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Yakuza: Like a Dragon | Games of the Year 2020

Sega's latest is an uplifting mob story as absurd as it is heartfelt, and Ichiban Kasuga is a hero for the ages

I had to decide whether to spend ¥4 million on space tourism for my giant robot vacuum because it was becoming disgruntled managing the mahjong parlor of my baked goods empire and I needed it motivated to represent me at the shareholders meeting.

That sentence is about Sega's Yakuza: Like a Dragon, and it's one of the reasons the open-world RPG crime melodrama is my personal game of the year.

There's just something about a game that isn't afraid to embrace absurdity one minute and ask the audience to buy into an utterly sincere tear-jerking scene the next. It's why ZHP: Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman is my favorite game of all time. It's why I have a soft spot for Metal Gear Solid 4 and 5, and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon pulls off the same lack-of-balancing act as those games, and it does it with one of the most engaging protagonists I've seen in games: Ichiban Kasuga.

Ichi is a yakuza goofball with a moral compass, an idealist so willing to do right by his friends and makeshift family that he doesn't hesitate to take a 20-year prison sentence for a crime he didn't commit, or face certain death to help out a friend -- or even an enemy -- if he thinks they're suffering unjustly.

Ichi's not much of a pragmatist

Ichi's not much of a pragmatist

There's one scene in particular early on where Ichi does something that makes you think he's an idiot who is very bad at his job collecting on yakuza loans.

But then he explains his surprising course of action in a wonderful twist on the old Sherlock Holmes brilliant deduction trick where he determines the truth from seemingly irrelevant and unrelated details. But Holmes is often portrayed as unsociable and gratuitously rude, with a suggestion that jerkish behavior is a natural byproduct of great intelligence and adherence to logic. In this particular scene, Ichi combines Holmes' keen observation and knack for deduction with a token amount of empathy to put together the pieces of the puzzle in a way that would be completely out-of-character for our most popular depictions of Holmes.

In the end, you realize Ichi is not quite the idiot he initially presents himself as, even if he is in fact still very bad at his job. The important part is that you know the poor job he does is 100% deliberate, and motivated by kindness.

There's something positive and joyous about the game... a kindness to Ichi and virtually everything he does.

Ichi is also an unabashed Dragon Quest fanboy -- kudos to Persona and Phantasy Star owner Sega for being willing to bake another company's RPG franchise so thoroughly into its own title -- and he's bought into the idea of being an RPG hero so thoroughly he interprets much of what goes on around him through the lens of his favorite games. It serves as an excuse for the game adopting a turn-based battle system instead of the franchise's usual beat-'em-up combat, and switching from a narrative focused on one character to one featuring a full party of protagonists.

Any RPG worth its salt needs a compelling bestiary, and Like a Dragon delivers with a menacing menagerie of creepers. Ichi and friends will throw down with inebriated Beerserkers, exhibitionist Flash Mobbers, and boundary-ignoring livestreaming Twitchy Streamers. (There's even a Pokémon-like meta-activity where you encounter these enemies known as Sujimon -- a portmanteau for "monsters of men that make you super jittery" -- and document their various attributes in your Sujidex.)

It's silly, but it's also endearing. By the end of the game, Ichi's fellow party members and I had all succumbed to his charismatic idiocy and reckless disregard for personal safety, reacting to his every decision with an exasperated shrug and a remark along the lines of, "Well that's just Ichi being Ichi, OK let's go get ourselves killed with him because FRIENDSHIP, damnit."

There's something positive and joyous about the game, even if it largely revolves around beating up a lot of people in very painful (and ridiculous) ways. Outside of combat, there's a kindness to Ichi and virtually everything he does.

Raised in a brothel, self-recruited into the yakuza, left to rot in jail and forgotten when he's finally released, Ichi is not portrayed as a person hardened by a hostile environment and embittered by his experiences. He is instead a cast-off of society, someone who fell through the cracks and realized the only way he was going to get by was with the help of his fellow cast-offs. It's a perfect set-up for the game's RPG party, a motley collection of mostly middle-aged has-beens and never-weres.

Time and again in the main story and the many side quests, Ichi sides with the poor, the pathetic, the down-and-out, the dregs of society. He's a champion just as looked down upon as the people for whom he fights, because he clearly is one of them. He's consistent about that without being flawless, obnoxious, or even self-righteous. Ichi's not particularly enlightened or "woke" or anything like that; he's just willing to listen to someone's story, empathize with them, and update his positions accordingly. It's a refreshing take on heroism for a video game protagonist.

Like a Dragon usually has a lot of compassion for those on the fringe of society

Like a Dragon usually has a lot of compassion for those on the fringe of society

As bighearted as the game is, there were a few places where it didn't seem to live up to its own standards. Some of the enemy classes aren't exactly kind to homeless, sick, or fat people, for example. But most notably, the game's treatment of women in particular leaves a lot to be desired.

Women in Yakuza: Like a Dragon largely exist as sexually objectified hostesses, strippers, prostitutes, and the like. And even though the game at times takes a more positive view of the people in those professions than I've come to expect from games, it still leaves women in largely ornamental roles. While the game's handling of Ichi's romantic options is transactional to the point of satire -- you buy them a bouquet of their favorite flower, then five more, then ten more after that -- that feels like an overly kind interpretation given the rest of the game's portrayal of women, and even the protagonists' sometimes side-eye-worthy comments about them.

Ichi does count a few women among his allies, but they aren't given a whole lot to do and are only fleetingly made a focus of the story. One of the two women in the party feels particularly like an afterthought; she's the only optional party member in the game, and she's not even included in numerous cutscenes that otherwise feature the entire party. I can only hope that the franchise takes a cue from Ichi himself, accepting criticisms like this in stride, understanding how it could do better, and making the appropriate changes going forward.

Those misgivings aside, I still don't think I enjoyed another game quite as much this year. I've put about 90 hours into Like a Dragon and completed the main storyline, but I still find myself going back to play it, checking off the last of the side quests and activities, just hoping to see a few more stories play out and spend a little more time with Ichi and his crew.

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