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Review: Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name

16 Nov 2023

Like many folks in the fandom, the arrival of Yakuza 6: The Song of Life seemed to signal the end of the story arc for one Kazuma Kiryu. Since then, the franchise as a whole has been far from dormant. We were introduced to Ichiban Kasuga in Yakuza: Like a Dragon in the main series. With it came a shift in the core gameplay to a classic JRPG loop, and some were left yearning for the traditional brawler gameplay the series was known for. That’s the niche that the Judgment series intended to fill, as it maintained that brawler gameplay under protagonist Takayuki Yagami and eventually his cohort Masaharu Kaito. With that kind of landscape, fans could have easily assumed that Kiryu’s future in the franchise could have ended up being one where he would have been a secondary character at best.

Since then, things have shifted quite a bit. Not only did we get a localization of another spinoff game in Like a Dragon: Ishin!, but the future started to look a lot more like RGG can’t let go of the Dragon of Dojima quite yet. With Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name being announced in tandem with Ishin!, it’s safe to say that the fans wouldn’t complain that they’re getting more content. With Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth revealing that Kiryu and Ichiban would be sharing the spotlight early next year, I’m guessing that some were curious about what Kiryu was up to in between Yakuza 6 from Yakuza: Like a Dragon and leading up into Infinite Wealth.

That’s the goal that Gaiden is trying to accomplish here. Not only are fans getting more of the brawler action they crave, but they’re also getting answers to what Kiryu was up to in the period between those titles. Given the track record of the main series, I have reasonably high expectations. Regardless, I went in hoping that there would be enough here to justify its existence and price tag. Especially since it was released as a digital-only title.

Developed by Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios and published by SEGA, Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name was released on November 9, 2023 on PS4/PS5/Xbox One/Series X | S/PC (Steam). The PS5 version was played for this review.

Legend in the Shadows

While you don’t necessarily need to know everything that went down at the end of Yakuza 6 (Gaiden fills in the important parts for you), the biggest plot thread that relates to this game, in particular, revolves around a major decision Kiryu made at the end of that game that requires him to hide himself and his identity simultaneously. Working under the codename of Joryu as a result of that deal, he’s required to take on certain assignments as a condition of that deal. His “disguise” consists of a pair of shades, but it’s a pretty thin disguise. Even with numerous characters dunking on him for wearing them, I guess he just couldn’t resist wearing his sunglasses at night. The game opens up with him amid a routine assignment that mostly goes well. But shortly after that, he’s quickly posted up to an assignment that looks seemingly simple.

However, things go predictably sideways and Kiryu ends up having to do what he does best to help set things straight. This isn’t the entire plotline, but much of it eventually weaves into pre-existing plot threads. It’s your classic Yakuza/Like a Dragon plot progression, if not on a smaller scale than usual with it being a shorter Gaiden game. But if you ask anyone who has played The Kaito Files, you know that RGG’s “smaller” stories tend to rival some AAA games with similar runtimes that sport higher price tags. Gaiden is about half the length of a typical Yakuza/Like a Dragon game at five chapters (mainline games are usually 20+ hours or so with at least 10 chapters), is about as dense as fans have come to expect, and keeps the usual pace that’s been the standard for years. In comparison to other games in the franchise, it’s more streamlined. But there’s precedent for this sort of thing thanks to prior RGG projects pulling the same moves.

Early chapters do keep your attention throughout, though a lot of it ends up centering around the Daidoji faction he works for threatening to reveal Kiryu’s identity and endangering those he cares about if he doesn’t comply with their orders. There were times when it felt like things started to meander a little bit, and that did get on my nerves. However, once certain plot threads from other games started to weave their way in, things started to feel a little more cohesive and move at the pace I’m used to with these games.

Half the fun of this franchise is letting the very intricate plot details unfold, and it felt a bit weird to me that things were a bit rudderless there in the early chapters. Things started to smooth out the further I progressed in the game, but I’ll admit that I was surprised that it took as long as it did to kick into the high gear that I’m used to here. None of it was awful or anything, but it’s rare for this franchise to take a while to get things moving.

Things get more exciting and entertaining as the plot approaches the climax, but I can’t help but feel that certain story beats feel a bit uneven. While new players will enjoy a lot of the late-game story, longtime fans may find themselves scratching their heads. It’s familiar ground, and the extra content that means to fill in the blanks may not satisfy everyone. It’s not on the level of, say, Yakuza 3 in terms of plots. Some things lean into more character development for Kiryu than plot development. But I was a little surprised that a new Like a Dragon story didn’t deliver on the same level as more recent titles in the series, as they’ve been telling some damned good stories in Kamurocho and beyond as of late.

I might be expecting a bit too much from this game with it being a side story and all. But I guess when you’ve seen RGG succeed from start to finish on projects of similar length and scope in terms of plot, seeing bits of uneven delivery can be a bit off-putting. When you’re used to performers delivering things that are consistently good, it can be surprising when you see them stumble in any capacity. There are stumbles here, but they don’t stumble so hard that the performance suffers as a result. It’s still a Yakuza/Like a Dragon plot, but you know that it can and has been better.

Secret Dragon Man

It’s been a bit nearly four years since the release of Yakuza: Like a Dragon, and it seems like RGG felt some of the heat for the decision to shift the combat in a JRPG direction despite basically everything else in the series remaining the same. Infinite Wealth is also on the horizon, which I’m rather excited about. But there’s been a lot of brawler-based content that’s released between both of Kasuga’s adventures, so some could argue that RGG found themselves remastering and releasing more brawler-focused content as a way to make up for the division over that gameplay shift. Not that any of that brawler content is bad or anything; my prior reviews on those games back that statement up. But you can’t help but feel like it was an overcorrection on their part based on that backlash.

Either way, I usually don’t have to worry about how they handle the core gameplay with this series. It’s been their bread and butter there for a while, and attempts to spice up the gameplay in many titles have worked to varying degrees. You’re still dropping into a semi-open world with many things to do around Sotenbori and Ijincho (briefly for the latter, at least). Most aspects of the core gameplay from prior brawler titles and spinoffs remain the same, but the distinguishing features usually center around some sort of new fighting style that’s often title-specific or even character-specific. Ishin accomplished this by using gun and swordplay for their own styles and blending them together, and Gaiden decided to also streamline combat by working the “agent” angle that the game is going for here.

There are only two styles of combat here by way of the Agent style and Yakuza style. Agent style is the more robust of the two, as it’s fleshed out with numerous gadgets. Kiryu/Joryu starts off with the Spider gadget, which lets him bind up foes in the middle of combat while also doing his best Takuya Yamashiro impression (look up Toei’s Spidey if you’re interested in that one). It’s also used to grab collectibles in the field. The Firefly gadget is a cigarette-shaped “grenade” with a really long fuse, and a really big blast radius relative to its size. It’s quite useful for crowd control. The Hornet gadget has you summoning drones into battle, which can distract and annoy your foes. I found it useful to throw their combos off, especially during boss and mini-boss battles.

The silliest of the four goes to the Serpent gadget, as you’re flying around on the ground with what amounts to a pair of rocket shoes. It does damage in combat and is useful for getting into a better position, but the visual of Kiryu jetting around the ground like he’s freakin’ Astro Boy is so goofy that I can’t help but laugh. Looking on a base level, Agent style feels more like a Kiryu-focused version of something that you might find Yagami doing in Judgment. It’s a much more fluid style of combat that doesn’t hit as hard, but the gadgets do shore up the lack of damage that the speed and fluid movement makes up for.

Yakuza style is what you’re gonna lean on when you’re in need of some serious damage at the cost of speed. It’s hard-hitting, but some would probably use this and point out some of the similarities to Beast style or something better suited for Kaito. It’s the closest you’re going to get to the traditional fighting style that fans have come to expect from these games, but I can’t help but appreciate its usefulness in combat. Especially when you’re in a one-on-one situation, the increased damage is useful. Sometimes you just need to lay down some serious damage, and using Yakuza style feels like a reliable standby of sorts.

Over the course of the franchise, the brawler gameplay has ebbed and flowed in terms of quality. But I can thankfully count on one hand how often I found myself underwhelmed with the most involved mechanic that’s been a series mainstay. Everything else about the core gameplay stays consistent with the Heat actions, random street brawls, and scouring the field for little bonus goodies during your playthrough. There are also other treats for fans that you’ll encounter, but you’re best served finding that on your own.

Longtime fans also know to expect a certain level of side activities to do around town, which is expected from mainline titles. However, the limited scope of this game gives it a leg up on content like The Kaito Files, which was entirely focused on the story instead of the series-standard distractions. Side stories aren’t something you randomly encounter here, as it’s funneled into the Akame Network’s mechanic instead. The sassy and street-smart Akame serves as a jack of all trades, and the network she sets up in Sotenbori is weaved not only into progression but into combat upgrades by way of Akame points.

Because progression is gated off into raising the network level on top of needing the aforementioned points for upgrades, you’re essentially required to take on substories and random street goings-on to progress the story. I’m of two ways on this, as I can see those trying to critical path getting frustrated that they have to take a detour on the way to finishing the game. Those who enjoy doing substories won’t mind, as it would expose those who prefer to critical path their way through to the varying degrees of tone these substories tend to lean into.

Aside from that, the usual lineup you’ve come to expect in a Yakuza/Like a Dragon game is still here as expected. The arcade titles might shift around from game to game, but you can still pop into a Club SEGA and play arcade games like Sega Racing Classic 2, Sonic the Fighters, or Fighting Vipers 2. Much like Lost Judgment, you can track down and play various Master System titles around Sotenbori as well. I’m not the kind of person to denigrate the addition of extra content like this, because it’s simultaneously a good value add and not always a guarantee that any one player might have played Alex Kidd in Miracle World or something. You can still throw down a song in karaoke, or hit up a cabaret club and chat up a hostess. You know, typical Yakuza/Like a Dragon side stuff.

While there are other side activities like shogi and various gambling minigames present here, I can also see players really sinking their teeth into the Coliseum mode that’s unlocked later on in the story. It’s not only a great way to grind out money (which flows pretty freely in this game), but it also possesses the depth and strategy one would come to expect from an RGG side activity. If you’re not assembling the perfect team based on various perks and stats, you’re taking advantage of the combat style of your lead character as well. Hell Team Rumble is also a blast, though I always enjoy arena-style combat. Those longtime fans who are used to this kind of depth don’t see this as anything ground-breaking, it’s still fun as hell to play through.

I feel like a broken record saying this, but I hardly have to worry about the gameplay with most titles in this franchise. RGG has proven time and again that they’re competent in delivery regardless of whether combat plays more like a Persona game or the brawler gameplay the series is famous for. Gaiden knows that it’s a side game, but still delivers with competent combat and the dense side activities that fans have come to expect. I may not be a fan of the price point given its Gaiden status, but RGG leaning on that side activity density does help soften the blow of the up-front cost. At least a little bit.

Not-So-Undercover Style

One side effect of cranking out numerous titles in a short span of time is the chance to reuse certain assets as they relate to the plot of the game that you’re developing. With Ishin! earlier this year and Infinite Wealth coming in January, RGG will have cranked out two major titles on top of this side title in the span of one year. With that amount of content to develop in such a short span of time, at least one of those titles would end up getting the short end of the stick in some way or another. Ishin! was developed using the Unreal Engine, and Gaiden ended up falling back on the Dragon Engine. So it stands to reason that the wealth of assets and such were used to help speed along development with such a stacked development schedule.

Those who have played Judgment or Lost Judgment will absolutely notice some of the assets used in their games here, primarily in the interface and such. I don’t see it as a particularly egregious error, but it didn’t take me long to start cracking jokes about whether or not I was playing as Yagami instead of Kiryu on occasion.

But the graphical presentation around Ijincho and Sotenbori is on par with prior Dragon Engine titles. It looks and feels like a modern game, and certain story beats aren’t afraid to get flashy when appropriate. One side activity decided to go in a more FMV direction, which I found to be a bit on the uncanny valley side. It’s used in-game models in the past for this, but I still felt weird about it even with the game playing it off as a “more immersive” version of the activity. The shift from typical gameplay to suddenly being on the Sega CD in 4K was jarring. There have been instances of FMV content in prior games, but those were usually something presented behind a screen of sorts in-game. This is more of an immersion gripe, as it came out of left field for me.

One thing that didn’t quite make it to launch was this game’s English dub. Gaiden launched with the franchise-standard Japanese dub, and it’s just as good as fans would come to expect from this voice cast. They might get a little hammier than usual, but it’s still a pretty stellar voice cast that’s clearly been doing this for quite a while. Yong Yea will be behind the mic for Kiryu in the English dub. Fans will find out how well he fits the role when the English dub drops later on. RGG has been doing pretty well with this aspect of localization, but hopefully, everyone’s performances meet expectations.

It does show signs of some shortcuts, but the overall presentation doesn’t really suffer as a result. This is RGG’s premier franchise, so making such a decision couldn’t have been taken lightly. But even with those shortcuts being taken, it’s still a Yakuza/Like a Dragon game. Some might gripe about the quality of the English dub when it eventually drops, but I’m not too worried about that given the track record of post-PS2 English dubs in the franchise. Those who’ve played prior titles are well aware of the amount of effort that’s put into each of these games. Mainline stories, spinoffs, and even games like these aren’t known for being half-assed in the presentation department. Gaiden doesn’t do much to buck this notion, and that’s enough to satisfy my expectations.

One Hell of a Hurrah

Some may balk at the thought, but I feel like it’s a pretty safe take to say that Kiryu’s story from start to finish is something that you don’t often encounter in gaming. Yakuza/Like a Dragon games have always maintained that balance of serious drama in cutscenes with over-the-top goofiness if you know where to look. But fans are going to have to eventually come to grips with the fact that Kiryu’s story is eventually going to end sooner or later. Like a Dragon Gaiden‘s mission of trying to answer that question succeeds in being a bridge but also bears the mark of being an appetizer before the main course.

With that main course being the old guard rubbing shoulders with the new, I’m looking forward to seeing these guys interact when Infinite Wealth eventually drops. The story isn’t perfect, but still spins a tale worthy of the Dragon of Dojima. Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name may be a shorter game, but there’s a surprising amount of depth in that brevity. It’s been a good year for Like a Dragon, and a game that celebrates their leading man like this is worthy of your time and money. Go ahead and devour this, and get excited for Infinite Wealth.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review copy provided by SEGA for PS5. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of SEGA.