By Franck Fischbach
Series that appeared in 2005 (on PlayStation 2), Ryu ga gotoku (called Yakuza in Europe) is a cult saga in Japan. Behind a video game originally imagined to be Sega’s answer to Gran Theft Auto (GTA) is hiding a real nugget!
This saga, more popular in Japan than Sonic the hedgehog, became more democratic in Europe in 2015, with the release of Yakuza Zero on PS4. And thanks to the various remasters, the eight episodes are now available on the Sony console. Like a Dragon is playing the multi-media card with a release on PS4, Xbox One, PC, Xbox Series… And PS5 next March.
We told you about this game in our Top of 2020, so let’s test it!
Three major changes
Sega warned us! The iconic hero of the saga, the dark Kazuma Kiryu has bowed out with Yakuza 6: the Song of Life. Now you will have to get used to a certain Ichiban Kasuga, and his shaggy hair.
But this change is not the only one in the game, and fans of this action / fight series (beat’em all) may be disturbed by the 180 degree turn made by the studio. Yakuza: Like a Dragon resumes the gameplay of Japanese role-playing games (or J-RPG) with a turn-based combat system, as in Final fantasy or Dragon quest.
Finally, the last change is that of place. If the series has accustomed us to exploring the streets of Kamurocho, a fictional district which is greatly inspired by Kabukicho (the red light district of Shibuya, in Tokyo)… Ichiban’s adventure will take place here mainly in the city of Yokohama.
Ichiban, new hero
With this “Yakuza 7”, we thus discover a new character, Ichiban Kasuga. He is the antithesis of his predecessor, Kazuma Kiryu. When Kiryu is charismatic, thoughtful, and well respected… Ichiban is at the bottom of the hierarchical scale, is impulsive and at times blundering. But like Kiryu, he is upright, dedicated, has a heart set, and never balks when it comes to protecting the weak.
The story begins on December 31, 2000, when everyone will celebrate the transition to 2001. Henchman of the Arakawa “family” (affiliated with the Tojo clan), the extremely devoted Ichiban Kasuga agrees to endorse a crime that he did not commit, to cover his patriarch. Eighteen years later, he is released from prison, but society is not the same, it has not waited for him. A new life begins for Ichiban, between disillusion and survival instinct …
In this adventure, Ichiban will not be alone. And he will quickly become friends with other characters, to form a team. Nanba, a former nurse who became homeless, Adachi the cop fired two months before retirement, or even Saeko, a bar hostess… All united by the same goal: to find a place in this difficult and cruel society.
His weak point: his technique
New turn-based combat mechanics, as in Dragon Quest, are once again a compelling choice. We may have had doubts, but the fights are fast, nervous, and the many QTE (Quick Time Event: sequences where the game invites you to press specific keys) bring even more dynamism.
On the other hand, the fights also have their faults. We will be skeptical of cloned enemies (they very often have the same head), or too many fights: we are literally attacked every five meters. However, the game being quite stingy in terms of experience at the end of the fight, you will have to chain them to gain some levels …
It is on the technical side that we will have to look to find the main flaws of the game. Starting with an aging graphics engine. Indeed, the Dragon Engine has been running Yakuza games since 2015 and is starting to seriously show its limits, especially with dated textures.
We will also find the main faults of the series. Namely, many invisible walls, or the worry of a mess of collision (your character stumbling against objects of the background or other characters). Even the inconsistent behavior of the many NPCs (non-playable characters) who inhabit the city, and who turn around for no reason, or disappear as if by magic at the edge of the area. Not great in 2020!
Between humor and serious subjects
Let fans of the series be reassured: the humor so much appreciated by the series is still there, even more than before. An absurd humor (in a good sense of the word), even totally offbeat. The game parodies popular culture in full swing, sometimes referring to Pokémon, Dragon Quest (a video game of which Ichiban is a fan), the cinema… And Like a Dragon is the only video game in which you will face exhibitionists, or in which you will come across Yakuza in diapers.
But behind this crazy allure, Yakuza does not forget what is also the DNA of the series: its subject which also criticizes (and is based on) certain aspects of Japanese society. Without playing the whistleblower or the moralizers, Yakuza’s scenario is nourished by social facts, to confront his heroes with very real issues and problems.
And Yakuza: Like a Dragon is no exception. After his descent into hell, Ichiban starts up again at the bottom of the ladder. He has become an outcast, without work and without money, and must find his place in this society which has rejected him.
The game thus tackles darker themes such as the place of homeless people, precariousness, prostitution… In a Japanese society that does not like failure. Without playing the caricature card, but typing as accurately as possible. And when a video game has words that make you think, that’s a pretty good sign!
Against a backdrop of war between yakuza gangs, the main storyline is fascinating. And for good reason: you should know that, to write its scenarios, the Ryu ga Gotoku Team (studio behind Yakuza) calls on Hase Seishu, a famous novelist specializing in thrillers, in Japan.
Like the other games in the series, this new opus is a drawer game. And if the main quest will occupy you for a good forty hours, the life is greatly extended by the many side missions, each more delirious than the other.
Because Ichi is full on his heart, and as soon as he can lend a hand, even to strangers, he goes without thinking. Help a homeless man find love, help a policeman apprehend a thug who urinates in the river… You will often get alpaca in the street by passers-by who need help.
The mini-games are always in the game, with kart, karaoke, collecting cans using a scooter, arcade games, board games … And the game from Sega will make you revise your skills. Japanese. Arigato gozaimasu (thank you very much)!
To become unbeatable on the Yakuza series, we can only recommend the book “The Yakuza Saga: Japanese video game in the present”, by Victor Moisan.
This book “without images” because very analytical was published by the French specialist publisher Third Editions.
In conclusion: the game of the year?
We liked :
- Shattering entry into the series for Ichiban Kasuga
- Ubiquitous humor
- Darker themes addressed
- An exciting scenario
- All texts subtitled in French
- The staging and the general atmosphere
- Colossal lifespan, tons of things to do
- New RPG mechanics that fit the game perfectly
- Yokohama, a much bigger playground than Kamurocho
- The “bad guy” dubbed by George Takei (Mr Sulu in Star Trek)
We like less :
- The graphics engine that is starting to date
- Too many fights
- The tight game in experience and rewards
- Invisible walls and worries of collision
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is it the game of the year? We can seriously ask the question! Because it is clear that as we progress, we can only realize that he ticks all the boxes of the hit!
The game is not to be put in everyone’s hands, because some sequences justify its PEGI 18 classification (prohibited for children under 18). But if you like thrillers, Japanese gangster movies, and especially curvy stories, you’re going to have a really good (and very long) time. And it has become rare today to find a game that justifies its purchase price with so much content, so let’s not sulk.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon, by Sega, on PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X / S and PC. The game will also be released on PS5 at the end of March 2021. Ages 18 and up. Price: from € 59.99 (for the standard version).