4.5

Yakuza: Like a Dragon Proves that It's Time for the Yakuza Series to Grow Up

Games Reviews Yakuza: Like a Dragon
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<i>Yakuza: Like a Dragon</i> Proves that It's Time for the Yakuza Series to Grow Up

Yakuza: Like a Dragon opens with the abrupt ending of a stage play. A young woman, on the verge of enacting her self-destructive revenge. Her intended target, mocking her with “Don’t you know? I am the Butcher of Edo.” She quickly dispatches his goons, and then the two go at each other, and after a twinned strike she announces, “I am the real Butcher of Edo.” They collapse.

In an ordinary Yakuza game, we’d jump decades into the future. A match cut of two gangsters lying face down in the street, bleeding out.

This isn’t an ordinary Yakuza game. Instead of a time jump, we linger on this point in the distant past. Closing in tightly on the face of this actor, face painted milk white with pink shadowed lids. Behind her, we can see her dead opponent. An older man just out of focus. Lens shifts and we see a smile creep through his stoic death mask. Eyes alight with pride for his son, who has acted circles around him.

In the next scene, the actor is taking off his makeup while other actors and stage crew pack up to move the show onto the next town. After the rousing, standing ovation, this should be a happy time. But this is still Yakuza. We linger on his face, the slow repetitive movements of dabbing at makeup with a cloth.

As with previous Yakuza games, narrative and thematic threads come quick and then burn slow. These are games about a lot of things.

We’re introduced to an overbearing, violently abusive stage mom, who cares only about money and cuckolding her husband and using her actor son to achieve both ends. And then the broad-faced actor brimming with pride as he lay dead on the stage, and the warm-hearted and caring father—as ineffectual at truly protecting his son from the rages of his wife as he is himself.

They go out for a celebratory meal. Peking duck. Lovingly described from father to son as they peer into the expensive Kamurocho restaurant at rows of air-dried, expertly roasted ducks. This was the first of many moments that made the small hairs on my neck and arms stand on end. After the tense heartache of the opening scene, the lingering moment in front of the restaurant is potent with humanity, care, parental love in a real and palpable way—a rarity in AAA games.

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When I was very young, my stepfather took me to NYC. A New Yorker by birth, and a frequent traveller to the city for work, he wanted me to experience it as he had. In Chinatown, I pressed my face against glass windows feeling the warmth behind the glass, chilled by winter in Manhattan. There they were, the same rows of whole crispy amber ducks. We had duck together—the crispy flesh and spiced layer of soft rendered fat separating it from the dense meat underneath was a revelation. And as in the game, he explained the whole process to me. We enjoyed our duck, and then had a colossal fight in the hotel after.

In Like a Dragon, this blissful moment of doting father and gracious son won’t last long. They never do. Not in games like this, not in real life.

Unlike my own memory, here there won’t be any Peking duck. This is Yakuza, a series that walks a tightrope between verisimilitude and the absurd.

Elation, tragedy: they go hand in hand in Kamurocho, as elsewhere.

That lad will grow up to become a powerful Yakuza boss, Masumi Arakawa, his face creased with age, brow furrowed with worry, and eyes that betray a deep, unrelenting sadness. He is also the “adoptive father” (and boss) of our hero, Ichiban Kasuga.

Food and faces form the core of Yakuza games previously. And this is no exception. The exaggerated animations of previous games remain here, but expanded with both a better understanding of software and hardware. Nuance has been refined and honed to devastating perfection. And then the food, always a staple, returns now in expanded context. Less solitary than previous Yakuza games, Like a Dragon moves from Wakakozake to Miyazaki. Meals, not the food itself, and what it means to “have a meal” (and particularly to share one) take prominence here.

Where the individuality of faces becomes even more prominent, food pulls back in this entry. When compared particularly against the previous new player on-ramp, Yakuza 0, the scope is larger. This isn’t about a young man coming into money during a boom economy. Waiters will not lovingly describe each menu item. While there are expensive options, money is often tight enough that yakitori and oolong are quick character restoring bites. Ichiban and his friends aren’t here to eat their way through a cavalcade of Veblen Good foodstuffs.

A last free meal of beef bowls, consumed voraciously, is mirrored by a bread roll in solitary confinement, then fish grilled over a makeshift hibachi in a homeless camp. Whether venturing into a crowded restaurant or stopping at an izakaya with party members the focus becomes less on the individual entrees and on the construction of a shared meal—a respite from hard work, a salve for tragedy, or celebration of good fortune. It’s no longer about what the food itself represents, but the meaning of community, friendship, and the social importance of shared meals.

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Growing up, my maternal grandmother always had a tremendous cauldron of something at the ready. If people came by, split pea soup with chunks of roasted ham would be ladled into bowls freely. My other grandmother was eternally trying to feed us at all times, insistent that we try her soda bread, homemade lentil soup, or whatever else she had made that day. Breakfast, lunch, dinner are always at a table together. We’d fight over politics, engage in brutally competitive matches of play-along Jeopardy, and invariably someone would bring up European history and launch us into a discussion of the Sharpe novels. Black coffee, culturally specific beers tailored to the meal, or gin and tonics were standard. Both sides of my family separated by class, geography, and ethnic background all revelled in the importance of shared meals.

My mother would strive for normalcy. When everything was a disaster and she was single handedly raising two children, a moody, undiagnosed husband, and carrying their business, Rosina meatballs and San Giorgio spaghetti three nights a week was her way of providing continuity during a decade that was anything but contiguous and reasonable. A way of saying, “Hello, I am here, I am Mom. And I care about us as a whole.” Even when she’d much rather be asleep. It’s a mantle I adopted—feeding my friends and loved ones throughout college and into the present, cooking in my apartment or going out to diners. Even when money was truly tight, when my meager student paycheck cleared, we were hitting up The Village Cafe.

There is tremendous power in bonding over meals, especially in a familiar space you could call a homebase. The sharing of food is a profoundly social construct—expressing love and care through providing sustenance. Splitting a plate of fries and a dozen cups of coffee in a diner until 2 a.m. is a bonding ritual, especially in a world where the constant drudgery of hustle looks for every chance to isolate, or commercialize socialization. Like a Dragon dives deeper into this than any of its predecessors. Food is a big deal, especially in JRPGs. Cooking as part of crafting has become almost expected. And Like a Dragon carves out time for Ichiban to grow vegetables and have them prepared for him and his companions. It’s a subtle distinction, the macrocosm of a plate of gyoza and highballs, but a profound one that grounds the game’s shifted mechanics in new explorations of narrative and theme.

And our new protagonist is grounded. Despite his flights of fancy from a continued adolescent fixation on Dragon Quest and the naivety of spending 18 years in prison, he finds himself extremely stuck in the physicality of the world after a violent betrayal by his most recent father-figure.

Ichiban’s a nerd. A goofy, loveable nerd. He is absolutely guileless and his adventure flourishes with equal parts joyful silliness, violent tragedy and structural oppression. Whenever possible, Ichiban will find the good in another character (often to the game’s detriment), but his expressions of generosity and friendship always feel genuine. Ichiban truly cares, too much perhaps. He has a strong sense of justice, honor, and familial and civic duty, which—even when he’s shaking down and beating up small time scammers—never feels at odds with itself.

If Kiryu served as an avatar for a specific view of aspirational masculinity (that, while still, imperfect, is far better than most game studios can manage), Ichiban is in many ways a more relatable and achievable archetype. He’s imminently relatable.

If you’ve ever been violently betrayed by your father, yet stayed desperate for his attention and affection, and tried to form immediate friendships with basically everyone you meet as a result, raise your hand.

While not removed from the world, Kiryu often felt like he floated above the hoi polloi, living in a layer of Yakuza intrigue and only occasionally dipping down, to aid someone with a bizarre request. Ichiban, on the other hand, is in it. Whatever trajectory he was on to become a kind of Kiryu ends when he wakes up, hastily stitched back together with fishing line, in a trash can covered in discarded plastic sheeting.

It’s a wake-up call to the protagonist, the player, the fanbase, and the franchise.

This time around you’re disconnected, hungry, broke as fuck. You need to make friends, you need a job, a permanent address. These are hard things and even here it requires connections. The employment agency has hoops and bureaucratic headaches. You’re fighting for recyclable cans and scrounging under vending machines for 10 Yen coins. And in Yokohama, where the bulk of this game takes place, there are three factions of crime syndicates, and a conservative moral purity organization (fronted by a corrupt politician).

Also, your adoptive yakuza dad REALLY doesn’t want you back, patsy.

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It’s an abrupt departure but not the only one. Like a Dragon also switches to a form of turn-based combat. It makes explicit something this series has always obfuscated: Yakuza is, and always has been, a JRPG. Sorry if that’s an uncomfortable revelation to you. The side quests, the leveling up of combat prowess, the low-stakes adventure puzzles that require scouring a small square of a grand map, the high melodrama of narrative delivered through cutscenes and visual novel-like moments: It’s JRPGs all the way down.

Even the original fighting, while styled and engaged with as a brawler, arrives directly from JRPGs like Dragon Quest. Hordes of random encounters as you guide Kiryu around the map, or up the many stories of a building fighting wave after wave of goons, sometimes a bigger one (a mini boss), before the big showdown with the big bad. Make sure you stock up on healing and buff items, curatives and single-use damage dealers.

Like a Dragon removes the veneer. Like the original Dragon Quest’s transition, it moved from a solo adventure to a party-based one. Each new recruitable party member has their own story, their own reason for tagging along, that will all need to be resolved, from the homeless nurse Nanba to the Majima-esque Tianyou Zhao. As you progress through the game more will become available and gearing and leveling them up becomes paramount. There’s also social link moments, often involving having a drink or meal together. How you choose to guide Ichiban through this will affect his personal growth, which will eventually open new avenues of content. Bonds will strengthen with commensurate bonuses to combat. It’s a lot like Persona, but less exerting. Eventually, you can switch their classes—Fortuneteller, Foreman, J-Pop idol, and so on. It’s a charming and clever way of handling the traditional party system and makes the spreadsheet management nature of crunchier RPG systems more palatable for newcomers. If you’re familiar with these games, the idea of a yakuza tough guy having a Magic stat and upgrading from a baseball bat he pulled King Arthur-like from the sidewalk to a gigantic Hitachi Magic Wand is an amusing treat.

And while an argument can be made that the brawler fighting of Yakuza’s past has always been largely distinct from JRPG combat, it really isn’t. Think about it: Use basic attacks until you’ve powered up enough to do a sick-looking, devastating special attack. Limit breaks. Alternately, you can slam a potion to supercharge your bar and really let the enemy go. Got a pocket full of satsuma oranges? Shove one in a motherfucker’s mouth and juice ‘em with your boot.

Unfortunately, this is also where Like a Dragon begins to stumble. It removes the lacquer, exposes the wood underneath, but fails to refinish the surface.

Yes, it is possible to beat a street punk to death with a bicycle, but you have to position for it (and hope the AI decides to listen). The addition of status effects and “magic” adds a new tactical layer, but it’s never as effervescent as bludgeoning a group of Nouveau Riche with a café racer while exhausted sarar?men gather to gawk and cheer. You can only call in attack pigeons so many times before it gets old, whereas motorcycle beatdowns were eternal. It’s all too haphazard and random. Knocking an opponent into the middle of a busy intersection can trigger them getting hit by a speeding car, but never as frequently as when you simply try to cross the intersection yourself out of combat and get splattered. Also there are summons—“Poundmates” (you’ll recruit them as you play)—but damn do they get expensive to summon, and like GF cutscenes in Final Fantasy VIII, they’re exciting until they’re not.

Still, I liked not having to actually pause the game to think about my next move. I enjoyed the dynamic way the characters move themselves around the field of battle. And this is a good new place for Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio to iterate from as they did with the first six games in the series. It’s lacking, but still satisfyingly kinetic.

But for all the things I want to glow about in Like a Dragon, all the ways in which it’s brought me to the verge of tears, given me goosebumps, even at times made me feel seen? It has problems. Glaring ones.

The easiest way to explain this is: Like a Dragon is like when you find a really good thread on Twitter, you’re nodding along and telling yourself, “yeah fuckin’ tell em!” But then, in the penultimate tweet, they go completely horizontal and start advocating forced sterilization without even realizing it. A discussion about how sex work is real work and how these women deserve the same respect as any other office employee is undercut by the same character advocating for their humanity with “these women have no alternative.” Or the owner of a soapland who purposefully hires women at the ends of their ropes, because their desperation makes for a better work ethic. And while survival sex work is absolutely a thing, and there are predatory people who believe this, Yakuza wants to align me with them. It doesn’t know how to condemn these attitudes, or that it even should. It can’t see other options.

When that particular soapland owner treats one of the women who works for him like shit, the game draws upon all its artistic and technical prowess to explicitly show how the faces of Ichiban’s confederates sour the farther the man goes beyond the pale. It’s an incredible moment that initially had me cheering. An ex cop and disgraced nurse both saying, “Fuck this guy, fuck this job. We’re out.”

And then it has Ichiban deliver a rousing speech about how the owner is actually a good guy who really cares. Ichiban grew up in a place like this, “he knows.” But Like a Dragon can’t communicate that without me trusting the words coming out of a naive ex-yakuza enforcer’s mouth. It’s unconvincing at best, and really, more insulting than anything. Even if this dude really does care, he’s still a piece of shit. But Ichiban refuses to see beyond the good.

There’s a lot of speechifying in Like a Dragon. Yes, it is refreshing in a time where developers are unwilling to explicitly state their politics (or run into the open arms of right-wing American imperialism) to have a character come out and full-throatedly say “fuck you, homeless people are homeless because of how fucked up society is.” Or to deliberately label a class of enemies as Capitalists. But so often it misses the mark—gets halfway through a real argument before blowing its own kneecaps clean off and not even realizing it.

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For every social archetype you explicitly want to give a well-deserved beatdown to, there are multiple enemy types who can simply be summed up as “Black American men who wander around Japan jacked as fuck and armed to the teeth just looking to start shit and kill people.” In Ichiban’s Hero Quest vision they don’t even really change. No morphing into cartoonish lads with giant two liter bottles to club you with—they’re simply “Big Dogs” with glowing red demon eyes, bad attitudes, and Glocks (which, of course, they fire sideways).

It’s particularly troubling because this has been brought to a head in the past decade (though the weaponization of Black bodies goes back centuries) with the continued scourge of police violence in America where Black men and teens—often literal children—are described by heavily armed cops explicitly in a way that demonizes them and their make-believe potential for violence. Falsely and ridiculously imagining black children as superpredators and terminators becomes their “excuse” for the unrestrained use of excessively lethal force. And justice is almost never served in any of these instances.

And, no, before you fucking DM me about how “this is Japan, the culture is different”:

1. FUCK OFF

2. Black Lives Matters protests, solidarity movements against this violence, and activism to abolish, defund, or at least demilitarize police forces have been worldwide.

There’s no excuse anymore. There never was.

I’ve never had a review shift on me as much as Yakuza: Like a Dragon. Like the franchise, this has gone through iteration after iteration, my thoughts upheaving like shifts from console generations. Even in this, what is (in theory) my final declarative statement of my impressions of the game, I am uncertain. This could all change. When I go back to Yakuza: Like A Dragon, will I find a subquest that unravels everything? Will a particularly thrilling fight unseat me from my feelings about the combat? Is there a core party pairing that I blinked and missed a crucial moment of? Are there parts where the politics are absolutely nailed expertly? What could I find tucked away in this game that would even begin to upend the ever present racism in a beloved series even the Wokest of Games Critics made a pact to never truly take to task?

Like a Dragon is elusive. Not in the sense of hunting for concrete meaning among the jagged Icelandic-American landscape of Death Stranding, but the terrain is no less precipitous. I am at odds with this game, sometimes in ways that are meaningful and engaging, and other times it has me reaching to mute the account for a few days so I can get distance before I reply with uncharitable haste.

Embracing the Yakuza franchise is to let Nagoshi tweet through it. But maybe what we really need is to be the friend who takes his phone and tells him to get his shit together.

Critics have a habit of excusing truly heinous shit in games in order to be dazzled by the spectacle of fun. There’s the belief we should talk more about gameplay and mechanics, graphics and cinematics. It’s emblematic of the line that game critics straddle between consumer reviews and art criticism. The anxiety over losing “access.” But if we continue down this path, we lose more than review code. We lose ourselves and this medium dies asphyxiating on its own preciousness.

If I push past all of this. drilling down into “What really is Yakuza?” I’m left with what is actually an attempt at expressing a tremendous core of humanity. But not for everyone, and not always in the right ways. For every push against capitalism and oppression it tries to make, it falls face first into replicating many of the structures and beliefs it wants to rail against. Denying the humanity of some in favor of others, or never realizing it’s not as compassionate as it believes itself to be.

This is a game that fails, a series that fails, constantly. It’s the apprentice’s tamagoyaki story in Jiro Dreams of Sushi. A constant drive to iterate on something simple until it becomes sublime. A mastery of form and technique. Like a Dragon isn’t there yet, and as it gets closer the flaws become more apparent, and this instance is particularly daring. It risks a lot, alienating a fanbase with multiple departures. But the core remains true. As with previous games both mainline and spin-off, Like a Dragon is a game about recognizing and supporting the lived experiences of others. It wants to be, at least.

Like a Dragon wants to share a modest dinner with friends from wholly different walks of life and go beyond understanding to love and respect. But it has a lot of work to do. As enjoyable as the spectacle of fun can be here, it is incapable of fulfilling its own edict.

Like a Dragon bids us “remember every face, and cherish every meal.” But how can we when it’s still so far off the mark in such critical ways? If we truly love this franchise, and want it to succeed (as I do), perhaps it’s time we all start interrogating that openly and honestly.

If Yakuza is to truly grow, we need to be the one to call it in.


Yakuza: Like a Dragon was developed by Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio and published by Sega. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available for the Xbox Series X and S and the PlayStation 4.

Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.

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