Kazuma Kiryu has been hitting the cigs pretty hard.
Don’t get me wrong. After a long day of beating the everloving shit out of people, a stiff drink and a few drags probably go down real nice. And the protagonist of Sega’s long-running crime soap has never been one to shy away from a delicious vice, whether it’s eating the entire Smile Burger menu in a single sitting, dropping a couple million yen to make small talk with a bosomy hostess, or guzzling an entire bottle of whisky for a mid-brawl strength boost.
Smoking has always been part of the texture of Yakuza’s romp through Japan’s criminal underworld, often deployed to great effect in cutscenes and idle animations. But Like A Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name foregrounds Kiryu’s nicotine habit to a greater extent than any previous game in the series. After the opening sequence, he laments being unable to smoke in the car. Elsewhere, “going for a smoke” will occasionally be necessary to advance the story. Unlike in previous Yakuza games, cigarettes are now consumable goods purchased in convenience stores and given as gifts. If you run out, Kiryu will implore you to get some more. Finding a smoking area and lighting up will increase Kiryu’s heat gauge, which allows him to execute more powerful attacks. Did I mention that he also gets “combat cigarettes” that act as mini-bombs during fights? Anyway, there’s a helluva lot of smoking in this game.
The thing is, lighting up all the time doesn’t make Kiryu seem edgy or cool anymore. Ok, fine. It does sometimes. But more often, his constant smoking contributes to a broader sense of foreboding and anxious dread that’s everywhere in Gaiden, a compact, thrilling, and moving sidequel that allows developer Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios to establish sky-high stakes for the next mainline installment of the series, Like A Dragon: Infinite Wealth.
A caged dragon
Gaiden details the legendary yakuza’s life in the shadows after faking his own death at the end of 2016’s Yakuza 6. After discovering a decades-long conspiracy linking the government to the criminal underworld, the Dragon of Dojima is forced into serving the shadowy Daidoji faction—lest they retaliate by killing his loved ones at the Morning Glory orphanage in Okinawa.
Hired-muscle work isn’t especially challenging for a brick shithouse like Kiryu, but it’s immediately clear that the last three or four years have taken a lot out of him mentally. He’s like a caged tiger who mostly spends his downtime “meditating” in a Buddhist temple—only his meditation mostly consists of reliving the worst moments of his life: when the people closest to him have died, or the last time he saw his adopted daughter Haruka. (Regrets, he’s had a few.) Faking your own death might not seem so bad on paper, but Kiryu has learned that being isolated from everyone and everything you’ve ever cared about might actually be worse than death.
The previous Yakuza games have been pretty approachable from a storytelling perspective—you can pick up Yakuza Kiwami 2 or Yakuza 0 cold and get a handle of things just fine. But Gaiden is an exception to this rule. Events in this story run parallel to the events of 2020’s RPG outing Like A Dragon, while also calling back directly to Yakuza 6. I played both when they first came out, but was a little rusty on the twists and turns of each. If you’re planning to play Gaiden, you may want to brush up on what happened, because it assumes a pretty high level of familiarity with the lore.
Gaiden primarily takes place in Osaka’s Sotenbori vice district, with some additional hijinks to be had in a small segment of Yokohama’s Ijincho (of Like A Dragon fame) and the wholly new Castle area, which is a cargo ship in international waters with a casino and a fighting colosseum. In Sotenbori, Kiryu falls in with Akame, a sharp-tongued gal who protects the homeless from predatory thugs and runs an underground information network.
The Akame Network missions are probably the beefiest optional content in the game, and are divvied up as lengthier Requests and brief Support missions. The latter are more pedestrian fare—bring a guy a bento box, help a parent find a missing kid, give an unlucky dude in a public toilet some tissues to wipe with. Requests are far more rewarding, with plenty of deep-cut throwbacks to iconic weirdos from Yakuza games past, and even an extended crossover with the Judgement series.
The Castle’s colosseum is a button-mashing adrenaline rush, though not particularly new for longtime series fans. There are both individual and group battles, and you can recruit other fighters to join you for bigger brawls. You can also buy some pretty outlandish costumes for Kiryu to wear in the arena—Majima and Ono Michio, anyone?—though I found myself saving money for skill upgrades in my initial playthrough.
Fists of fury
Kiryu’s story takes place over five chapters, compared to 12-15 in the series’ mainline offerings. That means it’ll take you about 10 hours to beat, accounting for some moderate dabbling in sidequests. Plan to double that if you’re looking to finish all the side-stories and optional content.
The minigames on offer in Gaiden are familiar fare: golf, poker, mahjongg, darts, karaoke, and arcade games. The hostess club returns, though this time with live-action actors, which makes the interactions even more goofy. The girls all have distinctive personalities and looks, and it’s hard not to feel a little flutter in your chest when they bat their eyelashes at you and giggle oh-so saucily.
Without a sleep-stealing time-sink like Yakuza 0’s real estate empire or Like A Dragon’s business sim, fighting is far and away the largest element of Gaiden’s gameplay—and thankfully, it’s terrific. Boss battles are dramatic and flashy in every possible way, and RGG hurls bigger hordes of goons at Kiryu than ever before. Transitions between fighting and exploration are also noticeably shorter than previous games, which makes getting into quick street tussles more appealing than it has been in the past.
Each installment of the Yakuza series has handled the Dragon of Dojima’s skill set a little differently, and Gaiden is no exception, streamlining Kiryu’s fighting abilities into two styles. Yakuza is his familiar slow and powerful combat stance, with an emphasis on relentless combos and charged attacks. Agent style is a new addition that gives him a quartet of spy gadgets to play with, including cigarette bombs, attack drones, and rocket shoes. The best of all is the Spider, which works like Peter Parker’s webs and binds up baddies for a short time, allowing Kiryu to fling them away or into other goons.
The skill tree is rather confusing and weirdly organized, but it’s not a dealbreaker. (Why does every Yakuza game have a unique, yet annoying skill tree?) During my playthrough, I ploughed most of my money into skills and had little left over for side content. In retrospect, many are overpriced and not especially useful—I probably would have gotten more enjoyment out of using that money elsewhere.
While I initially inclined toward the traditional Yakuza moveset—crushing dweebs in the face with a bicycle or an armchair truly never gets old—I found myself favouring Agent style as the challenge ratcheted up. It offers great crowd control for the many massive mobs you’ll encounter, and the ability to zip in and out of the fray for quick combos makes it appealing for one-on-one showdowns with slow, blade-wielding heavies.
Gaiden plays the familiar hits in a compact package that’s a delightful way to wile away a rainy weekend. If you’ve left previous games in the series unfinished due to the hefty time investment required, this is a great way to get back into the swing of things, even if all the lore-dumping might leave you feeling like you’ve taken one too many bicycles to the head.
It’s not looking too good for ol’ Kiryu by the end of Gaiden, but I’ve got my fingers crossed he gets the happy ending he deserves in his sunset years. Maybe even a romantic partner after all these years of playing the lone wolf? Either way, I can’t wait to see what’s next in Infinite Wealth. Let’s hope he cools it with the damn smoking by then.
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