The Magnum Opus of Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio to date!
I can remember a time when Western gamers had to petition RGG Studio to release Yakuza games for Western consoles. Look where we are now when Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth was nominated as the most anticipated game for 2024! Ryu Ga Gotoku (RGG) Studio has come a long way in the past decade, and it could be argued that their most recent game is, in fact, their “Magnum Opus”.
As the studio churns out hit after hit, a wider, broader audience is discovering what we long-time fans have known for a long time: These Yakuza games are awesome!
Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth picks up the story of Yakuza: Like a Dragon protagonist Ichiban Kasuga after the events of that game. Ichiban gets a lead that his real mother wants to meet him, but she now lives in Hawaii. At the same time this is happening, Kiryu Kazuma (the main Yakuza series protagonist) is also heading to Hawaii for reasons explained in the recent game Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name. As the story unfolds, their paths inevitably meet, as do their reasons to help each other out.
What then ensues over the next 60 or so hours is, once again, a marvelous example of incredible storytelling from the masters of gripping narratives and high-octane action drama.
One of the reasons the story works so well is that the character progression, narratives, voice acting, and cinematics all ooze with tension. Villains are menacing, plot twists are incredible, and each is delivered with such casual aplomb that it’s hard not to think you’re watching your favorite weekly Netflix crime drama series. This sense of perfection is complete due to details like how the character of Ichiban is the total antithesis to Kiryu. One is a happy-go-lucky, stupidly naive but loveable rogue, the other a total hardcase, all-business badass! Starsky and Hutch, Turner and Hooch, Gru and his Minions, it just works!
The other thing that is beautifully crafted into the game is all the other activities, mechanics, and fun you can have, aside from following the main storyline. Playing the main game itself is worth the price of admission alone, but RGG games are known for their ridiculous amount of side activities to be as much of a time-sink to some as the story is for others.
I could write a whole review on all the different games, but I will instead just cherry-pick a few to give you, the reader, an idea. There is a complete Animal Crossing-type game within this game, as well as a version of a Pokemon tournament. These would be the headlining support acts, and it’s really up to the player’s personal preference if you will enjoy them or not.
Other games that aren’t as deeply invested would include Crazy Eats food deliveries on a pushbike. Pull all sorts of crazy tricks while collecting food and stopping at points to make deliveries. There’s a dating simulator where Ichiban agrees to collect data and better himself with the ladies by signing up to go on dates where your choice of replies affects the responses.
With jobs to do, collectibles to find, bars to chill in, and restaurants to eat at, the game is a veritable smorgasbord of treats to play through. I have even read that one gamer, since the release date of the game, refused to move off from Chapter 2 (Chapter 3 is when you go to Hawaii) until he had sunk over 40 hours into playing Mahjong. By doing so, he acquired 30 million yen to purchase the most expensive upgrade the game had (29 million yen Golden Underpants – more on these later!) before he moved on. Personally, none of the side activities hooked me to this sort of level of dedication, but you can see how easily it could happen for those who find something they enjoy.
The glue that holds the game together the best is the incredible combat. I have to admit, as someone who is a through-and-through, real-time hack and slash/beat ’em up fan, turn-based combat, as found in this game, wasn’t raising my levels of expectations high.
However, being open-minded, not only did I start to enjoy this slick and stylish combat system, but I dare to say I think I enjoyed it more than the button-mashing required in the previous Yakuza game with Kiryu. My thumbs certainly did, at least.
The reason for this is because the combat here really does draw a fine line between real-time brawler and turn-based combat. How it does this is by instead of having the protagonists and enemies stationary as you choose what action to do, they mix in real-time movement and occasional real-time button prompts as well.
For example, one of the attacks you have in the skills section would not only knock back the enemy, but if aimed correctly, it would send the enemy back into another enemy to damage them as well. However, while you are choosing this, both you and the enemies are moving around. Timing the moment when everything is lined up makes a difference.
Your team can also guard against attacks, but you have to press the guard button just at the right time to form what is called a “Perfect Guard” that significantly reduces the hit taken. Additionally, if you hit an enemy to the ground, and it is one of your teammates’ turns next, they can (if they are quick enough) target the downed enemy before he gets up and hit them again for additional damage.
There are additional quirks to the gameplay, such as a one-time assistant you unlock in the game called a “pound mate”, as well as the normal turn-based systems you would expect, such as basic attacks, skills, and items to use.
If you think it all appears on paper quite ordinary so far, that is because I’ve not touched on the visual flair and outright bat-shit craziness of the game, which mainly comes across in its visual presentation but is present in other areas too.
This, for me and, I guess, many fans, is where the true beauty of the Yakuza games lies. They don’t take themselves seriously, and they remember that games are supposed to be fun, but then in the next breath, they stun you with some dramatic, raw, savage brutality. For example, the first, and I mean the VERY first shop in which you are forced to buy items to equip your team for battle is in a Japanese sex shop! Once equipped with our…items, it wasn’t long before we were in Hawaii and witnessing someone getting hung, drawn, and quartered, then nailed to a wall. Ying and Yang! It’s because of this pulling and pushing of the player’s emotions all over the place from one extreme to the other that you never know what to expect with Yakuza games. It’s what draws me into them every flipping time, like a moth to the flame!
With so much excitement all around, there are times you just want to relax and unwind, for which this game still has you covered. You can get tram rides that take you around the city. Not only do you get to see what there is in the game, but it’s a great way to unlock the grey areas on the map without running into any fights or being distracted. Your home base also is where there is karaoke. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention here the hilarious Kson, who makes another appearance in this game; she “thirsts” all over Kiryu as her “husbando in waiting” and is conveniently on-hand as a barmaid at your base of operations.
Visually, I felt the game’s setting of Hawaii was a little bland and disappointing. Don’t get me wrong, the artwork is superb, and with the game running at a constant 60fps with no issues at all, it’s impressive. It’s just that Hawaii is not quite the visual feast I was hoping it would be. I miss the bright neon lights of Kamurocho. Palm trees and stark clean streets just aren’t quite as intoxicating for a criminal underground setting as is a grimy, seedy city.
The game certainly makes up for this again where it counts in the combat and cinematics. With so much visual flair, excitement, and energy on display for even the most basic of fight mechanics, unlocking new moves and weapons not only meant better damage but more visual entertainment too.
The cinematics, of which there are an awful lot, especially in the first ten hours of the game, were of such excellent quality that I, again, felt like I was watching a Netflix TV series. My only criticism is despite all this, this game still looks a little dated, especially when you compare it to what other developers like Santa Monica and Naughty Dog are producing on a PS5. I rate RGG studio as one of the best gaming studios in Japan, but they do need to up their in-game world visual fidelity and interest.
The audio of the game was superb throughout. The game is completely playable throughout in English, with Kiryu being voiced in English again. I didn’t feel his voice actor’s sound nailed how I envisaged how an English-speaking Kiryu would be, but it didn’t distract me enough to not enjoy his cutscenes. The energy and sounds from combat excel at conveying power and pain, alongside the excellent world-building hubbub of life as you explore. It all added to make it an even greater, more immersive and entertaining experience.
One strange quirk I found with this game that wasn’t an actual issue at all, kind of, was that the game doesn’t have any difficulty options. I never came across battles that were too difficult, and indeed, the game helps you by suggesting at what level you should be before moving forward. However, you do have to play the game properly (not that this is an issue), but this leads me back to Mr. Golden Underpants again.
We were blessed with the Ultimate Edition of the game to review, which retails at a whopping £94.99 RRP on the PlayStation Store. Before I started playing, I had read that the items you receive in the Ultimate Edition make everything in the game far too easy. Not just combat but also the side activities too. This detracts from the excellent balance the game already possesses. Therefore, I never once unlocked any items for my playthrough and felt perfectly comfortable doing so. It’s also the same reason Mr. Golden Underpants actually spent all that time getting the 29 million yen to get his golden underpants, only to not equip them as he said quote “I didn’t want to make the game too easy thereafter,”.
Additionally, New Game+ is locked behind the paywall of the game’s Ultimate Edition. It’s hard not to think that this is a very cynical cash grab from RGG Studios and the only fly in the ointment of what has been a pretty flawless experience. I can imagine that many players of the base game will be infuriated at this needless design choice and wound up by the game’s ironic title if this status quo doesn’t change.
I cannot overstate just how much of a thrill ride this game is. As each hour flew by, new story or gameplay mechanics slipped onto my lap with such professional ease as only a masterful game designer can manage. There is an absurd number of things to do, but I never felt overwhelmed by the choice or the systems. My only issues were that I was just slightly annoyed with myself for getting so easily distracted, and I felt the New Game + being locked behind a paywall to be utterly ridiculous.
However, this game does draw on all of the great aspects this series has produced over the years for what could arguably be called its finest work. You can play for minutes or hours doing what you want, living the best life as Ichban in Hawaii, having the time of your life. Even with my expectations already high, Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth hasn’t disappointed and is just another why reason you should be playing an RGG game.
Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth is already a contender for the end-of-year awards. It puts the “role” into roleplaying game” (RPG) as you literally can live the life you want in this game. It has a polished story and a myriad of other activities to distract you for hours of endless, wonderful entertainment. It is a must-play for anyone who just wants to have a lot of fun.
Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio
Platforms: PlayStation 4 & 5, Xbox One X/S, Steam
Release Date: 26th January 2024