Whilst I definitely didn’t get to play as much of the game as Kieron did and you should definitely read the entire preview below, the game is insane in the best possible way. The Xbox Series X version of the game has three different visual modes. There’s Normal which I assume is using a dynamic resolution and seemed to be primarily 60 FPS, High Resolution mode which is 4K but appears to drop to 30 FPS and High Frame Rate which is definitely a lower resolution (as you can see below) but runs at a solid 60 FPS.
As with Dirt 5, the Normal mode in Yakuza: Like A Dragon (which is what the game starts you on) will suit most people, and honestly you’re not going to notice the resolution scaling to have the frame rate sit at a solid 60 FPS. I was a little bit surprised to see how much different the game’s High Resolution and High Frame Rate modes looked, which you can see below.
Increasingly over time, new entries in the Yakuza franchise have felt more and more at odds with what makes a ‘good’ video game. Deconstruct them and you’ll see a spread of somewhat antiquated mechanics and design choices that few modern games could make if they had eyes on success, let alone repeat them verbatim across numerous sequels. Ask any Yakuza fan though, and none of that matters. These games are an experience all their own, and once you’re in the know – you’re in the know. Until now, perhaps.
There’s a level of comfort in jumping into each new Yakuza game. Knowing the streets of Kamurocho and the cast of characters that reside there. Understanding the basic flow of gameplay, knowing how to make the most of recurring mechanics and still finding joy in subtle improvements along the way. Yakuza: Like A Dragon actually starts in the series’ familiar setting of Kamurocho, where it introduces its new star, Ichiban Kasuga. A young, low-ranking member of a Tojo Clan family, Ichiban finds himself taking the fall for a murder on his patriarch Masumi Arakawa’s orders and spends the next 18 years in prison. Although I didn’t have access to the opening chapters, I understand that they encompasses the ‘prologue’ portion of the game that leads to Arakawa betraying Kasuga and leaving him for dead in a whole new city district – Isezaki Ijincho in Yokohama – where the game begins proper.
For this preview I was dropped into the game starting at the fifth chapter, which I’m told occurs roughly five-to-seven hours into the game. In this chapter, Kasuga-san and his new friends are investigating the death of the owner of the soapland they’d been laying low in. Their search takes them all over Yokohama, chasing members of the local Liumang crime family and uncovering a large-scale criminal operation in a packing facility. Things quickly go pear-shaped of course, and the gang find themselves embroiled in the early stages of a war between the district’s three rival clans. The chapter fits a preview environment nicely – not so early in the game that it’s all tutorials, but representative of a turning point that introduces a few of the game’s new ideas.
Obviously, combat in Like a Dragon represents the biggest departure from the series’ previous mainline games, trading in the well-known action/brawler combat for a full blown turn-based battle system straight out of the world of JRPGs. It’s a bold move, but one that fits in beautifully with the character of Ichiban and so appears as much like a narrative decision as it does a genre shake-up. If you’re familiar with some of Kasuga-kun’s favourite video games like Dragon Quest, you’ll feel right at home with how combat works here. Each party member and enemy gets a turn at choosing and executing a command – be it attacking, guarding, using special skills, items and more – with zero pressure to make snap decisions. The only reaction-based element is the occasional Paper Mario-style button prompt for some of the better special attacks, which does a good job of keeping things engaging.
It all works surprisingly well within the standard Yakuza gameplay loop too, perhaps partially because returning elements like battle transitions (something the series stepped away from with the new engine but has now come back to, amusingly) and character progression already fit the mould, but also because RGG Studio has worked in as many recognisable quirks as possible. Despite not playing in real-time, combat still looks like it’s from a Yakuza game with over-the-top combos and party members and enemies alike kicking debris (often bicycles) around as they tussle and tumble. It’s also completely ridiculous a lot of the time, with your characters’ unique attacks largely ignoring any sense of realism and special mechanics like summonable helper characters often having hilarious results.
While it’s hard to truly know from a relatively small slice of the game I can see myself enjoying the combat and RPG mechanics throughout the full experience, even if I miss some of the physicality of the old system. There’s a lot riding on the game’s balance as well, given that there’s less scope for player skill to make up for any deficiency in stats. There’s ample opportunity to grind experience by picking fights around Ijincho and taking advantage of an optional dungeon-style area, but there’s potential for that to get old quickly when I can’t amuse myself by throwing chumps through windows and beating them up with nearby traffic cones.
In the interest of full disclosure, I definitely didn’t play through as much of the story as was made available to me for this preview, but that’s with good reason. The Yakuza series has always had a penchant for distracting players with a smorgasbörd of side activities and minigames and that hasn’t changed at all with Like a Dragon. Plenty of beloved staples make a return such as karaoke, cage batting, shogi and even classic, real-life SEGA arcade games. Of course, there are a bunch of new diversions to waste time on as well and these are a ton of fun. I admit I spent far too much of my time competing in can-collecting competitions and managing a flourishing business, and got especially into Dragon Kart, which is exactly as cool as it sounds. After seeing some of the stuff featured in trailers for the game I absolutely cannot wait to sink my teeth into all of the activities the full thing will offer.
More than anything, Yakuza: Like A Dragon is shaping up to be one of the franchise’s wildest entries, which is no mean feat. The games have always had a silly side, but this one holds nothing back. The game’s job system, its version of RPG classes, allows Ichiban’s crew to take on all manner of vocations from chef to pop idol and there are more than a few… questionable weapons for them to wield. Never mind the summonable chicken armies and pun-derful enemy names like Twitchy Streamer and ETC.
Battles are hilariously over-the-top as a result, which is good to still see in spite of the change in genre, and the game doesn’t seem phased with
Visually, Like A Dragon pretty much matches the standard set by the likes of Yakuza 6, which is to say it looks fantastic. The series has always favoured detail and density in its presentation over raw technical brilliance and that’s still the case here. Ijincho is rich in character and absolutely packed with things to see, and the game’s cast of characters continue to be some of the best-looking human depictions in gaming. Playing the preview on my PC on Ultra settings certainly gives it a noticeable edge on my usual platform of choice, the PlayStation 4, not just because of a few shiny new graphical features but because I’m able to run it in ultrawide resolutions and at very decent framerates.
Although it was never really in doubt, I’m pleased to see first-hand that Yakuza: Like A Dragon continues the series’ legacy of rousing crime drama and painstakingly-rich settings married to completely over-the-top action and eclectic side activities. I can’t pass Judgment (heh) until I’ve experienced the full thing, but I struggle to see a game that lets me go toe-to-toe with a bloodthirsty foreman driving an excavator using nothing but kitchen utensils and homemade demo albums disappointing me.