Fifteen years on from the first Yakuza, after five sequels, a prequel, two remakes, and five spin-offs, Toshiro Nagoshi is trying to go straight. The latest entry in his series, Yakuza: Like a Dragon, is an ode to the stuck and the stalled. A former nurse who sold stolen medicine, and now lives the cold and uncaring profession of a life on the street. A cop who tried to leak his department’s corruption, and instead saw his career drain away. A hard-drinking bar hostess, adrift from her family and troubled by grief. And an ex-yakuza, released from prison at 42, who rages against the bars of his past. These rudderless souls aren’t climbing the criminal ladder, merely out of a rut. Could Nagoshi be trying to tell us something, and, if so, what? That it’s never too late? That he needs a change? Or that crime—oh dear—doesn’t pay?
Nothing quite so pat, although the narrative is swept along on a rustling tide of cash. In the opening minutes, we see shots of shuffling banknotes, in a drab office, being devoured by sorting machines, and when we’re introduced to our hero, Ichiban Kasuga, he is out collecting protection money from various yakuza coffers. Kasuga, in continuing the series’ trademark storytelling trick—namely, the having and the eating of one’s cake—is a contradiction. “Paying off criminals just makes the whole world a worse place!” he says, later on. At another point, he describes what he does as being “more about duty and standing up for people.” Somebody should have handed him a pamphlet for the local police force, though I suspect that would cramp his style. He dresses in a maroon suit—the hue of a nasty bruise—and his hair is a black, windblown frizz, like the smoke from a wildfire.
Indeed, there is plenty wild about him, with a quick-flaring temper, a baseball bat in hand, and a firm belief that the moral murk of any situation can be swung into a home run. The series’ erstwhile protagonist, Kazuma Kiryu, preferred to smoulder, hinting at fires banked down inside, beneath a silver suit and a disposition of ice. Kiryu would melt were he subjected to the climate of the new game, not for its setting, Yokohama—a jostling port city as hot and bright as a hangover—but for the way it encircles the hero with a party of allies. Kiryu was many things, but he wasn’t great at parties, and I suspect that some fans will come to Like a Dragon and find the same to be true of themselves. The biggest change to Nagoshi’s long-running saga is the switch from real-time fighting to turn-based, and the introduction of multi-character melees of the sort you find in Persona and Final Fantasy.
It does come with a few loosening quirks of its own. Characters circle and prowl, as if they were itching for an Active Time Battle system to set them free, and when you are attacked you can time a perfect parry, to reduce the damage you absorb. The Yokohama job centre, meanwhile, allows you to switch classes—and outfits—along with their associated skills; a musician, for instance, is good for crunching a guitar against your enemies, while a chef wields a shining pair of ladles. Though I thrilled to the prospect of what you might call painful employment, the grinding needed to get each class battle-ready is a bore. Grinding is, for the JRPG-faithful, a perfectly fine way to put the hours through a pestle and mortar; but for those who like their core loops to be lean, these patches of repetition (necessary, I found, for some of the bosses) will be a blight.
All things considered, I happen to find the genre shakeup worthwhile, in part because it doesn’t feel like a shakeup—like the result of restless design—more the logical extension of the surrealism at the root of these games. They are renowned for savagery that slips into the realm of fantasy—bicycles bursting over heads, fists catching fire in mid-flight—before swerving back to the everyday. Ordinarily, this pump-and-spray approach to bloodshed is a handy nod to the bottling up of other bodily fluids, but in Yakuza sex is an overtone, a red light cast onto the characters from above, but rarely seething from within. Nagoshi’s attention is instead drawn by the lust for digital escape. “When it’s time to throw down, my brain just starts thinking in Dragon Quest terms,” says Kasuga, invoking video games as a release—a portal for the pent-up.
This is the crux of Yakuza: Like a Dragon. It is fascinated by the way that games lurk at the soft verges of life, vesting our days with dreams. As you enter each battle, for example, Kasuga imagines his foes transformed—eyes aglow, fangs and horns sprouting. His allies’ attacks are visual motifs that spring from their own stories: Saeko, the bar hostess, blasts her enemies with sparkling wine; Nanba, who is homeless, scatters seeds over his opponents, pelting them with a blizzard of pigeons. And, passing up no opportunity for humour, Nagoshi mocks the conceit as much as he probes it. Hence the extended Pokémon riff of the creepy professor, with a scarred eye and a smooth head, who asks you to collect combat data on the city’s depraved goons, shouting, “Gotta dispatch ’em all!” Hence, too, the residue of sadness at the end of the scene in which our hero heaves a half-buried bat from the mud, as though it were Excalibur, only for a friend to remark on the dull truth: “Leave it to reality to crush the fantasy.”
One question worth asking is: How do you play Yakuza: Like a Dragon? Certainly, training your brain to start thinking in Dragon Quest terms isn’t a bad idea; there are buffs, items, status effects, and strategies to cram into your mind, not to mention the characters that come and go from your party, each with tactics and moves of their own. Beyond all that, though, how is the game best approached? Its story sprawls and spins like an epic, running well over the 40-hour mark, but I would struggle to relay its details for you.
Mind you, that is no departure from the usual Yakuza formula, which consists of presenting us with a tightly packed plot that uncurls over the course of hours and hours, and thoroughly diluting it with down time. In fact, if I were able to recount the tale of a Yakuza game with any accuracy, once the credits had rolled, then it would have failed in its duty to confound. The plot here runs roughly as follows. After an 18-year stretch in the slammer, Kasuga is thrown out by his old clan like rubbish. Shot and left for dead, he wakes in Yokohama, submerged in a mound of trash, no less, with a counterfeit bill planted in his pocket like a clue. Following a fake money trail, he befriends Nanba, Saeko, and Adachi, an ex-cop, and sniffs the stink of corruption as it wafts all the way to the top. After the setup, however, things get hazy—for us but also, you sense, for the characters . “You don’t seem to have an actual goal or much of a purpose,” someone says of Kasuga’s gang, and the line cuts to the heart of the game’s languorous appeal.
“If we find something interesting that’s not on the plan, we must have the courage to challenge ourselves and take a different path. It’s in these moments that we make games more fun.” That is Nagoshi, talking to Edge Magazine about game development, but substitute “games” for “life” and his advice loses no potency. It may hearten Kasuga and his friends to hear it. This series has long relished that substitution, as corruption, murder, political intrigue, and betrayal have given way, in a blur of drink, to the arcade, to evenings of karaoke, dancing, dating, and gambling—all governed by minigames. In Like a Dragon, we have go-karting; a business management side quest, in which you attempt to sweeten the fortunes of an ailing confectionery company; a vocational school, with multiple-choice exams that level up Kasuga’s personality traits; and a can-collecting game, which plays like Pac-Man, if the ghosts were garbage trucks.
The best way to experience it, therefore, is to challenge yourself and take a different path—to find something interesting that’s not on the plan. Doing so yields a glittering string of moments that make the game more fun, and plant you in the fabric of its fiction. Early on, on Kasuga’s final day of freedom before his prison sentence, I drifted through the streets into an arcade, spent a half-hour playing Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown (an escape stashed in an escape), and ended up in a restaurant inhaling bowls of steaming rice. Looking back, I wonder: Had I conformed to the flow of the narrative—putting off, however briefly, the grim days that lay ahead for Kasuga—or was I merely absent-minded? No matter. The coup of Yakuza: Like a Dragon lies in Nagoshi’s method: in the thickening of illusion and the embrace of the imagined. Around 20 hours in, I thought to myself, Wait a minute, why would a has-been cop, a hostess, and a homeless man be bound up in the adventures of a currently unemployed ex-mobster on a mission of redemption? Then it hit me: it’s because he’s a hero, they are his party, and there is a quest to be carried out. We become like Kasuga, seeing the world in video game terms and finding it not only liberating but actually more coherent. Leave it to fantasy to crush the reality.