(Note: The below doesn’t touch too much on the story within Infinite Wealth but does contain references to Kiryu’s predicament which has been revealed in trailers and previous games.)
While I’ll always and forever carry a torch for Kiryu and the traditional beat-em-up flavour of the Like a Dragon games, 2020’s Like a Dragon 7 (also known as Yakuza: Like a Dragon) hit so many of the right notes for me as a renewed angle for the series. It took familiar ideas and gave them a new spin with a fresh and immediately likable protagonist along with a completely new battle and party system that made sense thematically, and despite some growing pains in its new form I think it landed pretty well.
It turns out that Ryu ga Gotoku Studio wasn’t quite ready to let go of previous leading man Kiryu yet though, with everyone’s favourite ex-Yakuza making a comeback both in Like a Dragon’s 8th mainline entry as well as his own smaller chapter between games. Which is cool and all, but I really wanted to see RGG continue to explore new themes and new directions for the series instead of revisiting chapters we all thought had closed. Thankfully, after jetting over to New York City for an hours-long hands-on session with Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth late last year I can promise that the well of creativity has definitely not dried up (and also Like a Dragon Gaiden is pretty good, actually).
After some introductions from the game’s chief producer, Hiroyuki Sakamoto, I was given the opportunity to sample four distinct parts of Infinite Wealth. The first was a freeform romp around Honolulu City in the game’s fifth chapter, which not only allowed me to check out this brand-new location for the series – and easily one of the biggest areas ever featured – but also offered a chance to sample its revamped turn-based combat and plethora of side activities and progression systems.
First and most immediate reactions are of course reserved for Honolulu City itself, which is so far removed from the usual locales in Like a Dragon games. It’s beachy, breezy and very tourist-y and multicultural. Sakamoto says the studio really wanted to tell a new story somewhere completely different and chose Hawaii in part due to its huge Japanese population, working extensively with local businesses, agencies and supports to recreate Honolulu as closely as possible even at points where the developers themselves couldn’t visit due to COVID restrictions. The results really speak for themselves with the new map feeling vastly different to the series’ typical Japanese locations but still as authentic as ever.
There are obviously story-related reasons for Kasuga and friends (including Kiryu and two newcomers, Eric and Chitose) to cross the seas to a new set of islands, but I’ll keep the story talk to a minimum here for fear of ruining the full experience and stick to what’s new in terms of gameplay. Combat for example, even just in the small amounts I tried during my time with the game, is an improvement over LaD 7 feeling both more refined and also more in step with the themes of teamwork and synergy that the previous game established.
A big change is the ability to now move your characters around the field with the left stick while you’re deciding on their actions, which not only helps to ground your control of them a bit more but naturally also changes the flow of strategy as you try to position your party members to have the best effect. Although I didn’t get a sense of movement having a wholly transformative effect on strategy – your characters will still head over to whatever enemy or ally you’re targeting for a move – it’s a neat way to find extra little edges like maximising the effect of an AOE attack or picking up nearby objects on your way to a foe with more deliberate intention than the chance moments of before. Character team-up attacks are also based on proximity between two different party members, so there’s some benefit to playing your positions right.
Elsewhere, combat in Infinite Wealth looks and feels pretty close to LaD 7 with near-identical menus, similar types of skills and things like the Poundmates system making a return. I’ll be interested to see if and how it evolves further with more new jobs – the Desperado and Aqaunaut jobs I had access to were certainly fun to experiment with – and how that holds up over another very lengthy game. Getting access to new jobs in Infinite Wealth is a riot at least, with Honolulu’s very own Japanese tourism mascot Alo-Happy gradually giving you new tourist activities to partake in that in turn unlock new jobs. These are presented in painfully-hilarious cutscenes that show the crew doing things like swimming with dolphins to earn the Aquanaut job or having a good ol’ fashioned water pistol fight to learn to become Desperados. It rules. It’s also worth mentioning that the decision to give Kiryu a special battle mechanic where he can occasionally go into full real-time combat mode is masterful.
Honolulu City itself informs a lot of the new wrinkles to combat and regular gameplay, with things like sandy beaches offering entertaining new enemy variants (the dudes disguised as sand castles that jump out of the ground are brilliant) and even new ways to collect junk like dropping coconuts from trees or taking a dip in the sea for some sunken treasure. Or, if you’ve been paying attention, you could zip around on a segue for maximum mobility. I equally loved taking the city’s trolley service which is a slower but infinitely more scenic way to get around and spend quality time with your teammates. You could also just saunter around listening to the radio on Kasuga’s phone, or level up your friendships with your party members and other folks around the city while you take in the sights.
Of course a big, brand-new location means plenty of opportunity for fun new diversions, and Honolulu City isn’t short on those by any means. While the couple of hours I got with the game obviously wasn’t enough to sample absolutely everything, the bits I did check out were fantastic. You’ll no doubt have seen things like Crazy Delivery in trailers or even in the Infinite Wealth demo included with copies of Like a Dragon Gaiden, and it’s immensely fun. I’m also really looking forward to checking out the expanded Sujimon system which now lets you charm and collect in-game enemies and use them to battle NPCs a la Pokemon, though there wasn’t enough time for me to fully explore this system during my preview.
I did however make sure to sample just a few of the substories I found while exploring, and there were some bangers. One particularly hectic mission had Kasuga wind up taking a job as a stuntman for a film in production on location, and involved a minigame where I had to sprint into oncoming traffic while dodging cars and explosions, while another saw the return of Professor Okita and his giant bloodthirsty roomba, Sojimaru, which put a massive smile on my face. There really is a great balance here of returning characters, gags and gameplay as well as totally brand-new and bonkers ideas afforded by a wholly different setting to anything folks have experienced in the series so far.
And that’s without even mentioning the wild new Dondoko Island mode which scoots Kasuga off to another small island to engage in a whole-arse Animal Crossing-style mode where he restores and runs a resort. Because that’s also in this game and it’s not just rad but feels big enough to be its own thing entirely. I wrote more about that right here, for fear of this preview being a million words long.
After spending a good chunk of time in Hawaii, the team then directed me to an entirely different section of the game, this time back in the familiar territory of Yokohama. Here, I was playing as Kiryu and accompanied by some familiar faces in Nanba and Seonhee, who are helping Kiryu put together a bucket list of activities he hopes to do before he passes. There’s a bit of tonal whiplash coming right from the Hawaii section to this, with a similar kind of bittersweet vibe as The Man Who Erased His Name only dialled up even further. Sakamoto says RGG is hoping to illustrate the human experience of an event as life-changing as a cancer diagnosis as well as the difference in Kasuga’s journey of pulling himself up from rock bottom with the help of friends versus Kiryu’s insistence on burdening only himself even in what are his final days, and I’m ready to cry.
This part of the preview wasn’t as lengthy as the Honolulu portion, but it worked to give me a good sense of how different the two protagonist’s experiences are. Kiryu’s portion here had him working through both his bucket list and a franchise’s worth of memories through challenges and discoveries around both Yokohama and Kamurocho as well as plenty of classic activities like batting cages. I can already anticipate filling up the Memoirs of a Dragon book with an ever-growing catalogue of images and stories from past games to be an incredibly cathartic way to send off our hero.
Rather than end my few hours with Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth on as dour a note as all that though, I wrapped up by doing something I’d been desperate to ever since I saw it in the game’s promotional trailers – fighting a giant shark. With no actual context as to where the fight fits in the game’s story and with a full party of five including Kasuga joined by Adachi, Joongi Han, Chitose and Eric, I was allowed to let loose on “Giant Shark,” the Tyrant of the Tides on the back of a boat. I won, too, so take that the ocean.
All told, there really seems to be a lot on offer here, with what could easily amount to the most expansive and content-packed Like a Dragon game yet with its most diverse cast and locations and the best versions of so many beloved mechanics and ideas. It’s the stuff that’s brand-new and continually creative that’s the most exciting of course, and I’m super keen to see how much more there is to discover when the full game lands.