Following Yakuza 6: Song of Life in 2018, players bid farewell to Kazuma Kiryu as the series protagonist. In 2020, Yakuza: Like a Dragon positioned the charismatic Ichiban Kasuga as the franchise’s new face and flipped the series’ gameplay conventions on its head, signaling a new era for the series (even though Kiryu still played a big part in that game). In the West, Sega even officially rebranded the franchise from Yakuza to Like a Dragon in 2022 to have the name more closely fit its original Japanese title. However, Kiryu didn’t step out of the spotlight for long, as he returns to lead the newest spin-off, Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name.
Kiryu, now going by Joryu, has escaped the hustle and bustle of Kamurocho, Tokyo, in favor of Osaka and Yokohama. He may have left parts of his dark past dealing with organized crime behind him, but if my hands-on demo is any indication, the kind-hearted former yakuza is falling back into his old habits.
My gameplay session takes place at The Castle, a giant cargo ship in international waters off the coast of Japan. The Castle is a neon-drenched playground for the yakuza where anything goes, and law enforcement cannot stop them. This adult-themed park is based on the famous Osaka Castle (which coincidentally played a big part in Yakuza 2), hence the name.
Joryu arrives at The Castle via helicopter alongside a knowledgeable woman. After she informs Joryu all about the activities he can participate in, she runs off to the main attraction: the Coliseum.
Unfortunately, in leaving Joryu behind, she left him in unfriendly territory with no one to vouch for him. A group of yakuza take note and immediately inform him they don’t just let anyone in. If you’re familiar with the series, you know what’s coming next.
The criminals gang up on Joryu, and I test his combat prowess. Like a Dragon Gaiden retains the series’ original action-based brawler combat. You have two fighting styles at your disposal: Yakuza, an aggressive style that harkens back to our hero’s younger days, and Agent, a new speed-based style that lets him deploy gadgets to take down foes. I opt to experiment with the Agent style. I use gadgets by holding down each of the four face buttons. Spider lets Joryu throw a wire to tie up and throw enemies, Hornet summons A.I. combat drones, Serpent activates Joryu’s jet shoes to charge opponents, and Firefly is a cigarette-shaped bomb that feels straight out of a secret-agent movie.
This style is helpful in the Coliseum, where Joryu can compete in fights to win money. However, if you feel like letting someone else get blood on their hands, you have a roster of fighters from prior games. From Patriarch Gondawara from Yakuza 2 to series muscleman Gary “Buster” Holmes, you can send various combatants out to do your dirty work. I, of course, choose to play as fan favorite Goro Majima, who focuses on speedy attacks. You can also participate in chaotic team-based fights where dozens of characters brawl it out.
Outside the Coliseum, The Castle offers fun diversions, including card-based minigames like Oicho-Kabu, Koi-Koi, Poker, and Blackjack. You can customize your outfit at the Boutique or unwind at the Cabaret. Here, you go on live-action first-person dates that bring a level of uncomfortable immersion since you’re on a date and selecting dialogue options while staring at close-up FMVs of real women on your monitor. It could be the kind of thing that requires some explaining if someone walks in while you’re playing one of those scenes. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to explore outside of The Castle, nor did I see any of the series’ trademark zany sub-missions, but the tone of Like a Dragon Gaiden is on point for what fans have come to expect from the series.
While most are excited about the return of Kiryu as the protagonist, the many hearts that were won over by the lovable Ichiban Kasuga in Yakuza: Like a Dragon needn’t worry; the next mainline title, Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth, brings us another adventure featuring Ichiban next year. In the meantime, Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name feels like an excellent return to the series’ roots starring the hero most people associate with the long-running franchise.
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