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Like A Dragon Gaiden review: The shortest Yakuza game is also one of the best

RGG’s first side story is a refreshingly introspective, story-driven take on the action series.

Image credit: VG247, SEGA

Like A Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name may be a side story in RGG Studio’s long-running Yakuza franchise, but it’s also one of the biggest steps forward in quality and thoughtful design that the series has seen in years. Throwing some of the usual Yakuza fixtures out the window (the sprawling maps, overly familiar combat, and slice-of-life approach) gave RGG the freedom to explore the often-neglected core of their formula: the characters. Kiryu takes center stage in a new way, not as a plot device, but as a proper person at last, and the entire package benefits from it.

Kiryu – sorry, “Joryu” and his peerless anime disguise of sunglasses – finds himself in a situation he never predicted. His big sacrifice amounted to nothing, he’s stuck at the end of someone else’s leash, and there’s very little he can do about it. Gaiden takes place between Yakuza 6: The Song of Life and Yakuza: Like A Dragon, in the middle of what’s arguably one of the series’ most interesting and pivotal narrative moments.

If that's a convincing disguise, then I'm Superman. | Image credit: SEGA

Kiryu’s world has changed irreversibly and not just because of the choice he makes at the end of Yakuza 6. After major changes in the center of underworld power, the yakuza are either in jail or hanging up their brass knuckles for a life of political and white-collar crime, and a pet politician or former Tojo clan leader in their pocket would make an awfully nice prize. It’s a setup rife for high drama and Gaiden delivers in a welcome and refreshing way.

Even when Yakuza games were ostensibly about Kiryu, they still weren’t really about him. Yakuza 0 is about a power struggle in the Tojo Clan. Nishiki and Haruka have more agency in Kiwami 1 than Kiryu does. Yakuza 6 is the first time Kiryu’s own life and wants are allowed to surface, and even then, the Daidoji situation takes over.

Gaiden is the first time RGG has stopped and explored its characters as people with dynamic personalities instead of just as people who reacted to situations and drove a plot forward. Harsh cynicism replaces Kiryu’s typical goofy optimism. He’s a sad, broken man, but also one who sees his world more clearly and is more willing to take risks, an attitude that shines through in everything from his changed fighting styles to the slightly flatter, harder delivery from his voice actor.

Like A Dragon: Gaiden's character work is a real step forward for the series. | Image credit: SEGA

It’s a brilliant progression for a character who’s remained largely unchanged for almost 20 years, and it makes Gaiden feel more intensely human than any other game in the series. There’s still plenty of soapy melodrama and over-the-top action, but Kiryu’s struggle to find purpose and accept the fact his world is gone forever are at the center.

The series’ usual themes of corrupted power are just as present as ever, perhaps even more so. One of Gaiden’s biggest strengths is how driven it is. Cutting out half the usual length of a Yakuza game means the plot and themes start unfolding earlier and play a more substantial role in shaping the entire experience.

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Sure, that sense of focus comes at the cost of an epic story unfolding across dozens of hours and that feeling of belonging in a specific place, but – intentional or not – there’s also a smart bit of narrative tie-in with that lost emotion. Kiryu doesn’t have a home anymore. Walking the familiar streets of Kamurocho or finding his niche in Yokohama just wouldn’t make sense, nor would it fit for him to forge close ties with his new associates.

Yakuza fights always had an arcade-like feel to them, but Gaiden’s battles feel more natural – or as natural as a fight can be when you get stabbed and shot half a dozen times without dying. Motion feels less floaty, and there’s a satisfying weight to even the most agile weaves and punches. Boss fights benefit from this change the most, helped along by some thoughtful reconsiderations of how a Yakuza boss fight could play out.

Man in a Suit; an enemy in Like a Dragon Gaiden.
Still a more rounded villain than half of the Marvel rogues gallery. | Image credit: SEGA

Normally, these big encounters are my least favorite parts of an RGG game. They’re clunky, repetitive and sometimes downright gimmicky, with bosses repeating the same predictable patterns until you finally whittle down their 43rd health bar. Gaiden’s significant battles are different right from the start. Patterns are a bit more difficult to predict, and you need good timing and quick thinking even just to pull off your own attacks. Bosses move faster and mix up their serious hits with smaller feints and punches that can still smear Kiryu into the street if you’re careless. These ended up being a highlight instead of a chore, though Kiryu’s new moves played a part in that enjoyment as well.

Kiryu gets just two fighting styles in Gaiden, but that’s really all he needs. One is the Yakuza style, an amalgamation of his other forms in past RGG games that centers on heavy hits and block-breaking attacks. The other is Agent style, which is the biggest and most enjoyable combat shakeup since Yakuza 0.

Beat-em-up style combat makes a welcome return to the series following its controversial pivot to turn-based RPG battles. | Image credit: SEGA

Agent style turns Kiryu into a breakdancing James Bond of sorts with an impressive set of moves and ridiculously fun range of gadgets to play with. His basic attack combo puts Rush style to shame with a string of hits and hand thrusts that goes far beyond the usual three-to-five punch routine. He can pull off sick dodges, do a stylish, dance-like ground spin and kick his opponents, and even throw together a string of combos that I really don’t know how I made him pull off. Yakuza fights have always been crunchy and brutal, but in Gaiden, they’re just damn cool. I thought RGG had run its course with innovation in action, but Gaiden makes me hope the team doesn’t just focus on refining their turn-based combat in the future.

Gaiden might be a side story, but it’s still got the usual suite of Yakuza side activities to divert yourself with. If you want to play competitive Shogi on Yokohama’s back streets, beat the smirk off some thug’s face in a set of no-holds-barred matches on Sotenbori’s decadent pleasure ship, or play a classic Yakuza mini-game, you can do that and more besides.

There’s also a set of substories of the usual off-the-wall variety, and while they don’t quite live up to some of the series’ best, they’re still brilliantly written and offer another chance for Kiryu’s character changes to come through.

Despite Gaiden's narrower scope, its world still has plenty of things do to outwith the main story. | Image credit: SEGA

Most of these stories come from Akame, a Sotenbori hostess with an information network that would make Majima and Judgment’s Makoto blush. She’s one of the series’ stronger female characters, even more so than Sae in Yakuza: Like A Dragon, though she’s also still not enough to make up for the usual tension in Yakuza games. RGG very much wants you to see sex industry workers like you would anyone else, but then in the same short, heavy breath invites you to ogle a hostess. It’s not as icky as the naked beetle women trading cards in Kiwami 1, but it would be nice to see RGG’s approach to women mature as much as its storytelling in other areas.

My big takeaway from Like A Dragon Gaiden is that I really hope RGG does more side stories in the future or at least takes a similar approach to new mainline games. The chance to slow down and experiment with character growth, different storytelling styles, and a more focused approach to narrative building paid off brilliantly with Joryu’s tight tale.

Like a Dragon: Gaiden release on Nov 9th for PC (version tested), last gen, and current gen consoles. Basically everything except Switch. It's also on Game Pass. Cor, what a year!

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