The most daring Yakuza game is also the franchise’s best
Like a Dragon Quest.
The Yakuza series has a reputation for being full of hijinks in addition to its melodramatic story of gangsters. This image reached its height in what was originally thought to be an April Fool's joke announcing a turn-based RPG entry in the series. But instead of a joke, Yakuza: Lika a Dragon was a groundbreaking soft reboot for the franchise that leans hard into the humor of the series, earning it newfound appreciation in the west.
Setting up the joke — In 2016, developer Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio seemingly ended the story of longtime series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu with Yakuza 6: The Song of Life (although Kiryu will be coming out of retirement soon). When it came time to work on the next entry in the franchise, the studio wanted to branch off in a new direction that changed the protagonist and mechanics of the franchise. This game would become Yakuza: Like a Dragon.
The first trailer for Like a Dragon was released on April Fool's Day, imagining what a Yakuza JRPG would look like. Response to this video was overwhelming with fans wishing that this would become a real project. Later series producer Toshihiro Nagoshi mentioned that after the response to this video, the studio began making the game for real.
Of course, this is actually all just a myth. As revealed by studio chief Masayoshi Yokoyama in an interview with Fanbyte, “of course it was a joke. We decide on those things before we ever start developing the game. It was not a late decision.”
Its origins as an April Fool’s joke would be a sign of things to come, as Like a Dragon is one of the most humorous games ever made and a joyously absurd entry in a series that already knows not to take itself too seriously.
The punch line — The biggest changes to the Yakuza formula in Like a Dragon are the introduction of new protagonist Ichiban and a move away from the beat-em-up combat of past entries to a turn-based system.
While Kiryu was the epitome of a melodramatic gangster, fitting for his narrative, Ichiban is the complete opposite. Overtly funny and a straight-up nerd, his obsession with the Dragon Quest series becomes a defining straight of Like a Dragon and the explanation for the game’s new direction.
Kiryu’s journey was always a solitary one, beating up enemies was a straight-up brawl. Over the course of Like a Dragon, Ichiban collects friends who become his JRPG party, justifying the game’s switch to a party-based combat system. It and new twists to the pulpy action of the series by incorporating absurd magic-like elements expected in JRPGs like inflicting status effects. Only here party members spray champagne to inflict the “shitfaced” status.
Pillars of the Yakuza series like a soap opera-worthy narrative of twists and turns, as well as a plethora of gaming’s best mini-games all make a return but feel that much more fun thanks to Ichiban’s unique perspective on the world and how he interacts with it. Kiryu was the traditional straight man of comedy, with situations being funny because of how serious he acted during them. In Like a Dragon, Ichiban is in on the joke with the player.
As a departure from the long-running Yakuza games that came before it, Like a Dragon manages to add new flavor while retaining much of what made the original games so enjoyable while also being a confident statement on the new direction of the series. It is also one of the best entry points for newcomers, with the option to play with English voices or the original Japanese depending on your preference.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is available on Xbox Game Pass as well as PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox Series and One consoles, and PC.