A new hero
Say so long to Kazuma Kiryu. After so many games as the mountain of a man, it is time for a new hero, and while he might be just as stubborn (and loyal!) as old Kiryu-san, Kasuga Ichiban is a completely different guy. He is a relative nobody in a small yakuza family with some renown. Until he gets asked to do time for a crime he didn’t commit, to help his boss.
And so a long, winding journey starts for Ichiban. Yakuza games always take their time, staying in the build-up part for a good long while as you get introduced to the movers and shakers, make some friends and try to work out what is going on. Ichiban ends up homeless in a new town, far from home and his life upside-down after his time in prison ends. A lot happened in the time he was locked up and he needs to come to grips with things. Like the internet, and new hairstyles and fashion.
Instead of warrior, paladin and black mage, you have Bouncer, Foreman, Hostess, Chef, Fortuneteller and a whole host of wacky jobs.
A new genre
Ichiban played a fair amount of Dragon Quest at one point, and the idea has stuck in his head that he might be a hero in a game. Ichiban sees more than most people, with his imagination turning gangsters into hulking brutes or rollerskating strangers. One bonus is he is pretty tactical and his convictions sometimes wash over the people around him, inspiring them to new heights. He might seem a bit soft in the head, but ol’ Ichiban manages to slowly assemble a group of friends that follow the hero around. This party is all under your control in turn-based combat. It might seem like a strange step from Yakuzas of the past, but considering the massive task of changing genres, the team has done a pretty admirable job of translating the big, flashy attacks of the Yakuza series into abilities that cost MP. Get ready to heal, debuff, and block as you whittle down enemy numbers, deal with bosses and work out the weaknesses of the various enemies and how to handle everything else the game throws at you.
Just like in the main Yakuza games, learning to block is really important. The block reminds me a bit of the Mario RPGs, where if you don’t learn the timings to block moves, you are going to spend a lot of time healing up or dealing with people lying on the floor KO. Basic attacks don’t do that much damage, but you can knock enemies over, which will let a nearby party member get a free follow-up hit. If you attack someone who is lying on the floor, there is a good chance to do some meaty damage. Your big damage and state changes come from your skills, which you unlock as you progress in a job. If you have played JRPGs before, you might have encountered a job system. But instead of a warrior, paladin and black mage, you have Bouncer, Foreman, Hostess, Chef, Fortuneteller and a whole host of wacky jobs that define which weapons you can use.
At one point, enemies jumped up in level and I ended up in a really tough boss fight eight levels below them.
There is a cute little narrative link to how your hunting for work and money lets you unlock the ability to change jobs. I really enjoy it, but later on, I wished I could switch jobs easier, like on the phone or via a special area in a dungeon.
There are many intricacies to the system, but it boils down to every attack either being blunt, blade or bullet, while there are fire, ice and electric elements to be worried about. Certain jobs have a natural resistance to some of these, and making sure your party has a good mix of all six is a good way to deal with a surprise enemy that is only weak to a single one of those categories. I will admit that I wish there was a bigger distribution of all six types, but it was fun building up characters to make a formidable dungeon group.
Changing to a JRPG has been handled really well, but it has fallen for some of the standard pitfalls of the genre. At one point, enemies jumped up in level between story missions in a big way, and I ended up in a really tough boss fight eight levels below them. It took me hours upon hours to level up and find new gear before facing that fight again, and even with a three level advantage on the enemy, it was still a tough fight.
Some bosses have way too much HP, making fights overly long, while later in the game the boss has so many turns compared to you that you spend a lot of time on the backfoot recovering instead of fighting. This is even worse if an enemy is only weak to a single damage type, or can interrupt most of your combo attacks. Still, each hard-won victory meant a dramatic scene would unfold, and I would come closer to building the elaborate puzzle on display.
A new city
After a short stint in Kamurocho, Ichiban finds himself in Ijincho. He has no knowledge of the area or any friends here. Alone, broke, homeless and with nowhere to turn, Ichiban sees how the seedier element, the people who normally get ignored, are treated here. As someone who grew up in a Soapland, it isn’t a big revelation, but he does take issue with how the local yakuza treat the people they are taking protection money from. Ijincho is pretty large, with less of the lights and big bustle of Kamurocho or Sotenbori.
Ichiban quickly learns of the power dynamics in this area. Ijincho has three gangs that control the turf, all locked in an uneasy peace. None of them wants to be the one that starts a war, but each side is shoring up defences and getting more manpower. This cold war stalemate between the three has prevented any outsiders from muscling in on the area.
Still 100% Yakuza
Headstrong Ichiban eventually ends up embroiled in this cold war, and so a new Yakuza tale is born. Complete with twists, turns, double takes and mystery, a story of loyalty, friendship and family in the underworld of Japan makes for some compelling watching. Ichiban’s big heart means he gets roped into all sorts of messes and problems and makes friends along the way. Ijincho has a marvellous range of side stories and new problems for players to work at, all while making a bit of money. Where Kiryu often had enough cash to not worry, Ichiban and company face being homeless, battling to get equipment and a stable income.
In between dealing with yakuza out for blood, Ichiban is helping an old lady cross the road, or collecting cats that escaped from someone’s office. You can try your hand at go-karting, try to be a better batsman, improve your golf swing or help run a large business. Having people in your party means that a lot of the experiences are shared, and over time your various friends will open up and share their biggest fears, regrets and stories with you. By the end, I felt like I had made some amazing new friends, and I can’t wait to see if we will have more adventures with these characters.
For every time I thought I saw what was happening ahead of time, the game threw in two twists that I didn’t expect. Over 55 hours, there is some mighty Yakuza magic here, with conspiracies, elaborate plots, schemes within schemes and people playing the long game. Oh, and a few familiar faces make their appearance, which will give longstanding fans a good warm feeling, while newcomers to the series should feel right at home.