It’s easy to feel how Like a Dragon is changing in Gaiden. But that doesn’t mean the latest, un-numbered entry in Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio’s series is eschewing its roots.
Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name mostly takes place concurrent to Yakuza: Like a Dragon, a game that saw RGG Studio tackle RPG ideas with a new hero in the lead. And though we’re back to brawler basics here with Kiryu in Gaiden, there’s enough here to make it a valuable excursion for the long-time fans.
A man with no name
Gaiden hands the mantle back to long-time Yakuza protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, now living under the pseudonym Joryu. After his death in Yakuza 6: The Song of Life was faked, Kiryu went into the service of the Daidoji, living a sequestered life and doing the occasional odd job for them to ensure the Morning Glory Orphanage and Haruka can live in peace.
One deal gone wrong, though, and “Joryu” is back in the thick of criminal conspiracies and politics. The plot moves pretty quick, and even though chapters are longer than you might expect, the overall game is pretty short by Like a Dragon standards, especially after the hefty runtime of Yakuza: Like a Dragon.
Considering this entry started out as DLC, the runtime lines up. And honestly, I welcomed the brevity; while I would’ve liked a little more time with some of the new cast members, Gaiden covers the ground it needs to. There are a few heavy emotional beats saved for the very end too, in a conclusion that feels crafted to hit every button for a franchise fan.
Most of Gaiden is spent in Sotenbori and a new locale called The Castle, a floating container ship that’s home to a playground for the uber-rich, owned and operated by the yakuza. The former is familiar, and the latter is a home for tons of the minigames and side activities, of which Gaiden has plenty.
Space for so many activities
While Like a Dragon Gaiden is a little slimmer in story content, it easily feels like one of the better side-game offerings in the series. Plenty of favorites return, from the shogi and hanafuda that feel like staples at this point to the return of Pocket Racer. Sotenbori is filled with tons to do, and the main quest even takes you on a tour of some of the most notable to-do’s.
While the cabaret club returns too, it’s not through a management sim, but in an FMV dating sim-style interactive video. I’m a long-time lover of FMV in games, and RGG has been gradually incorporating more of it. It can work, and it’s particularly funny when you’re given topics and responses that lean into Like a Dragon’s quirkier side. But other times, the ring-lit eyes staring at you through the screen can feel a little strange. Chalk this as a novel experiment with very mixed results.
On the whole, though, there’s a ton to do in Like a Dragon Gaiden, and all of it feels engaging. Billiards has shot puzzles and varying levels of competition, the Pocket Circuit has tons of customization, and karaoke makes a requisite reprise, complete with “Baka Mitai.”
The Arena offers some of the most in-depth distractions, though. Set aboard the floating Castle, this Like a Dragon’s Arena is surprisingly robust. Kiryu can fight in regular combat, or against a legion of adversaries, or in the extremely fun Hell Team Rumble.
Essentially, Kiryu can build up a roster of fighters who he can recruit throughout the world, who will fight alongside him in the Hell Team Rumble. These are chaotic, frantic, glorious all-out rumbles, where your crew fights another until only one is left standing. It’s like if the Jets and Sharks fought in a league, or the Anchorman news team brawl was made into a game.
Just the scope alone is impressive, but add in the scouting, recruiting, and training aspects, and the Arena becomes a genuinely engaging side game that reminded me of good times with Blitzball in Final Fantasy X. You can also play as characters that aren’t Kiryu, adding some fun ways of expanding this game’s combat out even further.
The brawler combat of Like a Dragon Gaiden is pretty good to start, too. In some ways, it’s been scaled down. Rather than a bevy of stances, Kiryu has only a Yakuza stance, the familiar Dojima fighting style, and the new Agent style.
Agent is where some of the most unbridled fun is in Like a Dragon Gaiden. Framed as Kiryu practicing a new fighting style, to keep him occupied, it soon begins to incorporate special gadgets. The Spider is a literal web tool that can grab enemies and fling them around, or pick items off perches in the open world. It really never gets old, flinging enemies across the street and hearing them yell as they go flying by.
A legion of drones can be summoned to pester foes, keeping their attention off Kiryu. And the exploding cigarette is, well, an exploding cigarette. It does what it sounds like it does, and does it well. Add in some rocket boots than bowl over crowds as you dash through them, and Agent is a blast, clearly intended for dealing with large groups.
The dynamic of Like a Dragon Gaiden’s combat is fairly simple: beat down big groups with Agent, fight solo enemies with the Yakuza style. Tougher enemies and bosses get a special move, which you can dodge and hit back with an Ultimate Counter, an extremely rewarding move to pull off. The simplicity works well though, letting you really focus on brawling and beating down enemies.
At this point, the Like a Dragon series brawling feels pretty familiar. The new updates are just enough to make Gaiden feel distinct, and RGG puts enough added combat ideas and twists in to keep things fresh, between the story, roaming crews, and the Arena. While it’s not as complex to dig into as something like Ishin, and the upgrades feel a bit straightforward, Agent stance alone really shakes things up.
The social network
Everything, from brawling to minigames and more, is tied together under the Akame Network, an app system run by the network’s namesake, Akame. After meeting her in the story, she’ll rope Joryu into helping out the homeless and others in need around Sotenbori, as well as boosting the Network’s reputation as its key representative.
The Akame Network serves a lot of purposes: it’s a special item shop, it’s another currency to meter out upgrades you would normally buy with cash and orbs (now cash and Network points), and it’s a hub for all side stories. Rather than always stumbling across them in the open world, most of the substories I found were through requests at Akame’s.
I’m mixed on whether I like this option, though for Gaiden, it does ultimately work well. The brevity of the story means you’ll be running into odd content gates fairly often, and it’s simply easier to have substories be opt-in missions you can pick up whenever. There’s not as many surprises waiting around the corner, but it means you’re not worrying about advancing the story and losing a substory.
The substories are, also, very good. This isn’t a huge surprise, but I like how RGG Studio tackled the lineup for this version of Kiryu, specifically. Many of the substories I played were callbacks to old running gags or previous Yakuza games. Kiryu’s past is always following him, and in some ways, haunting him.
The ghost of you
Like a Dragon Gaiden is, on its face, a story about what Kazuma Kiryu was doing during the events of Yakuza: Like a Dragon, and how those events will seemingly lead into him becoming a full-fledged party member of Ichiban’s in Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth. It’s interstitial, meant to provide some story for those who really want more, or even just want a little Yakuza brawling as the main series goes more RPG.
Yet it’s also clearly wrestling with where the series is headed. Yakuza started out as a series about the titular crime organization, following Kiryu as he dealt with all the inter-family conflicts and fights for power. With Yakuza: Like a Dragon, though, RGG signaled the “end” of the yakuza, both literal and symbolic; an act that Kiryu takes part in, too.
With that in mind, Kiryu’s actions in this story become much more interesting. He is growing older, and his legacy is fading. He’s given up his name, which carries immense value and respect, in order to protect those that matter most to him. What kind of life does that leave for him to live?
It’s the start of something I imagine we’ll see explored more in Infinite Wealth, if its teasers so far are to be believed. And yes, there is a pack-in demo for Infinite Wealth that comes with Gaiden, to help cover the two-month gap between them.
But this all means that the Kiryu we see in Gaiden is complex; gleefully antagonizing a villain in one moment, then solemnly contemplating his situation later. Like a Dragon Gaiden is Kiryu at his “most”: his most jovial, most emotional, most guarded, and most vulnerable. It all makes for one of the most compelling depictions of this character to date.
Ready to start
So while Like a Dragon Gaiden feels like an appetizer for what’s to come, it’s also a bit of an indulgence for anyone who’s been following this series. What started out as possible DLC feels expanded out into a look-back at Kiryu’s journey, up to now.
Its brevity may leave some feeling a bit put-off, but the side stories and activities more than make up for the shorter campaign. Much like The Castle Gaiden introduces, this entry feels like a carnival of things to do, with constant asides delving into all that Like a Dragon can be.
Like a Dragon Gaiden has games, laughs, tears, and brawls where characters dramatically reveal their resplendent back tattoos. It does what a new Like a Dragon entry needs to do, and tees up some big emotional moments for its longtime series lead along the way. If you want a deep story with twists and turns, this may not be all you hope for. But if you run off the beaten path to get a model AiAi out of the UFO Catcher, this should more than tide you over to Infinite Wealth.