The Yakuza series is one that since I first discovered upon the release of Yakuza 0, has quickly become a personal favorite of mine. The mixture of eclectic stupidity and charming humor mixed with the sincerity of it all makes for a very unique experience. That being said, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that there’s never been a Yakuza game that I didn’t get bored of by the end, and every Yakuza plot is essentially the same. Yakuza: Like a Dragon, which I will be calling Yakuza 7 from now on, ambitiously changes the core gameplay of the long running franchise from brawler to turn-based JRPG. But does the change in genre benefit the game?
Yakuza 7 starts off with our main character, a Yakuza named Ichiban Kasuga who doesn’t understand how organized crime works being put in jail after taking the rap for one of the members of his crime family committing a murder and when he gets out, he realizes quickly that the world around him, and the world of the Yakuza specifically has changed and left him behind. I think that Ichiban as a character is what makes Yakuza 7 work so well. He’s the diametric opposite of long-running series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu. Ichiban is a bit of a hot-headed idiot, but he’s passionate, loyal to a fault and goofy enough that it really works. In fact, the entire cast is excellent and it carries the game. This is without a doubt one of my favorite parties in any JRPG period, and that’s saying a lot because I’ve played a stupid amount of JRPGs in my day.
The entire game is framed as an extension of Ichiban’s imagination where he envisions himself as the hero of a JRPG, specifically Dragon Quest, which I’m left wondering how much Square-Enix had to pay Sega to constantly mention. It has ridiculous amounts of creativity in how it presents RPG tropes as things in the real world, for example, with the Wizard class being a Homeless person who throws beans to summon pigeons. Mimics are dudes in trash bags, summons are using a cell phone to literally call in characters to attack your foes. This sense of ingenuity permeates every corner of the game, so much so that even though I didn’t find the core gameplay that enthralling, I still wanted to keep playing, if only to see what new weird enemies you can encounter.
The core gameplay isn’t bad, as it has enough of that Persona energy about it to make it engaging, and the way it tries to shuffle in elements that the series is known for previously is commendable. That being said, it’s also not particularly balanced. Some jobs are just blatantly better than others, especially the hitman class which is essentially the classic Thief job from standard RPGs, but then again, it wouldn’t be a class based JRPG if the Thief class wasn’t stupidly broken. A lot of the bosses just feel like wars of attrition more than requiring actual tactics, and any move that targets more than one enemy at a time might as well have been wasting a level up. People will compare Yakuza 7 to Dragon Quest and Persona the most, because that’s the most obvious influences, but it gave me more of an Earthbound vibe than anything. This is mainly because there are so few JRPGs that take place in the real-world setting, and the enemies aren’t dragons or fantasy creatures, they’re yakuza, street ruffians, chefs and corrupt politicians.
Of course, Yakuza games aren’t just about the main plot. The real fun in the Yakuza series comes from spending an hour playing the stupid ass golf mini-game or dicking around in the arcade at Club Sega trying to get a stuffed animal from the claw machines. Most Yakuza open worlds are little more than vessels for numerous side activities, and for what it’s worth, the sub-stories and mini games in this iteration are particularly good. There is also a version of the Persona 5 bonding system called drink links, and these are all really well done and serve to flesh out the characters and their relationships wonderfully. The overworld is fine, albeit it is a bit annoying when you’re getting constantly dragged into battles while trying to navigate the city, even long past the point of the basic enemies being about as threatening to you as openly breaking the law is to an American conservative’s political career.
The game is far from perfect as the middle chapters are an absolute slog, needing you to both grind out money and levels. In addition to my complaints about the combat, there are some severe difficulty spikes, especially near the end that make the game kind of frustrating. All of this might sink a lesser game, but Yakuza 7 skates by on the strength of its story and characters and the insane amount of creativity, humor and charm it has. It also coincidentally has the same issue that Persona games have where it doesn’t feel like the game really starts for about 3 to 4 hours.
Overall, while Yakuza 7 suffers from some pretty big pacing and structural problems, it makes up for it by being relentlessly inventive in how it turns the tropes of the JRPG genre on its head, in the same way that South Park: The Stick of Truth did for traditional RPGs. Ichiban is a great main character, and seeing as he will be taking over the mantle of series protagonist from Kiryu, I think the franchise is in great hands. Now that the Judgement games are going to continue the traditional Yakuza gameplay and the main series will continue to be turn-based JRPGs, I’m excited for how they can improve the core gameplay and concept from here on out. And maybe Ichiban can internalize a more modern JRPG than Dragon Quest next time.