Developer: Ryu ga Gotoku Studios
Release Date: 11/10/2020
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You play as Ichiban Kasuga. A naive young yakuza member who ends up in politics of his yakuza family and then later the entire country of Japan’s government. The story is incredibly well written and directed, and I was hooked from beginning to end, at least the story and characters. I love the characters here as they have tons of heart, soul, and personality that make you want to see them through to the end of their journey. The first three chapters of the game are pretty much story and character building. In fact, I didn’t really get to do anything outside of watching cut scenes for the first three hours of the game. I just ran to spots that triggered them and I watched this complex web of characters build their story up, and I wasn’t upset as I was glued to my screen the whole time.
This is the first time I’ve finished a Yakuza game and a rare completion of a JRPG. Usually, JRPGs have great stories and characters, but something within the game keeps me from finishing it. Be it unfair and insane difficulty, too much grinding or late-game issues pop up like needing to quest for something very specific and it makes the progression grind to a halt. Like a Dragon is the first in the series to play like a JRPG and not an action game. The story is fantastic and the characters are well written and memorable, but that’s probably the strongest thing going for the game, and it’s the reason why I slumped through the late game issues to see it through to the end.
Once you get past a certain point in the story, honestly I can’t say anything as every little detail could be a major spoiler, you finally get let loose in the world. However, with this being a JRPG let’s talk about combat first. The game is played in a turned-based style, but characters move around on their own in the arenas. Depending on your job you have various skills that can cause major damage, and this is super important and the core of the entire game. While base attacks are fine early on in the game, they don’t do much later on and you start relying on skills that all use MP whether they’re physical or magic-based. Each attack has a type such as magic, slashing, piercing (guns), bashing, or blunt (physical) attacks. Some attacks might have elemental attributes attached to them, but you really must balance your team. You need characters that can heal, do large AoE damage, and do lots of damage to single enemies. It’s important you have a class that can do one of each of those things as it’s key to winning battles.
Early on in the game, the difficulty feels perfect. There were some challenges, I had to use strategy, really focus on ranking up my character’s jobs, and learning enemy weaknesses. This is also a key point in the battle system. Like a Dragon mocks or makes fun of other games like Pokemon. Early on you come across someone similar to Professor Oak and the entire scene plays out like the beginning of every Pokemon game. It’s pretty funny. The point of this is you acquire a bestiary of each enemy type and when you fight in battle and discover a weakness it will appear over the character when you select that attack. This is vital to winning boss fights and harder battles late game or just in general.
Ranking up your job is more important than leveling up your character honestly. This determines your max health, how powerful your attacks are, and learning new attacks. You get more powerful attacks as you rank up, but the downside is once you change a job you start from the bottom on that job. So you have to grind that job to level it up, and late-game this is incredibly tedious, but more on the late-game problems later. There are thankfully no random battles, but enemies walk around outside that can be avoided. When you fight enemies the environment is also important as smaller areas are great for attacks that do AoE damage and it allows you to wipe out enemies faster in bigger groups.
Outside of combat, there are a ton of mini-games like in every Yakuza game. Karaoke, classic Sega arcade games in Club Sega, crane games, driving ranges, go-karts, and many others. They’re fun at first, but there’s not really any reason to do these mini-games outside of acquiring items. Items are also an important part to combat as the most powerful armor and weapons are almost unobtainable until you can start raking in serious cash at the Battle Arena in chapter 12 and fighting the more powerful enemies late game. You can also upgrade Ichiban’s weapons (only his weapons can be upgraded) and well as craft new items, but honestly, this is only needed if you can’t afford to buy them. There are no unique weapons or armor that can be crafted exclusively, at least that I noticed, and once I started raking in serious cash in the millions I just bought everything and crafting became pointless towards the end of the game.
There are shops and restaurants scattered everywhere and I didn’t pay attention to these too much until the late game. Restaurants can fully restore your health and MP, and bulking up on recovery items become super important late game as well. I didn’t really use many of these until then as the game felt perfectly balanced, and the right strategies can keep you alive. There are a couple of pawnshops that allow you to sell items, and this is how you make most of your money early on in the game. You start out digging for Yen under vending machines and eventually start earning a small amount of money to buy recovery items and cheap gear. There are also sub-stories like in every Yakuza game that is shown as chat icons on the map. These give you items and cash and are mostly pointless once you get the late game, and the stories aren’t interesting at all. You also have extra side missions that can get you larger amounts of cash called Hero Quests. This is mostly for completionists in the end, but the entire reason this is a JRPG is that Ichiban can see enemies as monsters with different uniforms. It’s “in his head because he feels life is like Dragon Quest“. It’s super silly and a lame excuse to make a realistic game have a fantasy twist, but what other excuse were the developers going to use?
As you progress through the first eleven chapters hopping around taxis to fast travel to spots, unraveling the story, ranking up your jobs, leveling characters, acquiring new armor and weapons and items, and all this sounds like a normal JRPG affair, but then chapter twelve comes and knocks you on your ass. This is when most people will probably quit the game as it turns into a completely different beast and the way you play must change. This is the worst part about the game, and I don’t see how this was necessary. The game had a perfect flow and difficulty level leading up to this chapter. The first sign hits you when you must acquire 3 million Yen for a specific reason in the story. By now you probably have a couple hundred thousand yen at the most. How am I going to get this much money as street thugs don’t really payout and I can only sell so much? Well, the first stupid idea was that there are specific things you need to do to get this money and they don’t tell you. First, you have a watch in your inventory that’s worth one million yen. You need to sell that and then there is a specific Hero Quest you must complete that gives you two million yen. You need to take ten photos of a statue hidden throughout the city. What a serious pain in the ass. I knew right here that the game was going to be a chore from here on out. Then to make matters worse, the last statue is hidden behind insanely difficult enemies out of nowhere. They were many 8 levels above me, but that wasn’t a problem before. I had to grind for a couple of hours just to beat them to take that photo. Such nonsense!
It just gets worse from here. Chapter seven had you complete one of two long dungeons in the game. It was challenging, but not impossible. This dungeon is the only way to grind up until now. However, once you get to a new small city you unlock the battle arena, and this is your main way to level grind by climbing floors and beating waves of enemies. You will be here for probably 6-8 hours minimum. At this point in chapter twelve, you come across a boss fight that cranks the difficulty up to nearly unfair and impossible. I had to grind 15 levels just to get a fair advantage. This boss just absorbs so much damage and throwing all my powerful attacks at him still kicked my ass. I died and retried nearly a dozen times before I almost gave up. I’d grind five or six levels and try again until I could finally do it. I chewed through recovery items like crazy trying to get through this chokepoint in the game. Sadly, it never lets up after this. From here on out every single boss is a serious chore and does massive damage no matter what you do. This is what I have in JRPGs and why I rarely ever finish them.
So, you will then need to grind consistently before each major story point that you are warned about. You need to be at least level 65 by the final boss and man is it a serious pain. You shouldn’t have to want to quit a game because the developers decided the game needs more playtime by chapter twelve. Let’s make you do over a dozen hours of grinding just to finish the game? It’s stupid and insane and completely unfair. They had the difficulty balanced out perfectly before and I was happily enjoying the game. The only reason I kept going is I wanted to see the ending and how everything comes together. The story is that good, but if it weren’t I would have quit at this point. You’re basically grinding the battle arena and the one dungeon trying to acquire new gear and rank up your job to get more powerful attacks. I highly recommend being around level 70-75 before tackling the final boss but at that point, you are 25 levels away from maxing out your character.
The game at least has amazing voice acting (in Japanese of course), and the graphics are pretty good technically, but pretty boring on an artistic level. These are hyper-realistic graphics and the only artistic flair is the enemy designs. I enjoyed the music as well, but in the end, the last few chapters will test your patience. The mini-games are fun, the sub-stories are boring and repetitive, and the post-chapter twelve grinding is an absolute chore and really hurts the game. However, if you can prevail, get through the grinding, and learn the strategy of balancing your party’s jobs you will get through an incredible and memorable story with great characters.