Xbox One, PS4, PC, PS5, Xbox Series X
November 9, 2023
Ryū Ga Gotoku Studios
For going on eighteen years now, Like a Dragon (formally Yakuza) protagonist Kazuma Kiryu has been gracing our screens in one way or another. Though they’re an outstanding hero from SEGA and personally my favourite video game protagonist of all time, their history is a little bit complicated. Largely because developer RGG (Ryu Ga Gotoku) Studio can’t seem to let the ex-Yakuza member turned hero-of-the-people go, even after giving him a poetic swan song in Yakuka 6: The Song of Life. They have simply brought him back from his dead to the world status here in Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name.
Running through the concrete jungle of Sotenbori, getting into weird shenanigans and caving dudes’ heads in with bicycles all with a grin from ear to ear, it’s apparent that maybe I can’t let him go either. Maybe, in this brief moment, it’s okay to be spoilt rotten.
Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name is very reliant on covering the history and lore of the prior franchise entries. As such, some of this may be touched on in this review.
Gaiden has the very interesting and difficult position of taking place following Yakuza 6, set both before and during the most recent mainline entry in Yakuza: Like a Dragon. This makes it a title that is incredibly hard to recommend for someone solely jumping in fresh.
Following barely surviving a fatal gunshot, presumed dead and later deciding to remain dead to preserve the safety of those he loves, Kiryu takes refuge with the Daidoji faction, the very organisation that helped him disappear off the face of the Earth. Turns out what he’s been up to all this time is the occasional brute gig, serving as a bodyguard and the like. Not exactly a low-key job to have, Kiryu.
Now assuming the name of ‘Joryu’, it’s on these jobs that you’ll stomp around the familiar streets of initially Ijincho then largely Sotenbori, but notably not Kamurocho. The threat of opposing Yakuza families is still very real in this title, with familiar factions such as the Omi Alliance popping up along with a mysterious masked group that sees through the thinly veiled disguise of Joryu. This group seemingly is incredibly intent on revealing the nature of Joryu. He is, after all, a man who looks exactly like Kiryu only he’s now wearing a different suit and lightly tinted sunglasses. Not quite the strongest of disguises, buddy.
All of the new cast adds spectacular tension and intrigue to the story. Throughout the campaign, you begin to wonder if key figures of the Daidoji faction such as the formal and by-the-books manager Hanawa really have the best intentions for Kiryu or whether they’re willing to hold all they know about him over him. Just who the masked individuals are soon is revealed, adding a stress point and leaving me reeling, pondering what exactly they want to do with our hero.
The most screen-stealing performance outside of our beloved ex-Yakuza grunt, however, comes from Homare Nishitami III. He’s a flamboyant young Yakuza who quickly raised through the ranks of the Kijin clan to become the leader and runner of the Castle, an elusive but dazzling secret city that takes place on a giant sea vessel, home to the Coliseum and many gambling opportunities. Nishitami is all parts cocky and fascinated by Joryu, making it apparent very quickly that he’s aware of his real identity and holds utmost respect for his name. No, the Like a Dragon franchise isn’t beating the allegations of being nigh homo-erotic any time soon. Excellent.
At its crux, Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name is a game all about a man who can’t escape his past. Kiryu is always, somehow, roped in Yakuza drama, serving both the people and his ex-fellow clan friends. However, here it transcends and examines that idea. Why does he put everyone else first? Will he ever get the chance to take a moment to stop and process the trauma and events he’s been through in the last several decades? Are the kids back at Morning Glory Orphanage who still believe Kiryu is long dead doing okay? What is his breaking point? Gaiden asks and answers all these questions and more, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats for its briefer (depending on how indulgent you are with side activities) 10-20 hour runtime.
I’ve played all the franchise games (spin-offs included) that have been released in the West. At this point, that is a baker’s dozen. Gaiden is very close to the top of that list. Yes, there are all the tropes you’d expect in a title from the series; betrayals, reverse betrayals, angst, and soapy crime drama goodness. However, it all feels different here. The game tugs on your heartstrings to points that feel almost cruel. It breaks Kiryu absolutely down with an incredibly emotional ending that is also an extravagant and tantalising tease of what’s to come with the upcoming Infinite Wealth. That’s why the game is something magical, exponentially paying off and reflecting on early series threads while undoubtedly stumping newcomers. This type of earned reward is something that can only come with an IP as fabled, complicated and long-running as the Yakuza/Like a Dragon name.
Taking to the streets, knocking heads and being an everyday hero
As expected, there’s an abundance of activities to engage with in Sotenbori. The classics such as karaoke, gambling, shoji, darts and a SEGA arcade filled with claw machines and classic arcade games from the publisher are all present, adding to the livelihood and bustling nature that the cities always have. There’s never an absence of things to do especially when you consider all the restaurants and, notably, just how weird the returning cabaret club dating segments are this time round.
Previously, you’d visit a cabaret club and have Kiryu get to know the girls that work the venue, chatting with them, getting to know their interests and engaging in some endearing small talk while perhaps buying them some drinks. All this serves the purpose of filling a bond with them and eventually going on a date with them. In Gaiden, it’s all of this but you’re in first-person perspective, talking to real live-action actors. This isn’t the first time the series has gotten their toes wet with FMV (full motion video) elements, but it’s the debut of them diving headfirst in via these bizarre dates. Yet, I was strangely compelled by its oddity and saw through fully romancing one bachelorette – a sprightly girl who was a video game streamer in her spare time. How this relationship pursuit increases and then coalesces is rapid and wild, but thankfully Like a Dragon has always nailed this tone.
Most appealing to players will be the Coliseum where you’ll enter an arena to battle it out with powerful combatants. These can be one-on-one battles, one against many, or the rumble game mode which has you commanding a group of teammates against a formidable group of opponents. Like the management sim in the prior Yakuza: Like a Dragon, this Coliseum mode feels akin to having its own sizable and separate game within the greater Gaiden product. You’ll enter tournaments or end up in a rivalry with some key leaders of the Coliseum to try your best to later overcome. Wandering around the Castle, you can find new teammates to recruit to your cause for fights. You can manage them, upgrading their strength and abilities via gifting items to and controlling these characters, mixing up your means of play. Suddenly, instead of simply taking part in the familiar real-time brawler combat you’ll once again engage with (as well as in random encounters on the streets) for Kiryu, you can play as heavy-hitting construction workers with sledgehammers, scrawny shopkeepers that are weak when it comes to hitting but viable for healing your party and so on.
All of this informs and compliments other factors of the game. For example, you can earn and purchase new clothing and apparel, including makeup (fantastic news for me who loves to stare at our hero just that little bit too much) to be worn in and out of the arena. Moreso, it’s a good playground to try out the combat. Kiryu has two combat stances in-game: “Yakuza,” which is more akin to his classic brawler style in the classic title Yakuza 0, while “Agent” lets players engage in the many tech tools under their belt. These include the deployment of drones that can be cannon fodder and distract enemies, explosive cigarettes to be thrown for powerful AoE attacks, some rockets attached to shoes to skate around and through enemies and lastly, a cable wire gadget that can entangle multiple enemies at once and pull them around in many different ways. Spider-Man style.
You might be wondering what is the narrative reason or justification for having such tools. Sure, J0ryu is a bodyguard but spy gadgets? The Man Who Erased His Name never really answers this question and is probably one of the biggest instances of asking players to suspend disbelief in a franchise already known for being kooky. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter when it feels this good to play. The Yakuza stance is more tanky and allows you to take more hits while being more deliberate with your kicks and punches. The Agent is all about sweeping blows and fluidity. Incorporating the two and upgrading them in succinct ways is the best bet for players, providing a diversity of options. It all feels deeply satisfying, only rivalled by the stellar combat found in Lost Judgment.
Not only does Gaiden further explore Kiryu/Joryu being an everyday hero in the narrative, but it does so through the Akame Network. Early on you’re introduced to a mysterious figure known as Akame, a fiery young girl who knows the streets well and is a friend to the homeless, helping them out when they’re in a bind. Through bonding events you’ll come to learn she’s one of the better female characters (of which there are few), setting up this network of operations where ‘requests,’ will be delivered to you to help Sotenbori locals. These are the equivalent of your substories, offering plenty of weird and wonderful scenarios once again. Butting heads with Kaito from the Judgment spin-off series on a hunt for some deviants, struggling to escape from a familiar old lady that’s obsessed with you, trading blows with exploitative loan sharks… these are just some of your escapades, each never dull.
What I find tantalising about all of this is simply the way they’re delivering these tasks to you. They’re more diegetic and natural this time around, compelling me to actively engage with even more tasks than I otherwise would. On top of these requests that need to be triggered by visiting Akane each time, there are ‘Stroll ‘n Patrol’ odd jobs found throughout the world where NPCs will task you with delivering them key items, taking pictures of points of interest and more. This engaged me with Sotenbori more than ever before, taking notes of the beautiful and lively set dressing used to depict a Japanese metro city, rather than largely focusing on my map or more obvious landmarks. All of this is also in hunt of completing the long completion list you’ll find in-game,
As someone that still holds Yakuza 6: The Song of Life as a personal favourite and loves the way it closed the book on Kiryu, it was going to take a lot of convincing to sell me on Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name. Though for some it will feel like beating a dead horse keeping Kiryu around when newer protagonist Ichiban just as much deserves the primary spotlight, it’s forgivable when you consider the emotional notes and high highs the game hits. SEGA and RGG have done it again, creating another memorable journey for the heroic ex-Yakuza.
- Kiryu's return is emotional and heavy-hitting, delivering strictly high moments
- Colourful and enticing new cast of supporting characters
- Side-activities are enjoyable as ever, especially the bizarre Cabaret dating
- Akame requests and 'Stroll 'n Patrol' missions emphasise engaging with the luxurious Sotenbori streets
- Will leave newcomers in the dust
Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name more than justifies its existence. It creates fantastic points of tension and a real constant threat in Kiryu’s attempts at anonymity as he butts head with the Yakuza and some mysterious, shadowy figures. Always keeping me on the edge of my seat, it’s a heavy-hitter in the narrative, having me actively weep at the conclusion. This kind of magnificence is the payoff of years upon years of hard franchise work, entirely rewarding for longtime fans though boldly unapologetic and unforgiving to the newcomers. Slamming enemy’s heads into walls and getting emotional over the franchise-long angst and baggage our beloved protagonist holds has truly never felt this good. Despite now hosting more than a dozen entries, Gaiden proves the Like a Dragon name is still endlessly valuable to this day. Bring on the next dozen, I say.