Yakuza: Like a Dragon converts the street-brawling action of the Yakuza series into traditional, turn-based JRPG combat. I'm usually a big supporter of game franchises reinventing themselves, especially at natural break points like the arrival of a new protagonist - but I was filled with more dread than joy when I first heard the news last year. After Sega took me on a lengthy tour of the combat system, I have some hope again. This might be the first JRPG I ever finish.
I'm not ashamed to admit it. I've never completed a Persona, a Dragon Quest, a Final Fantasy, or even a Pokemon. Not for lack of trying! I've started dozens of JRPGs, sometimes multiple times each, but I never get much more than halfway through before losing interest. I think my record is probably still Final Fantasy 6, which I abandoned just before the big turning point in the middle of the game when I got frustrated with a boss. My main hurdle is, of course, turn-based combat. It always takes too long even if you're just fighting some rando low-powered monster, and it always seems to vacillate between pointlessly easy battles of rote tactics and a giant 'You Must Grind This Much To Advance' sign.
Then there are all the annoying random encounters, the long lists of equipment that make barely perceptible adjustments to long lists of stats, the massive stories that require dozens of hours of commitment and so much dialogue. Those get me too. But when the initial shock of the combat changes wore off, I realized I was already perfectly fine with all those other JRPG things when Yakuza does them. All those Kamurocho toughs chasing after me for no good reason are random encounters. All those Comfy Soles and Military-grade Belts are just armor. I've put literally hundreds of hours into Kiryu's story at this point and I've only played from Yakuza 0 to Yakuza 3 (I'm working on it).
So it comes down to the combat. The question is, after watching a roughly hour-long hands-off preview of Yakuza: Like A Dragon, do I believe that picking attacks from a menu can make a satisfying replacement for grabbing a thug and hitting Triangle to slam him butt-first onto a bollard?
The Mad Dog of Menus
The battles I saw all used a full party, composed of the floofy haired new hero Ichiban Kasuga and three trusted comrades. The fights start in the usual Yakuza manner - either a cinematic standoff leads to fisticuffs or a bunch of jerks want to fight you in the street for no good reason - and the action ticks over directly to combat in the same environment. Each character automatically moves to circle their opponents, with the current active character cycling through your party and the bad guys on a predetermined initiative order.
When one of the good guys is up, you can do a standard attack or spend some of your MP on a special skill. Skills include everything from big bat swings to powder puff bodyslams to liquor-breath flamethrowers, some of which can affect multiple enemies based on positioning or be powered up by pulling off timed button presses. You can also execute a gig-economy summon by calling Postmates, which lets you bring in cameo assists from recurring characters like Gary Buster Holmes in exchange for a set yen fee.
Each character's attacks and abilities are largely determined by their current Job. If you have even half of the JRPG mental block that I do, this is probably the part where you're ready to bounce faster than a Final Fantasy Dragoon. But Yakuza might have an answer for that too; not by removing the long list of skill requirements and special abilities, but by tying each job to its own quests. For instance, you can pick up the mantle of Part-Time Hero, which will let you answer calls for help from distressed citizens around the city.
Other job options for Kasuga include Bodyguard, Chef, and Breaker (as in breakdancer). I don't think I'll ever have the kind of brain that enjoys creating synergized skill strategies and optimizing statistical growth across Jobs, but I know from experience that Yakuza tells some of its most affecting, memorable, and funny tales in "optional" side content like this. I can't wait to see what shenanigans will ensue as Kasuga and the gang pursue their part-time careers.
Like a Dragon Quest
I'm still torn about whether I would have preferred Yakuza: Like a Dragon just kept going with the combat of its predecessors. It was finely honed but undeniably well worn after so many years of relatively minor revisions. Having taken a long look at Like a Dragon's new JRPG combat, I'm more hopeful.
I don't know if I'll ever get to the point where I prefer waiting my turn then picking a move off of a menu to the satisfaction of building that heat bar in real time, picking up a giant traffic cone, and then just wrecking somebody with it. But I do know this game is still the Yakuza I love, the Yakuza I've already put hundreds of hours into and plan to spend hundreds more catching up with. I mean, have you heard of how long Yakuza 5 is supposed to be? I've made the commitment.
A little thing like a new way to fight isn't going to put me off my long, strange trip through fictional melodramas of the Japanese underworld. After years spent peacing out of JRPGs, I think this is finally gonna be the one.