experimenting with the game’s Job system, which lets you assign temporary occupations to your little gang. These jobs come in three categories—one set is specific to individual characters, one is specific to males only and one to females only. These jobs are obtained at Hello Work, a neighborhood employment agency. Many of them have pre-requisites to get hired, including a minimum level or bond with Ichiban.

Once a character is gainfully employed in one of the 19 different jobs, they unlock new skills and attacks. Earning Job Points through combat and other actions lets you increase the level of that occupation and unlock even more stuff. Some of these advantages carry over when you change jobs, meaning there’s lots of potential for character customization.

In previous games, Kiryu’s upgrade paths were extensive but pretty basic—he could learn new moves in his different stances or improve aspects of his martial arts game, but that was about it. The Job system, however, opens the door to a lot more of the signature wackiness of the Yakuza series. Some of the possibilities include street musician, nightclub host, blackjack dealer and… homeless person. Each of them lets characters use specific weapon sets, unlocks stat bonuses and teaches them skills.

Having this kind of flexibility makes engagements in Like A Dragon significantly deeper and more complex than when it was just fists, feet, and roadside debris against enemies. It’s a very drastic pivot to the series.


Final Fight

The jury’s still out on whether Like A Dragon’s radical re-imagining of the franchise’s central mechanic is here to stay. As a huge fan of the Yakuza games, I have to admit that the action-based gameplay had become my least favorite part of each title. Even though it was finely tuned, fights eventually stopped being interesting as you unlocked unbalanced techniques. By the end of just about every Yakuza title, it was easy to just autopilot your way through most encounters.

That’s less likely in Like A Dragon, both due to the party-based combat as well as the much wider breadth of attack types, resources to manage, and strategic choices. The trade-off, though, is that the earlier fights before you’ve unlocked that stuff feel a lot less interesting. That’s a common complaint about many traditional RPGs.

But if the fan base doesn’t vibe with the change, it might not be permanent. Ryu Ga Gokotu Studio representatives have already tried to assuage long-time players by saying that if fan reaction is overwhelmingly negative, they’ll switch back to action-based brawling. That would kind of be a shame, though. Although Like A Dragon’s systems aren’t as finely tuned as its predecessors, it’s important to remember that the first Yakuza game, when it dropped on the Japanese PS2 in 2005, was also a bit of a mess. It wasn’t until further iterations that it managed to build a level of polish.

We’d love to see the developers give their turn-based RPG combat the same chance. It’s a tremendous gamble that makes Like A Dragon feel fresh, which for the eighth game in a series that has been around this long is a major accomplishment.

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