The Top Games of 2020 – Yakuza: Like A Dragon

This is a series about the games that kept me busy this year. These are my favorites, not necessarily “the best.” Also, these posts will be in no particular order. We’ll do a podcast in the near future ranking our top games of 2020.

YAKUZA: LIKE A DRAGON

This is my first experience with the long-running Yakuza franchise. I love Yakuza movies, but have never played the game franchise.

This new one welcomes new players by making a change in the central protagonist and trading it’s beat ’em up, third-person combat for a turn-based combat system that’s also a very knowing “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” to many of its JRPG inspirations (some of which it goes as far as to name drop in the game).

And while I normally like a turn-based combat system, I don’t love the one in this game. In fact, I love Yakuza: Like a Dragon in spite of its turn based combat.

Normally in turn-based games, your characters stand in a line to one side and await your command as the enemies oblige by standing in a line across the way as the wait to be hit (before it becomes their turn of course).

That’s not how things work here. Instead all the characters just randomly move around, walking closer to enemies, or further away, and one enemies may or may not strafe in front of the enemy you’re targeting.

The game also opts for a Super Mario RPG style system that allows you to try to time a button press just before your character attacks for more damage, or to get extra defense just before taking damage. Except this game simply doesn’t make it clear exactly when to hit the button, so I almost never time it right.

And because the characters on both sides of the fight are moving around at random, and the presentation style involves a dynamic camera that pans and moves in and out (also at random), it becomes nearly impossible to time the button presses even if you could figure out the timing. Very often I’ll assign an attack from a character on the front line of the fight, only to have the camera whip around and track in really fast to show me that an enemy character is attacking a member of my party leaving me very little time to try to figure out the timing of the button press.

I enjoy enjoy a good turn-based combat system. This is not one of them.

The first three or four hours of the game are lengthy cutscenes strung together by some very short, very linear combat sequences – many of which feel tonally off kilter from the seriousness of the story being setup.

The game takes a few hours more to really get to a point where it feels like it settles into its more “open world-lite” style, in which you have a small city with which to explore and find side stories, mini-games and shops to buy gear.

This game references Dragon Quest by name many times and references Pokémon (though not by name) a few times too. So it makes sense that it kind of feels a bit like one of those games now and then.

One of the things it borrows from Pokémon (I’ve never played Dragon Quest) is that as you wander from point A to point B, there are quite often trash mobs to battle through that are meant to be grinding/levelling opportunities. That wouldn’t bother me as much if the turn-based combat didn’t have such a slow, deliberate presentation style. Because of it, every little fight begins feeling incredibly tedious very quickly, and they only serve to slow the progression of the story as I’m constantly being stopped every 10 feet for another meaningless combat sequence when I’m just trying to get to the next objective marker.

Undoubtedly it’s about now that you’re wondering how I could complain so much about a game I’m calling one of my favorite games of the year.

The reason I love this game is because of its ability establish characters that are so endearing, and a story so engaging that I am always willing to push myself through the irritating combat sequences to get to the next story beat.

To be fair, I haven’t finished the game, and it’s entirely possible as I get more items, level more characters, that I may come around on the combat – but I don’t have high hopes for that.

So I don’t love the combat (yet), but I do love the story and characters and that’s the real reason so many people a raving about Yakuza: Like a Dragon. But even beyond the main story and cast of characters, the game has so many unique side stories to tell. The sub-stories (what the game calls its side quests) are pretty much all multi-stage stories that feature a well written, well thought out character that add so much life and world building to the game’s setting of Yokohama.

There are also goofy little mini-games to play, and conversations to have with your companions that help flesh them out. 

The central character, Ichiban Kasuga, might be my favorite protagonist from a game I have played in years (and is my favorite video game character from 2020). He tiptoes the line between being a tough Yakuza you might have seen in the movies and a good-natured, even slightly naïve, man that just wants to help everyone he meets, no matter how strange the person is.

And there are a lot of strange people and situations in this game. As serious as the main story often is, there is a lot in this game that is off-the-wall insane, in the best, quirkiest and weirdest way possible. Some of the things you run into in this game defy explanation, so I certainly won’t bother trying here. You just have to see it for yourself.

To say this game is brimming with personality is maybe the understatement of the year. At first I found it a little off-putting because the serious tone of the main story seemed undercut by all the goofy, weirdness that was happening in-between cutscenes, but I’ve learned to love it.

Comparing this game to a game like Cyberpunk 2077, this game becomes a convincing argument in favor of game developers adding fewer side quests that are longer and better written rather than adding tons of side quests that often feel like they go nowhere.

My other favorite games of 2020 (in no particular order):

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