I’ll fully admit that I’ve never played a Yakuza game before, but I definitely jumped at the chance to make Like a Dragon the second Xbox Series X optimized title that I could play as part of the next-gen console’s special preview program. With some hindsight, I should have done some homework to prepare myself first.
A special demo dumped me straight in the middle of Chapter 5, where I wasn’t really introduced to protagonist Ichiban Kasuga so much as thrown into a conversation he was having with his two friends: police guy and likely drunken hobo-looking guy. I realised they were at a funeral almost immediately, but before I could try to learn the names of Kasuga’s friends, a fourth person – the daughter of the dead man, it turns out – joined the conversation. While I still really didn’t know who these people were, I understood what was going on pretty quickly afterward. That didn’t matter though as the cutscene went back and forth for a solid twenty minutes beyond that.
We’re talking Hideo Kojima levels of repeated exposition here. My husband got home from work, waved at me as he went into the bedroom to shower, then came back to properly say hi afterward before the mini-movie had completed. The Xbox Series X actually dimmed my screen as an energy-saving measure halfway through. I stopped trying to figure out the names of the characters because I hit a point where I no longer cared. I instead focused on some weird touches – how, because I’d selected both English voices and subtitles, the characters were speaking of brothels except for the odd occurrence when they used the term “soapland” instead, or how the female character’s father sounded about twenty years younger than his spawn.
I moved on to the next-gen presentation that filled my screen. Things looked crisp and clean – a little too clean – and just ever so plastic. Kasuga’s hair defies gravity in a way that matches a lot of Japanese games that I do play, and the female’s tears just looked plain weird. It didn’t help that I’d just watched an NBA 2K21 next-gen trailer with near-realistic sweat and animations that could’ve convinced you that you were watching a live broadcast if you didn’t know better. I made it through the first bit of main mission offered and powered down the game, rather disappointed.
Sleeping on it, I re-entered Like a Dragon and made a beeline for all these weird and wacky things I’d heard it was known for. In this respect, it didn’t disappoint. I first found a random can collecting mini-game – issued to me by a hobo who wasn’t the hobo in my party – and also found a game of Shogi (also hosted by a hobo), though I didn’t know how to really play it and it wasn’t explained in any great detail. I stumbled upon a third mini-game after eavesdropping on two youths who’d been using a retro movie theatre to catch up on their sleep, much to the chagrin of the theatre’s curator.
Being in day whatever of Victorian lockdown, I can be quite emotional depending on the time. Playing later in the evening, the neon lights and sounds of Yokohama made me very nostalgic for my time in Tokyo, to the point where I’d wander into virtual shops just to get a bit of a feeling (or memory) of being there. Sure, it might have been a little too shiny to feel properly real, but it did the trick.
In terms of gameplay, I admittedly didn’t delve too far into the narrative options offered – because I didn’t want to spoil anything for anyone and also didn’t want to bash my head against a brick wall as cutscenes overwhelmed me – but instead wandered through backstreets looking for a fight. Combat is a turn-based affair this time around (that I knew), and to be frank, it was all a bit boring. With my party at level 15 by this point, every single random combat encounter was a cakewalk, easily bested by simply mashing on the A button to attack without any flourish.
That said, Kasuga and crew have a wealth of attacks and specials at their disposal and all are varied and crazy. The drunk hobo dude? Well, he belches alcoholic fire at enemies, so my initial assessment proved spot on. I’m sure story-based missions, dungeons and the like will offer up more challenge and chance for strategy, but by the end of my preview session I was actively avoiding any baddie on the mini-map because I simply couldn’t be bothered.
Yakuza Like a Dragon offers up the (now standard on next-gen) emphasis on image quality or frame rate, and once again, I was at a loss to really identify what either mode offered. That’s really a testament to the Xbox Series X at this point, able to hit 4K and 60 FPS for the most part in either mode (at least to my 38-year-old eyes) with either setting. Ultimately, the game’s a bit too weird to be my cup of tea, but I’m well aware there’s a substantial player base out there simply foaming at the mouth for this one.
Yakuza Like a Dragon heads to Windows PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series S, Xbox Series X and PS4 from 10 November. A PS5 release follows on 2 March 2021, though game saves aren’t compatible if you’ve played on PS4.