If you haven’t yet played the Yakuza games, well, you don’t have an excuse since the excellent remakes of the first two and its prequel are available on Xbox Game Pass.
But the good news is that if you’re still daunted about stepping into a series that’s been around for the past 15 years, then Yakuza: Like a Dragon is the perfect refresher with a new saga, new location and new faces.
It’s like Star Wars’ The Force Awakens then, but where everything comes together more satisfyingly at the end.
You play as Ichiban Kasuga, a lowly yakuza from a third-string Tokyo crime family who takes the rap for another person’s murder for the sake of his boss and father figure Arakawa.
After an 18-year prison sentence, he discovers he’s been betrayed by his very own patriarch who shoots him and leaves him for dead.
It’s the kind of gangster drama plot that would put the anti-hero on a destructive path of revenge. Not so here, however.
Even when his life’s literally in the gutter, Ichiban is an absolute bleeding heart, bursting with compassion and optimism only outshone by his massive shaggy hair that just about everyone doesn’t miss a beat at taking the piss out of.
Despite being in his forties by the time he’s out of the slammer, Ichiban’s a big kid with an overactive imagination thanks to his obsession with video games and dreams of being a hero. It’s this conceit that also drastically shakes up how Like a Dragon plays compared to past entries.
Instead of a one-man army button-bashing brawler, combat takes place as a party-based turn-based RPG where regular people turn into different enemy types (and this time there’s way more than just generic yakuza goons) while your characters fight with job classes based on actual jobs, like a construction worker, a chef, a breakdancer, a pop idol, or even a dominatrix.
It even has its own versions of summons where you can call up powerful allies with your smartphone.
On paper and in action it’s daft as hell, but it also works because the Yakuza series has always been adept at straddling real-life and the surreal.
Despite the references to Dragon Quest, these battles are also a lot more dynamic in practice, and still retains Yakuza’s love for QTEs while timing button presses can even help reduce damage from incoming attacks without having to forfeit a turn just to defend.
If anything, the battle UI, as well as other mechanics like friendship bonds with party members and personality stats are in debt to Sega’s other terrific RPG Persona 5.
So strangely enough, this is the next best thing to having Persona on the Xbox.
Naturally, series fans might lament not being able to batter your enemies in real-time and the battle system isn’t without the odd niggle, such as how unpredictable enemy movement can mess up your area-specific attacks, or the fact that you can only change jobs at one location in the whole game.
Yet just as with past games, the combat is but a slice of what you go into Yakuza games for.
There’s, of course, the detailed authentic exploration of Japanese cities and culture, this time taking you across a large stretch of Yokohama, from its seedy red-light district and homeless camp to back-alley bars and restaurants and the vibrant colour of Chinatown.
Sure, it’s still a modest-sized open world compared to GTA or Watch Dogs, but it’s nonetheless jam-packed with character and activities, whether you want to take a trip to the arcade for a game of Virtua Fighter 5, indulge in some underground gambling, or race around the city in a surprisingly decent Mario Kart clone.
What grips you the most, however, is an epic and engaging story that can flip from being deadly serious with post-war politics and multiple double-crosses before leading you down completely bizarre and hilarious side quests like helping an ageing dominatrix find her ultimate sub, or helping a host of people get back their mojo with a kick of kimchi.
Few games get away with such a sharp contrast in tone while some twists call for some serious suspension of disbelief, and yet you buy into it purely on the strength of the characters you come to care a lot for and their excellent performances.
This is based on playing with English audio as well, so it’s a relief to say the days of dodgy dubbing are over.
Having been developed first for PS4, Yakuza: Like a Dragon might not be a likely candidate to show off all the bells and whistles of next-gen.
Just like Ichiban then, it’s something of an underdog.
But if you’re picking up an Xbox Series X/S, this is the game you need to pick up at launch.
The Verdict - 5/5
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a fresh reboot for a legendary series that makes its bizarre transition of genres work while still retaining all of its signature charm.
There is so much content packed into the game, including mini-games that could well be games in their own right, that it’s in danger of derailing you from its equally engrossing underdog story; that’s also the longest in the series. But when it’s all so charged with passion and humanity, it’s hard to complain.
There might be bigger open-world games or games that better showcase next-gen tech, but when it comes down to it, just like its protagonist, few big-budget games have as much character and heart as this one.
Review Code Provided By The Publisher