When I first heard that Ryu Ga Gotoku was ditching the tried-and-true Yakuza combat in favor of a JRPG, I thought they were crazy. It was already their first outing with a new protagonist, and turn based JRPGs are about as far as you can possibly get from bombastic hand-to-hand combat. It's a famously bonkers series that isn't afraid to try anything, of course, but surely there are limits?
Well, having finally finished a 90-hour 100% playthrough and named it my 2020 Game of the Year when I wasn't even a third of the way through it, I can safely say that whatever the limits to wild ideas may be, they didn't slow Ryu Ga Gotoku down one bit. Like a Dragon attempts about a million different tricks and lands basically all of them.
Let's start with what doesn't work, because there's not much to talk about. Some of the cutscenes, especially early on, run too long without any input from the player. Occasionally asking for a button press or giving you a save screen break in there would've helped a lot. Similarly, it would've been nice to be able to a pause screen for the "Party Chat" skits that happen around the world - many of them are great, but interacting with anything will cut them off and make you have to start it over, so you have to stand there and hide from enemies until it finishes.
Alright, that's the negatives out of the way. So, what makes this game special? For one thing, it combines turn-based JRPG combat with the usual Yakuza brawling by having attacks, but not turns, play out in real time. You have however long you want to make a move, but once you've selected it, your character delivers the attack as if it were an action game, complete with enemy reactions and timed inputs for special moves. The strongest attacks are wonderfully animated in ways that give you the satisfaction of a landing a massive blow without needing to sit through a minute-long animation. But it has minute-long animations as well, most of which you earn as rewards for completing side quests. None of these changes are individually revolutionary, but they combine to make battles feel dynamic in a way that few other JRPGs have managed. Even after 90 hours, I was still looking forward to fights.
But wait, I mentioned side quests back there! And if you know this series at all, you'll know that's where many of the games best moments live. There are 52 quests to complete over the game's 15 chapters, and every one of them has its own unique characters and rewards. I won't spoil any of them, but suffice to say that they're all worth doing and play a huge role in building up the game's world. If you don't care about that, they have rewards up to and including an entire extra party member. And if you somehow don't care about even that, they're largely responsible for this being one of the funniest games I've played since Portal 2. This is a game that knows how to make you laugh.
Still, I think the game's most important innovation is in the story. Games, and especially Japanese ones, have an obsession with characters in their early 20s who've lived lives basically the same as the player. Like a Dragon isn't about that. Its most important theme is that society lets some people fall through the cracks, and often their only way to make do is to live in the grey zone. Your party members aren't bright-eyed high school students or impossibly grizzled 23 year-olds, they're mostly middle-aged people who Japanese society has failed in one way or another. And that trend continues with the side characters - you meet all kinds of people in Isezaki Ijincho, and the game never fails to give them a fair shake and show their human side. In particular, I've never seen a game so devoted to showing that homelessness isn't a personal failure.
I could go for much longer and into much greater detail about this game, but I don't think it's necessary to convey what makes this game such a masterpiece. It manages to be a slapstick comedy, an accomplished dungeon crawler, and deliver deeply touching messages on personal values and politics all at once. Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a game I'd recommend to anyone in a heartbeat. I don't know how high it'll end up on my all time list when my opinions have fully settled, but I'm confident that it's the best JRPG I've ever played, and that alone guarantees it a single-digit placement. That's not a bad start for Ichiban Kasuga's story.
Time to beat: 90 hours, but a minimalist playthrough would be closer to 30
Platform: PC, also on Sony and Microsoft consoles