The Yakuza series has been going strong since the PS2 era, and a series with so many instalments can intimidate newcomers. Does one start with the original Yakuza on PS2? The Kiwami remake? Yakuza 0? Well, we don't need to ask those questions anymore because Yakuza: Like a Dragon is the perfect entry point for new players.
The seventh mainline game in the franchise, Yakuza: Like a Dragon puts players in the stylish shoes of new protagonist Ichiban Kasuga, a low-level member of the Tojo Clan's Arakawa Family. Series veterans will be on familiar ground with young Kasuga as his opening section of the game takes place in Kamurocho, the main setting of previous Yakuza games. The Red Light District looks incredible, but don't get used to it as Yakuza: Like a Dragon doesn't hang about here. Instead, the main location is Yokohama, the second-largest city in Japan (after Tokyo).
The new map is pretty huge, but its best feature is undoubtedly the open space. The wide roads and dazzling views are plentiful compared to the relatively claustrophobic streets of Kamurocho, and I often found myself stopping to admire the scenery before getting on with my quests. By now, it's evident that this generation of gaming has delivered some remarkable visuals, but Yakuza: Like a Dragon stands out among the crowd. From the locations to the characters, the game is beautiful, on the whole.
The gameplay of Yakuza: Like a Dragon mainly consists of traversing the map and battling enemies. Assorted villains roam the streets, and as the bulk of the game's quests involve you moving from one place to another, you'll have to either fight them or hide. In truth, you'll pluck for the combat option most of the time because it's easier and more rewarding. Plus there's a variety of epic special moves that are worth busting out time and time again, so take every opportunity you can get.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon uses a party system, meaning you'll often have allies in your bouts, and this makes for fun, tactical exchanges. Party members can follow-up on their teammates' attacks, giving you the edge over disadvantaged foes. The tougher the opponent, the more important this feature becomes, so be sure to experiment with it in less intensive battles.
As I said, the core gameplay is also about getting around the map. Your main goal is marked with a pink arrow so you can't miss it, but there are also plenty of optional quests. These range from defending innocent people from petty thugs, to taking language exams, and both are as fun as the other. In fact, Yakuza: Like a Dragon makes many seemingly banal actions feel wholesome and satisfying, and it's an incredible achievement.
Side missions are beneficial in several ways. As well as usually delivering a financial reward, completed quests can boost Kasuga's personality stats. In Yakuza: Like a Dragon, you don't just level up your party members in terms of strength and skills, but also Kasuga's other characteristics: passion, confidence, charisma, kindness, intellect, and style. Each attribute offers different effects, and can open up more character development options.
Character development is a huge part of Yakuza: Like a Dragon, with plenty of interesting people to get to know in-game. Most important is the ability to bond with Kasuga's fellow party members, opening up new dialogue and dynamics in their relationships. This benefits the core gameplay as well as enriching the game's story.
Kasuga himself is a beautiful character. An idealist with a heart of gold, he is frequently at odds with the cruel, money-obsessed gangsters plaguing the streets of Japan. To him, the Yakuza are about honour and respect, but that romanticised notion is constantly tested by the actions of his antagonists. His loyalty and determination make Kasuga a lovable hero, and his commitment to doing the right thing in a morally dubious world means you're alway cheering him on.
Kasuga's anachronistic personality is personified by the game itself. Yakuza: Like a Dragon feels like a game for now, pushing the limits of what a current-gen game can do ahead of its next-gen release, but it still calls back to classic RPGs. Its self-aware party mechanics and frequent references to Dragon Quest tell you this game is proud of its heritage. It blends the past with the contemporary to deliver a masterclass in the genre.
It's not just the underground of society that Kasuga happily takes on. Yakuza: Like a Dragon discusses themes of sex work and how it's targeted by societal reform groups, with Kasuga standing up for the World's Oldest Profession. Then there's the matter of mistreated elderly people, who are abused, and even killed, by the very authority tasked with caring for them. Honestly, it all feels a bit too real at times, and Yakuza: Like a Dragon doesn't pull any punches when shining a light on these issues.
Perhaps the biggest part of Yakuza: Like a Dragon is the cutscenes. Developers Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio have created stylish visuals and some of the dialogue is delivered with expert charisma. The localisation is superb, too, with almost every beat landing how it should. There were moments playing this game where I didn't want to pick the controller back up, instead wishing the whole thing was an HBO series because I craved more of these brilliantly directed vignettes.
However, there were also plenty of times where the cutscenes and dialogue sections intruded on the gameplay, especially after the initial chapters. As excellent as they can be, the level of disruption bordered on Hideo Kojima ground, and it was, frankly, off-putting. As much as I enjoyed the acting talent on show, when it persistently cut the actual playtime short, it outstayed its welcome.
It's also worth pointing out that Yakuza: Like a Dragon is prone to mild glitches and freezes. There are times when initiating a dialogue sequence or cutscene caused the game to come to a standstill, and while they were never longer than five seconds or so, they still broke the immersion. Hopefully there's a patch in the works because while this little bug isn't game-breaking, it's certainly unwelcome.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a game of universal appeal. A modern RPG with retro callbacks, it celebrates its past enough for veterans without excluding newcomers. With world class voice acting, and generation-defining visuals, it's a must-play game that easily earns its place on next-gen consoles. Characters are fascinating, the map is stunning, and the way the story incorporates real-world themes to deliver a first-rate dramatic experience means Yakuza: Like a Dragon deserves a spot on everyone's 2020 top 10 games lists.
Pros: excellent voice acting and story, fun gameplay, stunning map
Cons: too many cutscenes and dialogue sequences at times, occasional glitches
For fans of: Final Fantasy, Persona, Grand Theft Auto
Game was reviewed on PS4 with code provided by the publisher. Yakuza: Like a Dragon releases November 10 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S and PC. Read a guide to our review scores here.