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From brawler to JRPG, but does the new Yakuza game hold up?

Oddball humor, hard-hitting fistfights, virtual arcades, tourist eye candy, and an emotional story are all examples that can be found in different games with different genres. But make no mistake, "Yakuza: Like A Dragon" (purposely not called "Yakuza 7") has all five, and no other game franchise can blend these elements so well quite as this game does. Here’s why the game is already turning out to be one of 2020’s best… and funniest.

The latest installment in the Yakuza franchise is here, and here's why you should play it. PIxabay (CC0)

Our neighbors the Yakuza

As the latest installment in Sega’s do-gooder criminal adventure series, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio’s big message with this new game is that both the virtual and real yakuza has to evolve. And evolve it did, as Like a Dragon takes a dramatic break from the franchise’s combo-heavy brawler combat in favor of turn-based battles commonly associated with classic JRPG games like "Dragon Quest" and "Final Fantasy," and it’s all to do with the new protagonist Kasuga Ichiban.

A former Tojo clan grunt who fancies himself as the “hero” in his own story, Ichiban couldn’t be more different from series stalwart Kazuma Kiryu. Sure, they both have hearts of gold under gruff, hard exteriors clad in shiny suits and are prone to over-the-top fisticuffs, but that’s just about where the similarities end. Because while Kiryu is known to be serious and even unaware of how the world is changing before his eyes, Ichiban is more excitable, eccentric, and naïve. And this is part of what makes the game work so well.

Instead of the brooding Kazuma Kiryu, you now play as the eccentric and excitable Kasuba Ichiban.

Of course, a Yakuza game wouldn’t be complete without constant leaning into endearing nerdishness which thankfully, Like a Dragon is able to deliver in droves. This includes everything from building your own business empire, playing a smattering selection of mini games, exploring the immersive Japanese districts of Yokohama, singing karaoke, or even treating your boys to a night at the cabaret. And while the substories never go as deep as "Yakuza 0," they’re still a series mainstay. In true Yakuza fashion, the game perfectly blends the magical with the mundane, and is all the better for it.

Elephant in the room

It’s however, time to address the elephant in the room: which is the shift in the combat system, moving from being brawler-based to a turn-based one. On paper, it’s hard to imagine how this dramatic change can retain the momentum that the previous franchise entries are carrying, but it absolutely works. And while it does take some time getting used to, the vibrant presentation, smooth flow, and superb animation work to heighten what would otherwise be a standard JRPG fare, with status, effects, buffs, and even weapon- and magic-based attacks. And while the option to preemptively whack someone in the head isn’t there anymore, the combat still uses the surroundings abundantly, with your teammates using objects like signs, plants, and chairs for extra damage.

Despite the shift from brawler to turn-based, the game's combat system is still explosive, dynamic, and just as wacky and over-the-top.

The fights itself are also dynamic, are as impactful as ever, and are quick enough to keep you on your toes, with enemies ranging from "Yakuza" classics like shady gang members to more oddball types like perverts that slip on their own lube and fanboys equipped with actual glowsticks. There are also cultists, diaper-clad gangsters, demonic chefs, and even frustrated otakus. Defeat them all and these weirdos get added to a Pokedex-inspired Sujidex. Narrative-wise, the game explains the turn-based mechanic by showing us that Ichiban pretty much sees himself as a video game protagonist, with much of the wacky fanatics happening in his head.

The side activities in the game aren’t just for show either, as doing any of these with your teammates (you control a party of 4) will help you perform better in combat.

Over-the-top fisticuffs aside, the game does have its fair share of flaws, as little as they may seem. For one thing, the balance can be a real issue in battles, with lower-level enemies taking a long time to defeat simply because of a large health bar. The game’s generally low difficulty also heavily penalizes player, having you redo parts that are an hour-long or taking half of your money whenever you lose. The length can also be an issue for some, as the game takes its time introducing you to everything, story and gameplay-wise. In fact, your playtime hours might even reach the double digits before the game fully explains the combat system. However, given that traditionally, a big chunk of playing a "Yakuza" game is just aimlessly wandering around doing random things for hours, the length may be a selling point for fans of the series.

One other change is the jump from Kamurocho to Okohama, making the game map bigger in every way, from its districts, alleys, and commercial neighborhoods, rife with activities that is sure to immerse you as much as the main story has.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon is coming to both PS4 and Xbox One this November.

Overall, "Like a Dragon" is a "Yakuza" game through and through despite the new protagonist and shift in the combat system. The action is still impactful, the characters tough but endearing, the substories varied, and the main story as full of plot twists more than a grown man’s curly hair. If you always wanted to try the "Yakuza" franchise but don’t know where to start, then Like a Dragon will give you a story that delivers in classic-"Yakuza" style, but doesn’t have years’ worth of backstories, unlike the previous titles. If you’re a fan, then the game offers enough new things and familiar mechanics to win you over.

Besides, have you seen Ichiban’s hair? Who wouldn’t love this goofy-looking nerd?

The game comes this November, and BestBuy is offering great pre-order deals for both PS4 and Xbox One.