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It’s been over three years since Yakuza: Like a Dragon received a stellar reception despite its shift to turn-based combat and a new protagonist. With Like a Dragon: Ishin! this February, Like a Dragon Gaiden now, and Infinite Wealth next January, Yakuza fans are being stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey. Despite the new Clark Kent disguise, it’s no surprise that returning hero Kiryu’s second sendoff relies on his decades-old legacy as he tries to escape it.
In a storyline that runs parallel to that of Yakuza: Like a Dragon, the Dragon of Dojima becomes ‘Joryu,’ an undercover agent for the Daidoji faction. Not a soul buys into the ruse. Under the tight leash of protecting the orphanage at Okinawa, Kiryu’s thrown back into the world of criminal turf wars, shock betrayals, and bloody fistfights. He doesn’t get to rest after a divisive ‘death’ in Yakuza 6 back in 2018.
While the main narratives of earlier games like to wander as much as their side stories, Like a Dragon Gaiden doesn’t have that luxury. With a development time of six months, Gaiden leans on the same reliable engine with gorgeous visuals, elaborate combat, and memorable environments. This also means a shorter story, one that doesn’t get to weave a maze and instead sprints towards the finish line.
Yakuza legends Daigo and Watase disband their crime syndicates in Yakuza: Like a Dragon. But there’s more to getting a dead man to walk alongside friends from another life. Like a Dragon Gaiden fills the gaps between Kiryu’s fake death in Yakuza 6 and the personal visit to Hawaii in Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth. It takes some steps back in a franchise that just stepped out of an era drowned in blood.
Like John Wick, Kiryu’s past works harder than the devil to pull him back. Like a Dragon Gaiden doesn’t feel like a second trip though, with new faces and motivations ensuring that the familiar conclusion takes a while to materialize. Most of its cutscenes now let you skip past dialogue but I suggest staying around for the excellent Japanese voice acting (the English dub arrives post-launch).
The game’s tight plot is carried well by a cast of memorable characters. Akame serving as an Osakan overseer of the homeless is reminiscent of the Florist of Sai and Geomijul’s network from previous games. Tsuruno and Shishido are Watase family members who jump between friend and foe as is common in Yakuza lore. Your handler Hanawa from the Daidoji faction is another highlight alongside the venomous Nishitani III.
Kiryu’s not exactly a stoic do-gooder in Gaiden, especially on a night when he spends millions in Osaka to supposedly draw the attention of an enemy patriarch. It’s an odd tangent for a dead man but remember that this is a franchise where guns can only kill characters in cutscenes. Developer Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio lays traps and twists at every opportunity in Gaiden, making for a refined final hurrah before Infinite Wealth.
This refinement extends to the game’s new Agent style combat that sits next to the traditional Yakuza style. Kiryu goes James Bond as wires eject out of his watch to grab and hurl foes around. He’s also got drones that disrupt enemies, making this style perfect for crowd control. If you’re wondering why Like a Dragon Gaiden has more enemies on screen, now you know. Progressing in the main story unlocks even more gadgets like an explosive cigarette and rocket boots. It’s a shame the latter can’t be used outside combat.
The Yakuza style leans towards Beast style rather than Rush style from older titles. I’m glad it’s solid against large threats right from the start. Kiryu’s skills ought to be within striking distance of perfection by now and the game respects that. As is standard, Like a Dragon Gaiden has a wonky upgrade system. This time, it relies on purchasing books from the Daidoji faction. A secondary currency for upgrades powered by side mission completion is a nice touch. Your health pool is bigger now, even if it can be shredded in seconds. I hope that has nothing to do with Kiryu’s cigarette obsession, even more so in Gaiden. Hearing him heave after fistfights has me worried for his fate in Infinite Wealth.
Kiryu’s return hits the gas at a blistering pace across five chapters (down from the usual 12-15). Condensing the Yakuza experience into a 12-hour sprint comes at a cost. Much of it happens in Sotenbori, the Osaka district familiar to those who’ve played earlier games. It’s a smaller playground compared to Kamurocho or Ijincho but Sotenbori still has plenty of side activities and minigames. Just as its fast-paced story beats got me invested in Like a Dragon Gaiden’s cast, a pebble on the track knocked this train off-course.
I’m talking about the Akame Network and the Coliseum. In isolation, they’re great facelifts to fan-favorite mechanics. One particular Coliseum sequence was so packed with fan service that it had me grinning from ear to ear. It even threw in a walking Like a Dragon: Ishin! reference. The fact that you can play as legacy characters and random NPCs, complete with unique move sets, is crazy. But sandwiching these activities’ goals into the main story mixes salt with the game’s fine makeup.
Akame Network missions task you with anything ranging from getting underwear off a tree to investigating an abandoned home with an influencer. There are enough eccentric ones in there to warrant the Yakuza seal of approval. Clearing them nets you points towards combat upgrades. The Coliseum rests in the glitzy Castle, a container ship turned ultra-luxury destination for those inclined towards debauchery. In addition to hosting some of the main story’s biggest setpieces, it’s got tournaments and a questline to beat.
While they’re great ways to spend time, I shouldn’t have to ‘reach Akame Network level 10’ and ‘hit Gold rank’ to progress in the main story. Some may argue that Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty asked players to win the favor of someone via side quests too. But that felt organic and didn’t feel like a different meal between the main course.
As for the other minigames, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio did a better job of introducing them organically alongside the narrative. The cabaret minigame with real-life videos got me flustered so I stuck to old favorites like Golf, Pocket Circuit, Billiards, and yes, singing Baka Mitai at Karaoke. Retro arcade titles across Club Sega game centers are back in full force as well.
There’s no denying that Like a Dragon Gaiden has some smoke accompanying its fire. Wedging optional activities between story missions breaks immersion, if only momentarily. When much of that fire relies on the franchise’s past across both narrative and gameplay, newcomers may think twice about starting with Gaiden. It’s packed with callbacks to characters that require some prior reading. But if you’re still on the fence as a returning fan, the final chapter ranks among the best Yakuza experiences of all time.
Hearing Kiryu’s theme as he stood by some of my favorite characters fed me both adrenaline and nostalgia. Kiryu has had life kick him in the gut before but the ending tore me apart in ways few video games have. Like a Dragon Gaiden might be a short ride but it stands tall among its larger brethren. Bond-like combat refinements, a tight plot, and fun mini-games build on the same old Yakuza heart. It’s a good snack on Game Pass before Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth arrives next January.
Reviewed on PC.