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'Yakuza: Like a Dragon' screenshots by author
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'Yakuza: Like a Dragon' Needs a Hero Worth Following

The switch to JRPG mechanics goes smoothly, but the everyday heroes of the story can't always tell the villains apart from the good guys.
November 11, 2020, 2:00pm

When reviewing video games, I’m usually that asshole who complains when a video game is trying too hard to be a movie. With Yakuza: Like a Dragon, I find myself missing when Yakuza games used to be more like movies. Like a Dragon feels over-narrated. Stuff that would usually be left up to audience interpretation is laid completely bare, with no mysterious stone left unturned. Previous Yakuza games were filled with long camera pans that were filled with anticipation and longing. I found myself grasping for the words that were unspoken, the quiet glances that were exchanged, the unspoken power dynamics that undergird every interaction between the characters. Like a Dragon can't stop providing exposition for every nefarious plot, and it kills the dramatic tension that I usually find in this series. 

While I appreciate that Like a Dragon tries to be different from its predecessors, it feels like it lost the soul of what made the series so notable to begin with. The lonely silence was filled with party banter, and Kasuga’s characterization felt diluted, rather than strengthened. The writing's missteps extend to the game's overall plot about the fall of the Tojo clan, with a strong opening giving way to a bloated second act. In the end, Like a Dragon is interesting for how many new things it is trying, but unfortunately most of its new ideas only highlight why the previous games have been so much better than this one ever manages.  

Yakuza: Like a Dragon introduces the new protagonist Ichiban Kasuga. He’s a more outwardly exuberant protagonist compared to the morose main characters of the past games. Playing the old games felt a lot like peeling back layers of an onion, as new complications from the men’s pasts would wallop them from behind. The past is still lethal in Like a Dragon, but Kasuga isn’t trying to conceal anything. He’s very open about being raised by sex workers at a soapland after his mother had abandoned him, and he’s not bogged down by the circumstances that landed him in prison. Yakuza protagonists have always felt like personal therapists for the woes of the people around them, but Kasuga is here to fix the Ichinjo neighborhood itself. 

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While uncovering the nefarious plots of the criminal underworld, Kasuga scrubbed toilets. Saeko, a hostess who joined to get justice for her employer, did accounting for a shipyard. Adachi, a disgraced cop, usually gets saddled with physical labor. Even the combat feels like vigilante justice from ordinary workers, who fight the forces of evil with their frying pans, playing cards, and acoustic guitars. Anyone in the world of Like a Dragon can pick up their tools and fight. Unlike the older games that allowed their protagonists to switch freely between fighting styles, Like a Dragon gives each character a Job that they can only change at an employment agency. The jobs system is also similar to games such as Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, and Bravely Default. 

Rather than being badass yakuza captains who go where they want, whenever they want, the squad is forced to take day jobs in order to advance the main adventure. And just like any other job, there are no singular heroes. The casino dealer has to work together with the bodyguard and the idol to achieve devastating combos.

The combat should be familiar for anyone who’s played a turn based Japanese roleplaying game (JRPG). Each turn, you can choose to attack, use a skill, or block the enemy. And because these types of games require a wide array of attack types, combat has never been so stylish. Your ally Nanba can cast “spells” by summoning a flock of pigeons or set enemies alight with his alcohol breath. Their move list is specially tailored to their job type. Instead of light mage or assassin, characters can be classed into modern jobs like “idol” or “chef.” Like a Dragon is a fascinating re-imagining of what a JRPG can be in a contemporary city. The themes are old, but the mash-up is new.

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When you’re fighting groups in most JRPGs, you can target whichever enemy that you want. That isn’t the case in Like a Dragon. Ichiban Kasuga isn’t the only man with loyal friends who would protect him; his enemies are also stronger when they work together. Whenever I wanted one of my fighters to smack an enemy in the back, their attack would be intercepted by one of their buddies at the front. I find that this mechanic is what turns the usual “friendship is power” formula on its head. Sure, you’re the good guy with your squad of loyal friends, but so are the random punks you’re fighting. Unlike most JRPGs, it was harder to isolate and pick off enemies one by one. Likewise, it was more difficult to throw a healing item to an ally who wasn’t in your direct line of sight. The dynamic combat system manages to simulate the feeling of a real fight despite its turn-based limitations.

For all of my praise on the game’s bells and whistles, it lacks focus. It’s trying to achieve more than what my attention can hold. When characters can hold almost any job in their gender category, they lose a lot of their unique characterization during combat. This is especially obvious when you hold it up to previous titles, where each fighter had his own style based on their background and body type. But maybe this is just the gig-economy world that we live in right now, where workers can be a line cook in the morning, a babysitter in the afternoon, and a struggling musician in the evening. Our plucky heroes are just trying to hold on to their real passion project of toppling the big bad while juggling half a dozen side gigs. And honestly? I can respect that. The party may be kicking ass against crime bosses at night, but they still need to figure out how to pay for lunch the next day. 

Outside of combat, Like a Dragon is keen on selling the game as a Japanese roleplaying game. Small pixel characters occupy the corner of loading screens, and a chiptune sound effect plays when you gain a new party member. Though Yakuza is heralded as a breakaway from the old franchise, its dependence on video game nostalgia is the same. Kasuga is motivated to become a hero in the vein of Dragon Quest, a highly popular JRPG with decades of history. One of the sidequests involves fighting “Sujimon” and collecting their combat data in a “Sujidex.” Being able to catch small cultural references has always been the series’ charm, but the themes don't truly feel like a break from the past when the game is so intentional about making winks to game franchises from the last century.  

Some old things have stayed. Substories have always been the most charming part of the series, and spent a full day in its addictive minigames. The characters emote masterfully in cutscenes, and familiar side characters make their appearance in multiple substories. Great criminal empires may rise and fall, but the Poppo store on the corner of Suppon and Tenkaichi Street will endure forever. 

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Unfortunately, some of the long-standing weaknesses of the series continue to endure. Namely, its narrative treatment of women. Here is the image of a “good” non-playable woman in Yakuza: nurturing, kind, and self-sacrificial when it comes to her family.

The game is sympathetic towards sex workers, and gives them culturally positive roles such as “mother” or “daughter,” but they are not portrayed as individuals with their own agency. The ex-detective Adachi is taking care of a young boy because his mother died of grief (yes, really). Multiple mothers die so that their sons can be socially ostracized. Like a Dragon has improved on gender representation in some ways, but it continues to de-center women in their own narratives. In a series about rising above the corruption, men will always get a second chance to redeem their mistakes before they die or become irrelevant. For women, it’s one strike and they're out.

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The narrative’s instinct for male absolution carries over to how Kasuga treats male characters with kid gloves. At least Kiryu would forgive shitty men after he beat the shit out of them first. I really struggled by one specific scene that attempted to rehabilitate the image of a perverse, exploitative brothel owner. In fact, helping him becomes the main reason why Saeko decides to join the party. Her joining scene felt like a kick in the teeth, since she is the first female combatant in the series. Adachi’s excuse for her abusive boss felt all-too familiar to me, an old admonishment rattling in my head: “You have to forgive him because he’s still your family, in his own special way.” While the sentiment is universal in a lot of ways, it is especially insidious coming from a society that uses “family” as a band-aid over East Asian men’s bad behavior. In a party-based game, it’s important to ask: who benefits from family? Is it a yakuza with too much blood on his hands? Is it a woman who is constantly subject to sexual harassment from both her squad and outsiders? 

I write all of this because I love the Yakuza series for how the male characters grow. Struggling against destiny has always been the main theme of the series. Instead of being torn apart by society’s expectations, men rise above their terrible circumstances. Previous protagonists are hit by constant tragedies, but they never allow their grief to sour them, or to neglect those who need saving. In contrast, the “good” women are victims in need of saving, or they sacrifice themselves for a man they love. Like its predecessors, women in Like a Dragon are not given opportunities to successfully challenge their destiny. 

While flawed women never have any complex motivations or opportunities to redeem themselves, men are applauded for painting themselves in the colors of grey morality. When a yakuza chairman affirmed his commitment to cruelty against civilians, Kasuga characterizes  him as one of the remaining few honorable yakuza of a bygone golden age. While he was previously critical of the clan, he immediately retracted his objections when he saw that the chairman lived up to his ideals of yakuza masculinity. And he will keep extending the benefit of the doubt to men who have demonstrably harmed others. This is not the Yakuza protagonist that I want.

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And maybe that says more about me than it says about Kasuga. He’s a goof. His signature hairstyle was the result of a small grooming accident, and he doesn’t always have the correct read on people. He’ll let the baddies sweet talk him. He leaps first and asks questions later. This isn’t a leader I want to follow into battle. I mean, have you seen the state of the world for the past four years? Corrupt politicians and bullies have defined our era in real life. I don’t want the hero of the story to be a man who stumbles into conflicts, making excuses for abusive dirtbags. 

Someone walking around with plot armor ought to have a knack for putting things right. Kazuma Kiryu had an unbending sense of justice, but he was always fixing other people’s mistakes. He would never succumb to threats or manipulation. In contrast, Kasuga has human vulnerabilities, and he spends half of the screen time fixing his own fuckups. He doesn’t always understand other people’s feelings, and he forgives people who have caused harm to civilians. And all of that just makes him a regular guy. Unlike the previous protagonists, he’s a person who could be like any of us. That’s his unique strength, but the game never really acknowledges his weaknesses as serious character flaws. He has loyal team members who try to keep him in check, but the moral aerobics fall flat when they mostly go with whatever the leader decides.  

Like a Dragon is an interesting departure from the formula of “a single man fixes the entire city by himself,” but most of the narrative changes only really happen on the surface level. Despite its party-based gameplay, Kasuga is the sole man in the plot’s driver’s seat. The game’s failure to decentralize the narrative feels especially significant when Yakuza 4 was able to achieve the premise to greater effect. In Yakuza 4, the story was about four different men with different goals, but the same enemies. In Like a Dragon, the side characters’ motivations for joining the party feel hollow. Often, their motivations are never brought up again after their initial joining scene. The party justifiably likes Kasuga as a drinking buddy, but I am not convinced that most of them have a good reason to risk their lives for him. Which sums up my feeling about the game as a whole: come for the minigames and substories, but don’t expect the most thrilling adventure in the series.