Sega gave me a chance to play Yakuza: Like a Dragon early, and the first thing I did was look a gift horse in its English-speaking mouth. I knew the preview was probably going to start with English as the default, but I still made a face until I could change the voice acting language to Japanese - like I was used to from the hundreds of hours I spent kicking ass and raising orphans in previous games.
Thankfully, it's easy to swap voice languages in the middle of a playthrough. I played with Japanese voices for 10 or 15 minutes and everything was right in the world. Then I realized I was just doing the comfortable thing. It would have been more comfortable if Yakuza: Like a Dragon still had its trusty old protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, or didn't totally change up its combat system, but here we are. This is a time to give new things I shot. And besides, this is the first Yakuza game with a full English dub since Mark Hamill oozed malice as Goro Majima in the original. That has to at least be worth a try.
Yakuza's localization has come a long way since 2006. Like a Dragon follows the same model set forth in Judgment, the last game from Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio: the English subtitles and the English voice script diverge in points to play to the strength of both mediums. After I overcame my purist sneering, I was able to appreciate the English voice work. It feels as natural as one could expect, the characters are distinct, and the script itself deftly rides that trademark Yakuza line between melodrama, oddball humor, and genuinely touching conversations.
I'm probably going to stick with Japanese in the full game, but I already know there will be some moments that make me miss the English: the little conversations your party members can have out in the world, for example, which wouldn't require a quick reading break if I could just listen to what they were saying. That feeling of wandering around a Japanese city is a big part of Yakuza's appeal for me, though, and it isn't quite the same when nobody's speaking the language. Yakuza: Like a Dragon's Yokohama is a lovely place to wander.
Take in the sights
Yakuza has always been a fantastic Japanese tourism simulator, and there's never been a better time to take a walk around its rendition of Yokohama than in the travel-starved time of late 2020. Don't be fooled: this is not a tourism-board-approved destination. The rivers are full of garbage and slick with oil, half of the buildings are run down, and forgotten people try to live as best they can in encampments on the side of the street. It isn't played for gritty shocks or cynical humor, thank God. It's just life.
Wandering the streets feels different with a party of four following you everywhere you go. There was something to be said for the lonely-in-a-crowd feeling of late nights in Kamurocho, but it's nice to have company too. And as always, there are plenty of new folks to meet out on the streets. There are people in need of a rescue, surprisingly charismatic crawfish, and the owner of a classic movie theater who can't stand when people fall asleep in the middle of a movie.
If that last example sounds oddly specific, it's because it leads directly into what may be Yakuza: Like a Dragon's strangest new minigame: our new hero Kasuga Ichiban is terrible at staying awake during movies. In order to take in each classic film and absorb its character-building (and stat-building) message, you have to fight off legions of "REM Rams" who pop up in the seats around him and try to lull him to sleep. You do this by pounding their respective buttons in time, while avoiding the "Alarm Cock" roosters who want to help you. Yakuza doesn't usually get quite this surrealist, but this is also a game where you summon rains of crawfish to pinch and poison your enemies.You can't always lean on your crustacean friends.
Roll through the fights
Most of the time, you handle street brawls with your fists (or bats, or umbrellas, or whatever weapons your party members have equipped). Either way, it's all managed with a turn-based combat system. It still looks like the usual Yakuza combat, with the belligerents circling around and grabbing junk off the street to clobber each other, but it plays like a turn-based JRPG.
A Persona-style button menu offers quick access to standard attacks, special skills, and so on. The specifics of how each character fights are determined by their current Job; that's a Job both in the Final Fantasy sense of something that gives you special abilities and influences stats, and a Job in the sense that they're all part-time work (your entire party in Yakuza: Like a Dragon is eternally broke). You might naturally gravitate toward ass-kicking Bodyguards and Enforcers for their combat strength, but trust me when I say a Chef or a Hostess can kick just as much ass with their tricks of the trade.
Turn-based battles are another big change for Yakuza, and after rolling through a boss battle and about a dozen street fights, I'm... fine with it? I'll be the first to admit that I don't typically enjoy traditional JRPG combat, but at least Like a Dragon's fights move quickly. I also appreciate the in-fiction explanation that our new hero isn't a one-man, mob-demolishing army like the last one was, so he has to coordinate with his allies. I'm not sure I'm having more fun this way, mind, but it works. I'm glad the developers are trying new things after a decade of incremental changes.
That's where I am now. The brief time I had with a pre-release version of Yakuza: Like a Dragon was never going to be enough to convince me that I'll enjoy the new voice acting options, the new hero, the new battles more than the ones that I'm already so deeply invested in. It was enough to make me excited to see more.
I love it when longstanding franchises keep reinventing themselves. It's thrilling to have no idea where the Yakuza after this one is going to go. What other old standbys will it replace? What new ideas from Like a Dragon will it set aside? Will Kasuga still be the main hero, or is this the start of a new age of rotating protagonists? I've never been more excited to be a Yakuza fan.