Hello. I am Benjamin Wagner, this is my blog and today… I spend an inordinate amount of time playing around with the side stuff in an attempt to avoid reviewing the actual game of the day.
The Yakuza series, much like Korean food, is something that many people have heard of but not a huge amount of people have experienced. I was one of those people until recently. I own a way to play each game in the series in one way or another but did little other than jump into Yakuza Zero to play multiplayer darts with my brother.
Until Yakuza 7 came along.
A new protagonist. A change from action combat to Dragon Quest-inspired turn-based combat. I like Dragon Quest. I like turn-based combat. I like protagonists. In short, all the cards lined up so, after a few days of deliberating, I decided to make Yakuza 7 my next game after finishing the Final Fantasy 7 Remake. A friend of mine had talked up the games and, whilst a little more negative about this one, I felt I had heard enough to think that I would enjoy this one.
And I did.
But I also didn’t.
Yakuza 7 might be the biggest mixed bag of a game I have played for a long time. Many games have good points and bad points, but one area usually shines much greater than the other. Yakuza 7 is much more of a raffle. And, in my opinion, at least, that’s what makes it so interesting. Find out what I mean as I attempt to review Yakuza 7: Like a Dragon.
This is my first game in the Yakuza series. As such, there are undoubtedly areas of this story that will pass me by. Yes, this game is the first to have a brand new protagonist, Kasuga Ichiban, replacing Kazama Kiryu as the main man. This change is what inspired me to finally dive in as it felt like a fresh start.
The main character isn’t the only change that Like a Dragon has brought as the larger change is arguably the different gameplay style that this game boasts. Instead of the frantic action combat that the first 6 games was known for, the developers as Ryu Ga Gotoku studios have instead opted for turn-based RPG combat akin to the Dragon Quest series. Even more so than the change in protagonist, I found the change to turn-based combat to be the biggest draw to the game. I am an unashamedly large fan of Dragon Quest and its classic feeling combat. Whether or not this has worked in this game’s favour is a point of debate but I just thought it prudent to mention that this game marks a large change to the established formula that has become well-loved over the past 10 years.
The plot of Yakuza 7 follows the aforementioned Kasuga Ichiban and his life as a Yakuza in the Arakawa Family; a formerly important Yakuza family but a minor sub-family within the Tojo Clan when the story begins. After a few hours of walking around his home town of Kamuracho and interacting with the community that raised him, Ichiban is asked to take the fall for his captain’s crime and he obliges. And, for his loyalty, Ichiban is given…
- 18 years in prison
- His clan abandoning him
- His patriach and father figure shooting him in the chest and leaving him for dead.
Ichiban has hit rock bottom and is left amongst bags of rubbish in Yokohama. Homeless and with nowhere to go, it is up to Ichiban to acclimate to his new environment, ingratiate into the new community and bring his life back from the dead.
That was a very abridged version of a plot that is detailed, often confusing and has what feels like 100 fleshed-out characters to keep track of at one time. Writing a synopsis of a 60 hour RPG is an incredibly difficult task, and this task is made harder when the game in question is as story-heavy as this one. Without the story, this game would be nothing and when the story is this integral to the game as a whole, I want to try my best not to spoil the important moments for those of you who may stumble upon this post at some point. But then I changed my mind and wrote 8000 words on this game so before we start:
This is a spoiler warning. You have been sufficiently warned.
Yes, I’m going to talk about this game in detail and will spoil quite a lot. I will even discuss the ending later. The warning is done.
Success 1: The Open World
Open world games, in the gaming landscape of 2021, are far from rare. Even now, many fans yearn for more and more immersive and larger worlds to explore in video games. In 2022, we already know of Elden Ring, Elex 2, Zelda Breath of the Wild 2, Starfield, Horizon Forbidden West and more. Even Pokemon seems to be experimenting with a pseudo-open world design. This view that bigger is better is something I don’t agree with. Yes, I enjoyed Skyrim but the amount of filler content that is peppered around the world make the game for players who like to do as much as possible, tedious. Bigger is not better. The announcement that one planet in the upcoming game Starfield will be as big as the entirety of Skyrim is an announcement that I simultaneously don’t believe and one that worries me. I don’t think Bethesda get that no matter how big you make a game, what players want is quality content in that world. And that is where we find Yakuza: Like A Dragon.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon has 3 open-world style maps for you to explore. 2 of these are smaller, sub-areas that are used as a call back to previous games and a breather from the main hub of Izesaki Ijincho. Speaking of the main map, this is where my point about having content-packed worlds trumps large soulless land masses where, even though you can climb every mountain, every mountain is the same.
Izesaki Ijincho is densely packed and it is easy to find something new throughout the game’s 50-60 hour runtime. The map is hardly small and it gradually unlocks as you progress through the early chapters but once you reach chapter 5, the world truly becomes your oyster and you can explore the majority of this city.
And this city feels real.
More real than most game cities or worlds I have ever explored. Who cares that you can’t speak to every NPC or citizen you pass by. You don’t need filler dialogue for everyone. What you really need here is everyone. Walking down Izesaki Road through crowds of people or scurrying down the thin alleyways in the bar district make this city feel realistic. As if you could go to Japan and find cities just like this one. It would be easy to enter the game just to go for a walk. Just to see what you might find. Just to see what you might feel like doing. And it’s these things that you feel like doing brings me onto the second success.
Success 2: Plethora of ways to waste your time (Side-games)
Whenever I spoke to my Yakuza fan friend about the series, he always mentioned the combat and the deep Yakuza narrative. After playing Yakuza 7, what I am surprised he didn’t mention was the plethora of side games and side modes that the game allows you to indulge in as you progress with the main story. Do you want to run a business in a fun but contained finance mini-game?
Do you want to turn the city into a go-kart track and compete against a wacky cast of colourful miscreants?
Do you want to ride around on a rickety bicycle collecting tin cans?
I don’t know why you would but you can!
Yakuza 7 takes the oft remarked pleasantry, ‘variety is the spice of life’ to heart and tries to pack as many different activities into this densely packed city. Yes, not all of the activities will appeal to everyone; I will never like or understand Mahjong and the idea of playing Shogi, whilst a game I want to learn, the AI in this game is far too proficient at this for it to be fun for me. But you also have golf, baseball and darts. Casino games, arcade games and business management games. Can collecting games, karaoke and go-karting! Each of these is fleshed out enough to make them a fun diversion from the main game. So much so that the game wouldn’t be half as fun without them. Sometimes the story is just a little too much or too heavy to handle and taking a moment to reassess your goals over a game of darts or shogi is the perfect deconstruction of a common open-world problem; repetition. These side games act as a sort of side quest all their own and allow the player to choose the pace at which they tackle the game. And, if you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself bashing through the meat of these side games long before the game’s main story even begins to get good.
Based on that last sentence, you might think that I’m not a fan of the main narrative of Yakuza 7. Whilst I do like it, it certainly has its flaws. What makes these flaws so overlookable, however, will be discussed in success three…
Success 3: Ichiban as the main man and the side stories that ground him
Kasuga Ichiban is the best main character in any game I’ve played this year. Samus was great in Metroid Dread, I loved Cloud in Final Fantasy 7 Remake and I think Jin is a relatable and sympathetic hero in Ghost of Tsushima. But all 3 of these lack something that Kasuga has.
And that’s his complete and utter likability.
He has guts. Spirit. He simply exudes ‘like me’. And it doesn’t feel forced. From the moment you meet Kasuga, you know him. You know how he is going to act. You know what he wants and his way of doing things. Kasuga is a really nice guy. His slightly distorted opinion on what Yakuza should be, seeing himself more as a hero than the villain society paints him as, allows Kasuga to conduct his Yakuza duties whilst staying true to what he believes. In the first hour, this is shown when he is asked to collect on a debt and, instead of just taking the man’s money, he cares for his situation and instead finds a loophole to give the guy more time to pay. His partner Mitsu even remarks that Kasuga lets his opponents get a hit in when he fights someone; just to make things fair.
A little stupid. Painfully optimistic. Incredibly respectful of those he loves. Loyal to a fault. Kasuga is the distillation of every RPG hero’s good traits placed into the mould of a Yakuza game. And it works.
You know what else? Kasuga’s personality is brought out even further thanks to the way this game handles side quests, known as side stories. These aren’t (usually) the side activities we mentioned above but are instead small stories that involve the player interacting with the people of Izesaki Ijincho; helping with their problems if he can and supporting them if he can’t. Not all of these side stories have happy endings; they’re not supposed to. What they do indeed do is portray Kasuga as the everyman. A man of the people. The Citizen Khan of the community. His empathy and love towards others make Kasuga approachable. His friendliness allows the people to let him in and ask this relative stranger for help. From helping a man get through town (naked) because he left his clothes in a Soapland to helping a homeless man get his life together so he can woo the woman of his dreams, Kasuga will do anything to make others happy. And it’s this personality of his that makes the player want to engage in this world and the stories of the people who live there.
So Kasuga is great, right? You’re probably now wondering: ‘What about the rest of the characters?’. Don’t worry, success four has you covered.
Success 4: Ichiban’s Party Members and Important Supporting Characters
Not only is Kasuga an incredible protagonist, but the people he surrounds himself with are also stand-out, especially compared to many other open-world RPG games. And, whilst I would still say the characters in Final Fantasy 7 Remake just edge it for me, the eclectic blend of friend and foe in this game does a great deal to endear this game to the player.
Unlike Final Fantasy 7 Remake, I am not going to go through each character one by one because I frankly cannot be bothered to remark on over 50 important characters in the detail I would likely want to. Instead, I’m just going to pick out my favourites. Okay? (And if any of you actually want deep dives on the story and every character, let me know).
A former police officer who is the only man to wait around to meet Kasuga when he is finally released from his 18-year long incarceration. Adachi joins Kasuga’s little party as he believes that the conspiracy behind Kasuga’s prison sentence and his patriarch might be linked to the man who had Adachi demoted to no more than a desk jockey; the current police commissioner. Believing Kasuga is his only method of exposing the wrongdoings of the corrupt police commissioner, he throws all of his chips into the Kasuga pot and quickly learns to trust his new, likeable friend. Throughout the story, it does sometimes feel as if Adachi’s quest is forgotten and put on the back burner, Adachi is a stalwart and committed companion who seems to be relishing the excitement and action that this quest brings him after years stuck behind a desk.
Whilst he is a useful combat tool, I didn’t use Adachi as much as other characters when they became available. This was mostly due to my choice to use Adachi as a tank. The game isn’t particularly difficult so I often found having a slow tank was never really worth as much as having a faster character deal extra damage.
This was until I made him a host. There is nothing funnier than a man pushing 60 being seen as an alluring sex symbol; seducing the yakuza that oppose the party before drowning them in a tsunami of champagne. Whilst not the obvious choice for this character, making him a host really helped in the final few battles in a way that keeping him as a tank would never have provided.
The final thing to note about Adachi is that he is simply a really nice guy. Each character in the party has a scene where they discuss themselves and their troubled past once their bond with Kasuga is high enough. Adachi’s story goes deeper into his vendetta regarding the police commissioner Horounuchi and why his disdain for the man is so large. The commissioner, so hungry for power, let an innocent man die despite Adachi’s misgivings and then demoted Adachi to the middle of nowhere to silence him. Adachi’s guilt for the man’s death led to him supporting the man’s son financially despite his limited financial capabilities. Yes, this is all a bit cheesy and the final bond clip is a little contrived (the fact the son knew about Adachi helping him despite Adachi going to great lengths to hide this) but, in terms of making Adachi a likeable and relatable party member, yeah, this does a good job. Adachi= good guy.
The sole mandatory female party member, Saeko is introduced almost immediately after the party has saved her sister Nanako from a scam involving her father’s retirement home and I still don’t entirely understand why she chose to join the party to begin with. She is portrayed as a lonely mama, the woman in charge of other women at a Japanese snack bar or maybe a shadier establishment, and she places her trust in Ichiban due to his, Adachi and Nanba’s incredibly selfless effort to help Nanako, a woman they had never even met. Saeko is strong-willed, knows what she wants and, despite being a little prickly, truly values the relationship that she and her new friends have begun building.
I used Saeko pretty much every battle after she joined the party, with her base class being decently strong before re-speccing her as an idol, this games primary healing class. Whilst I did toy with a couple of other classes for, at the higher levels, idols not only become healing Gods but get a couple of special moves that can also help you deal out the damage to those spongy late-game enemies.
Moving onto her special bond conversations, Saeko clues Ichiban in on how she ended up in this part of town, far from glamourous and essentially a night-life district, and the strained relationship with her sister. As a fairly powerful mama, Saeko has a lot of women who work or have worked for her over the years and her relationship with them creates a sort of network in which she uses for reconnaissance and general snooping. Through her network, she discovers that her sister’s scumbag boyfriend is extorting her for money and guilting her into staying in a clearly abusive relationship and the bond conversations involve Saeko and Ichiban discussing how to go about it.
This is Yakuza 7; you just go beat the guy up.
Saeko doesn’t take credit for this and instead allows one of the ex-boyfriend’s lackeys, who had turned against the extortioner out of his affection for Nanako, to give her the news and take credit for helping her. Saeko clearly cares for her family and those around her but is okay selflessly abandoning her own happiness in pursuit of helping others come to terms with the ups and downs of life. She shows genuine affection to Ichiban and his child-like positivity and she becomes more open and positive as the story progresses because of him. You can romance her, in a way, but you don’t lose anything if you choose not to. This game isn’t about pairing and romance; it’s about the joys of friendship. And Saeko’s relationship is a great personification of this.
In Izesaki Ijincho, there are 3 crime organisations keeping the peace through a tenuous cold war agreement. They are the Seiryu clan, a typical group of Japanese yakuza led by a grizzled, experienced man known as Chairman Hoshino, the Yokohama Luimang, a Chinese-Japanese mafia led by Tianyou Zhao, and the Geomijul, a Korean organisation led by the wonderful Seong-Hui. From this basic explanation, you can confirm that yes, Zhao led one of the primary antagonistic forces of the early to mid-game but joins the party about two-thirds of the way through the narrative.
Whilst initially appearing very antagonistic towards Ichiban and the party, as well as a little unhinged and overly violent, once Zhao is lifted of his burden of leading this Chinese criminal organisation and instead joins up with Ichiban, he can allow his more mellow, true self to shine through. And the pressure obviously got to this guy because he is a completely different person once he leaves the madness of the mafia.
Zhao was often the fourth member of my party when fighting important battles but he was also the one I changed if I needed a specific need filled (such as Adachi as a host, for example). With his unique class gangster gifting him a high attack stat for up-close combat damage, I didn’t feel the need to change him from this default. His sword attacks can be devastating and his late-game special attacks pack more than a punch but I did find his usefulness wane in favour of characters who could attack faster.
This was until he unlocked a move where he hits every opponent with a ladder and I was tearing through mobs in seconds.
On to Zhao’s drink link now and I found this one to probably be the strongest of the bunch. Zhao’s role in the story is immense and it is interesting to get an insight into a character who is as unhinged on the outside as he is. Through these alcohol-induced conversations, you learn that the aggressive Zhao is just a front and that he was just carrying on the legacy his father had forced on him. The reason that Zhao was forced to leave the Chinese mafia was due to a coup by his second-in-command and sworn brother Mabuchi Akira and he is a constant topic of conversation here. The drink links end with Mabuchi attempting to kill Zhao so he can regain his standing in the underworld.
Zhao finally snaps at a man he has tried so hard to protect and essentially scares him out of town before he returns to his normal, passive, beta self. Zhao is a tease. Zhao is playful. Zhao has a great deal of baggage and is relatable all the more so because of it. Zhao is great.
Much like Zhao, Joon-Gi Han is a member of an opposing organisation that joins up with Kasuga to defend the town from a bigger threat in the final third of the narrative. A high-ranking member in the Geomijul, Joon-Gi Han joins Kasuga and his party on the command of the beautiful Geomijul leader Seong-Hui. Having already saved the party earlier on, Joon-Gi Han quickly became an important member of the team. Mysterious but happy to joke around, his unique upbeat personality gels well with Saeko, Zhao and the rest.
In combat, this guy is a beast. He is incredibly fast, hits hard and evades a ridiculous number of attacks. I found myself able to take out at least one, if not multiple thugs easily through the speed of this guy and the power his special moves can pack. Honestly, if this guy went down, I would panic and change my tactics to reviving him straight away. Yakuza 7 is not a particularly difficult game but when it does become difficult, Joon-Gi Han will be the shoulder you can lean on.
Onto the drink links and this guy is… odd. I mean, this is my first game so the stuff that relates to the Jingweon Mafia of Yakuza 6 but basically, this is a different character from the one who appears there and was instead his body double thanks to his dad’s disgusting obsession with power. Most of the links lead to us learning more about this fake Joon-Gi Han’s past and why he still identifies as a dead man. Though it becomes contrived when the former Jingweon Mafia members hunt him down and, instead of simply destroying them, he opts to help them become members of the Geomijul, a place that he remarks is for all of those who have been left behind. Whilst clearly hurt from his difficult past, Joon-Gi Han is forward-looking and a good-enough guy to make him likeable. Honestly, while I prefer him for his combat acumen and his boss’s… assets, his personality does enough to make him an important part of Kasuga’s entourage.
Warning. I’m about to say something pervy.
I find this woman very attractive. Realllly attractive.
I mean, I dunno, man. The faces in this game aren’t great. None of the characters look stand out compared to other AAA games. But there’s just something about this woman that gets me excited.
Okay. After that little spell of oversharing, we can talk about her personality a little more. Upon first meeting this powerful woman, the leader of the Geomijul, she appears flirtatious towards Kasuga before switching to aggressive and ruthless when she has the party where she wants them. Her treatment of Nanba to protect her and the other of the Ijin Three’s secret shows that despite her appearance and her flirtatious attitude, she is still the leader of a very prominent gang,
However, this ruthlessness belies the kindness and warmth she actually possesses. The issue with Nanba is due to his investigation of the Geomijul because of his brother’s disappearance. But instead of killing Nanba’s brother, he keeps him alive, getting him to work for the organisation and actually hooking him up with a female member of the organisation who he wishes to marry. Far from being a brutal gang tyrant, Seong-Hui instead runs the organisation as a method of self-preservation for her and her men. A place to go for those who have been abandoned and left behind.
Unfortunately, despite a tease in chapter 9, you never get to play as her and she instead acts as a supportive NPC for the majority of the narrative. And whilst it would have been cool to have a second (mandatory) female party member along for the ride, Joon-Gi Han is hardly a disappointing alternative.
But he doesn’t look as good as her.
You aren’t meant to like this guy. The first scene with Jo has him bollocking Kasuga over his kindness and lack of results when it comes to being a Yakuza. You supposedly cover for him and take an 18-year prison sentence for the man before coming out. He then proceeds to fight you in an attempt to keep you from your patriarch. Even later on in the story, after we fight him for the final time, we learn his backstory and nothing there paints this man as good. He abandoned his child in a coin locker simply because he didn’t want it. He didn’t really care.
Until he did.
The story of Sawashiro is a tragedy and shows what the storytellers can do when they attempt to play a storyline straight. A lot of the wackyness in this title adds to the charm but, sometimes, its nice to see a Yakuza story that doesn’t have that happy ending.
I promised spoilers. Here is a doozy.
Arakawa Masumi, Kasuga’s patriarch, his son… is not his son. He is Sawashiro’s. Kasuga is actually Arakawa’s son. But a mix up at the coin-lockers led to this fate being a secret to all but Sawashiro. Damn. He could have told someone. But what good would it have done? Sawashiro, perhaps in a cruel twist of fate, resigned himself to the Yakuza life and chose to follow Arakawa, for the sole reason of attempting to atone for the sin of his son. Oh, by that I mean that the coin locker caused severe damage to the child’s lungs and left him stuck in a wheelchair. Yep. Dark.
Even as Sawashiro ends up in prison, the turn gets darker as his son orders his death. Kasuga stops this but up until the very last moment, nobody knew the truth but Sawashiro and Kasuga. Sawashiro carries baggage and it is that baggage that makes him interesting. Stuck in prison serving life might very well be the atonement he deserved, but even I feel a twinge of pity for this flawed, flawed man.
Kasuga’s light. The man he aspires to be. His patriarch. Well, and his dad, but he didn’t know that until after he passed on.
Yep, the spoilers fly fast in the Thunderdome.
Arakawa is shown as the perfect gang leader. He cares for his men and protects them in any way he can. He, like Kasuga, has a romantic view of what a yakuza should be; acting as the cities sort of underworld protector more than a plague on society. He even makes the greatest sacrifice by abandoning his honour and engaging in a plan to betray his lead clan (The Tojo) in order to help his son reach his lofty goals.
This turns out to be a ploy, however, and the old man was in complete control… until he wasn’t. Arakawa’s death means something because it is unexpected. It comes after the big fight; in the moment of respite. There is no real foreshadowing but it goes to show the danger of being Yakuza exists even when the Yakuza organisations, don’t. His death hurts the player as much as it does Kasuga. This man raised Kasuga to be the man he is; the likeable protagonist who has charmed you for about 30-35 hours at this point. And this sucker punch lands spectacularly.
There are many, many other characters I could pick out and mention. I didn’t mention Nanba, one of the party members and a main driving force for the mid-section of the story, because I frankly don’t like him very much. In a game with as many characters, as this one has, it would be unrealistic to get every character to land with every player. But, most of them do. Seriously, this section could comfortably be double, if not triple, this length and I would still be missing out on large chunks of the cast. But, for the sake of brevity (5000 words at this point counts as brief), I will attempt to move on.
From the most minor of bartender to the woman who puts you in charge of her company, Yakuza 7 is good because of its characters, not in spite of it.
And you know what brings these characters out of their shells? The narrative, of course!
Success 5: The main story
Yakuza: Like A Dragon has a very strong narrative. It’s the thing that initially engaged me the most. Much like a game by the poser Hideo Kojima, this game doesn’t shy away from long cutscenes the exposit and provide flashbacks for the character’s past actions. Cutscenes that go over ten minutes in length aren’t uncommon here and I often found myself just putting the controller down and watching these scenes like a movie. This is a risky thing to do in a video game but, you know what, it works here because the narrative is engaging. Extremely so.
I have already spoken about the plight of Kasuga Ichiban and his struggles in the first 3 hours; taking him from the love of his family to rock bottom in a garbage dump. This 3 hour period is probably 1/4 cutscene. Yes, you can skip through some of the dialogue but I wouldn’t trust anybody who does such a thing.
The most interesting part of this story, however, is how it builds. You ARE at rock bottom and it is up to the player to move the story along so you can escape it. Kasuga goes from homeless to finding a new family he can vibe with and a new town to call home after he was so cruelly abandoned. Kasuga carries the story through with his personality and character strong enough to do so. This story would not happen without him. He forces the Ijin Three to move through his actions. He brings a diverse group of people together under one roof to fight and protect his beliefs. He slowly but surely learns about the delicate power balance in Ijincho and the tenuous agreement that is keeping the peace.
Then he learns about Masato Arakawa and all hell breaks loose.
In around Chapter Ten, after hours and hours of Kasuga roaming around Ijincho meeting and greeting everybody he comes across and helping most of them, whilst trying to save Nanba from some assassins (long story, don’t worry about it), Kasuga stumbles across a picture of Aoki Ryo; the Governor of Tokyo who enforced the law to drive Yakuza out of Kamuracho with the help of the older Arakawa. Except it isn’t Aoki Ryo.
It is Arakawa Masato. The Arakawa’s son.
This twist does enough to change the parties goals entirely. We change tack from simply fighting our way up the ladder to fighting to protect one that Kasuga’s cares about from doing something he will regret.
But that isn’t important right now. It will be later, but not right now. For now, all I want you to bear in mind is that, yes about 80% of this story is very good indeed. It’s not perfect and it is bolstered by the game’s strong implementation of side content, but the core Yakuza storyline is a rollercoaster. A good one.
So this is what Yakuza does right. I’d like to apologise here for some of the stuff I have written above. This game is certainly very good but I have found my structure rather inflexible when attempting to analyse this particular game. I believe that in an ideal world, I would have covered the story beat by beat, each character analysed in detail and then avoid such sweeping cliches such as ‘ it’s good. And I will make a pledge now, if this blog ever reaches 1000 subscribers, I will write an extensive review of Yakuza 7. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve done too brief of a job but there is this little itch inside of me that thinks I could have done more. Regardless, we must continue to soldier on. And soldiering on fits in well with what I have to say about the negatives this game holds. A lot of the time, I had to force myself to start up the PS5 and jump back in. This was mostly in the mid-game, in what I like to call ‘The Assasins Creed Plateau. The game becomes predictable and you have to make the decision: do you call it quits here or do you power through the mud in the hope that something is shining on the other side. I clearly chose to power through but let this illuminate for you that these let-downs could very easily cause people to stop playing.
Enough waffling. Get to it.
Let-Down 1: Combat is fun but only to a point
I am a big fan of turn-based RPG combat. Whilst I have mixed feelings about the game, Bravely Default 2 is my most played Switch game of this year and that is mostly down to the combat. I love the atelier games and this, up until the most recent two games, was a series using turn-based combat. I still love Dragon Quest despite its often basic turn-based combat because it is fun. However, the turn-based combat in Yakuza 7 doesn’t connect as well for me. Please do not get me wrong here, it is fun to fight in Yakuza 7. But this fun doesn’t last the duration of the run. Not even close. The problem here isn’t so much the combat itself but the balance of combat and story. Honestly, I found once I got into a rhythm the combat was never really a burden but I can never say I looked forward to combat gauntlet coming up.
The main draw of this franchise is the freedom to waste time when you want and these dungeon style gauntlets never really clicked with me right. Plus, dodging battles is very hard to do. In Dragon Quest (the more recent ones, anyway), you can easily dodge battles you want to avoid. In Yakuza 7, that is almost impossible as almost every thug can spot you from a mile off so you’re better off just trouncing them with special moves and moving on with your day.
The combat could also have been bolstered by a better job system. Whilst there are a variety of jobs to unlock for each character, the locks on each (based on level and bond with Kasuga) put you in a place where the job you have chosen early is worth keeping because you have already levelled it up. It is not often worth changing jobs because you will be at a disadvantage until that one levels up as well. It’s a system that works very well on paper but just isn’t all that fun to play around with.
And that sums up the combat in general. I have never really played any of the other games in the series but even I struggle to understand why they chose to move away from action combat. It just seems to fit the Yakuza tone. Your characters pull off wacky, action-heavy attacks but it never felt as kinetic and engaging as it probably should have. I like turn-based combat and this system is good; I just don’t think it’s found the right home with Yakuza.
Let-Down 2: Graphical disconnect and some moments where the game looks dated
Shenmue. Sonic Adventure. Phantasy Star. The Dreamcast era boasted a jump in graphics compared to the competitors at the time (PS1, N64). However, this little lead that SEGA built up was short-lived and the PS2, Gamecube and Xbox left my beloved Dreamcast in the dust. One thing that has lasted from these games (despite them being very fun) is that the faces all look very… SEGA. SEGA seem to have a unique way of designing characters. They look realistic to a point but all look cartoony enough to not be off-putting.
But they don’t look pretty.
In this modern triple-A landscape, where people call developers lazy for having inaccurate hair physics, I am loathed to criticise the visuals too much. However, I just think this game is graphically pretty poor. It looks very Shenmue 3 to me. Heck, I think if Shenmue 1 were created in 2020, it would have looked just like Yakuza: Like A Dragon. Please don’t think I’m ragging on Shenmue. It’s a fun if not a little odd game but it was never a looker.
Some may counter me by saying games don’t need to look good to be fun. And you’re right. But a game that tries to be as cinematic as this one, needs it more than most. Some of the more important cutscenes clearly got more work, but the in-game conversations and mouth movements, all feel off. Some of the NPC’s are downright ugly to look at. Yes, it creates an art style that makes the series identifiable. I just wish that look wasn’t hit in the face with a brick.
Luckily, the main cast and the important side characters (Seong-Hui) escape this fate and the city itself is detailed and often very pleasant to explore. I’m probably expecting too much here but the uncanniness can really be offputting and, whilst not a dealbreaker, it did enough to put this thought at the forefront of my mind during most play sessions. And that, I’m afraid, is a let-down.
Let-Down 3: The story (Peters out, unnecessary fan-service, more plot
Yes, I know I said the story was one of the highlights of the game but it doesn’t mean it can’t be a letdown as well. Besides, this is my review and I’ll write it how I want. The story does start strong and the main narrative is a fun ride all the way to the final hours. However, it doesn’t mean that I don’t think it could do more. Yakuza: Like a Dragon is carried by its side content. If you were to just play the main story, I believe that you would be a little let-down by the experience as it can be quite by the numbers. This is shown near the end of the story where I believe it peters out and becomes a little bit of a slog.
I think the main problem is the writers have attempted to put so many plot threads in place that making them all make enough sense and giving them enough time to grow was nigh on impossible. For example, there is an election in Ijincho in the final 10 hours of the game and you have to raise enough money to find a candidate to run against the antagonist.
But this is interrupted by some combat scenes before being remembered after the big action sequence and then hurriedly putting Ichiban in the role of the candidate instead. This could also have worked except they pull the same trick again by cutting the campaign short with a boss fight and an explosion to knock him out of the running once more.
The idea of a public election in a Yakuza game as a storyline has potential and could be a really interesting route to travel along but the game has so much underworld intrigue already that it feels like this was never seen through to its potential. This is the same with some of the other plot threads as well (such as the Omi Alliance and Tojo Clan’s being dissolved to prevent Aoki Ryo from controlling them) which leads to an interesting narrative setup with a payoff that doesn’t land.
Another thing I want to bitch about is the legacy character’s appearances in the story. 2 that I noticed were Kazama Kiryu and Goro Majima, both of which appear as difficult boss fights and help push the story towards the end game. I just don’t really know why they are here. In a game that is as new player friendly as this one, adding these characters in and speaking of previous plot points does nothing but confuse those you have encouraged to pick up this game. Kiryu helps you out more than Majima, and both appear as Poundmates, the equivalent of Final Fantasy summons. But, and this might be controversial, I don’t think this fan service adds anything to the story and the game would be missing nothing if these characters weren’t here. Yes, they’re good characters. But it is probably time for the series to leave its former golden boys in the past.
These missteps lead to the story feeling a little more fairweather than it should be. Like it is less than the sum of its parts. Like this story could have been excellent but only grows staler over time. And there is one story complaint I have. And that is a let-down all on its own.
Let-Down 4: The ending
The ending sucks, man. The story had so much potential but this is spoiled by the ending. Let me set the scene a little, Aoki Ryo/ Arakawa Masato has attempted to blow you up with the help of his new lacky Tendo but has failed. Kasuga hijacks the governor’s speech to goad him into searching for a voice recording incriminating Aoki in the murder of his father (Kasuga’s patriarch).
This doesn’t exist and is an obvious trap. Kasuga plays on the fear of the unknown and the threat of it existing that Aoki takes the bait. We are then forced into a long combat gauntlet, which is fine for the most part, and then a boss fight against Aoki’s new top man and the murderer of Kasuga’s patriarch, Tendo.
This fight is bullshit. Any fight that involves one-hit kill moves is intrinsically unfun. When Kasuga dying means a party wipe, this feeling is more than tripled. Up to this point, I had been wiped out once; which was when I stumbled into a high-level area at, like, level 7 and tried to fight. Here, I got wiped 3 times by the same one-hit KO move after grinding away at the boss’s health for over ten minutes.
10 x 3= 30 minutes of wasted time + 15 minutes finally beating the boss= 45 minutes to beat one boss. Inflating a health bar is not a good way of making a boss harder and instead just acts to take you out of the moment and fight in an unrewarding, passive, tactical way.
Regardless, after you make your way through the jungle of bullshit, Aoki then appears and is duped by the party into admitting through his own words that he wants his enemies dead (i.e. incitement to commit murder. i.e. a pretty serious crime. i.e. career suicide). The idea is sound but the execution is off. To do this, the party relies on a tenuous link to a very minor character, Mirror Face, an assassin who had fought the party earlier and has the convenient ability to mask themselves as other people. In this situation, he pretends to be Tendo and gets Aoki to admit his plans whilst Joon-Gi Han records him.
Why would Mirror Face help Kasuga? Revenge, apparently. I don’t know, I would think that assassins would expect to be backstabbed when they live their whole lives in the underworld but I suppose I can let this slide as well.
What is more difficult to let go of is the fight between Kasuga and Ryo/ Masato. This fight is not supposed to be a challenge and is instead a symbolic and cinematic way to bring the narrative to a conclusive end. Yes, the fight is dull but that isn’t my issue here. My issue is for the first time since the opening of the game, you are forced to complete QTE’s (Quick Time Events). These are never fun and they aren’t fun here. You’re watching a cutscene then suddenly have to grab the controller and press the right button in a split second window. It isn’t lazy design but instead confusing design. I get that gaming is an interactive medium but I believe developers should have the confidence to let their stories breathe and actually be told. You don’t need to force me to jab the X button so Kasuga can punch Masato again. Just let him punch by himself.
So, after Kasuga beats Masato and knocks him to the floor from a whole storey higher (with no lasting injuries, amazingly), the police burst in and, in their incompetence, one is held hostage by a frantic Masato. He escapes the building and runs through town whilst evidence of his crime is plastered all around him. He knows he is screwed. Symbolically, he makes his way back to the coin lockers where he and Kasuga were left as children. Of course, Kasuga knew he would be there and is there to meet him. It is worth mentioning here that through the entirety of this endgame, Kasuga has been trying to talk Masato down instead of just beating him because he is the bad guy. Kasuga feels a familial bond to Masato and desperately begs him to give up and attempt to start anew. I mean, he would 100% go to prison for life but I’m willing to let this go, just because of what happens next. Kasuga, after, no joke 15 minutes of cumulative begging (in the final dungeon and now at the coin locker), Masato finally begins to yield and agrees to hand himself in. And then it happens.
I have decided to omit this pile of shit from my review to this point entirely because of this final scene. This scene is nonsensical, stupid and utterly pointless. Why oh why did they do this? You have taken a cliche but overall okay ending and made it an utter shitshow by…
Well. I’ll have you wait a bit longer whilst I introduce the man of the hour. Kume is a joke character. Aoki Ryo managed to clear Kamuracho of Yakuza partly due to the assistance of his father and partly due to the non-profit organisation he started known as Bleach Japan. This organisation is intended to ‘cleanse the grey zones of society’ in a populist movement that is eerily similar to real life. Before going into politics, Aoki inspired many young people to his cause through his personality and the general discontent of the young that littered Japan. Kume is one of those young cubs who believes wholeheartedly in Aoki’s plan.
Of course, who is he to know that Aoki is working with the Yakuza. I mean, Kume fought alongside these very Yakuza members 3 times during the story and hired thugs to beat up Kasuga but, yes, of course, he is a good guy. He’s just trying to bleach Japan of the grey zones by… entering the grey zone. Kume is a hypocrite and more importantly, Kume is a joke.
So that brings us to that scene. Yes. You guessed it. Kume stabs Aoki just as he yields to Kasuga. Problem 1: Kume had no way of knowing Aoki was here. It was a special spot for Masato and Kasuga alone so Kume had no way of finding out where they would be. Problem 2: Killing Masato seems contrived and only seemed to serve the image that follows (Kasuga picking up Masato and running him to the hospital, in the same way that Patriarch Arakawa did when he was a baby). Problem 3: Kume is the joke character, why did you involve him in any of this, you madmen? Problem 4: Why did you over-explain everything prior to this, create an excruciating long final gauntlet of combat and cutscenes only to stab any payoff that could have been had by Masato’s atonement in the back. The writers have killed any good feeling I could have had about this ending by killing the main antagonist of the game right in front of you. You can do nothing but watch.
This final scene is symbolic of the final 5-10 hours of gameplay. The story becomes hard to follow. Scenes over-explain everything. The scenes often explain what they have just shown you. I can assure you, the above section was written in the way it was not because I am a bad writer (which I am), but to attempt to show you that over-explanation of a point can be fatal to good, coherent writing. It draws all of the fun out of the experience. Yakuza 7 reminds me of Peppa Pig. In Peppa Pig, scenes where Peppa does something, comments on it and then the narrator says the same thing again, are common. This is the Yakuza 7 problem. The ending sucks and the storytelling hits the skids and, because of the early game potential, this is my biggest letdown.
So there are a lot of flaws here, right? Maybe even more than the obvious plusses that this open-world RPG brings. But that brings me to the crux of the matter…
The Crux of the Matter
This isn’t the perfect game. It is flawed. However, Yakuza 7 has the sort of charm that reminds me of one other game series… Dragon Quest. Despite the number of things that I disliked about this game, there was a charm and allure that kept me playing to the end, despite many moments where I thought quitting would have been justified. A game doesn’t have to be perfect to be fun. Yakuza 7 is a long way from perfect… but it is really fun.
And on that note, it is just down to me to give this game a score. And this is not easy to do because based solely on technical merits and sat on an objective soapbox, I would find myself giving the game a safe 6; with the demerits balancing the merits and leaving it at that. But that’s not what I’m about. I’m all about subjective tastes and opinions and my take on Yakuza 7 is that, despite its flaws, I had a lot of fun with it. Renowned journalist, YouTuber and video game creator Tim Rogers once remarked that Dragon Quest is the perfect bedtime game. A game you play for an hour after work but before bed. For me, Yakuza 7: Like A Dragon became that very game. And it is as such that it became a special one for me. A game that will last in my memory not because it is a technical masterpiece or a lesson in storytelling.
Because it’s not.
It will linger in my mind because it was fun. Because the characters were so engaging. Because the open world was filled to the brim with things to just waste your time on. Because Yakuza 7 is the video game fans video game.
Yakuza 7: Like a Dragon: 7.9/10– A flawed game that is fun in spite of its missteps.
I’ve been Benjamin Wagner and I endorse this message.