Like a Dragon Gaiden, the new entry in the Sega series formerly known as Yakuza, has no chill.
In the first brawl, longtime hero Kazuma Kiryu gains Spider-Man web-slinging powers that hurl goons across the crowded streets of Osaka. Within hours, he has the power to call in drone swarms and toss explosive cigarettes that have the oomph of IEDs. Before the first act wraps, Kiryu will have joined an underground network of criminal informants, visited a floating pleasure-palace-slash-coliseum, and tried to charm at least one hostess — experienced by the player in first person via full-motion video starring a real actress.
The zaniness (and light perviness) of this video game won’t sound unusual to Yakuza fans, but that pace will. 2020’s Yakuza: Like a Dragon took at minimum 45 hours to complete, and for completionists, that number could double or even triple. Fans typically pitch Yakuza 0, widely regarded as the most welcoming entry in the series, with a caveat: You will need to get through hours of cutscenes and tutorials before the game gets good.
And so, paradoxically, despite feeling like the end of an era (the series’ action combat has been replaced by turn-based encounters in new mainline entries), Like a Dragon Gaiden may be the new “best starting point” for one of gaming’s longest, densest, and most underappreciated franchises.
But what about all the backstory, you might ask? Gaiden bridges the gap between years of Kiryu-focused games and Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth, which is currently slated for a January 2024 release date. But to enjoy the story, you’ll need, at most, a quick YouTube recap. The premise of the game is that Kiryu has faked his death, and now is doing right by the locals of Sotenbori while unspooling yet another bureaucratic mystery involving swole dudes with excellent tattoos.
Because Kiryu now goes by Joryu (the game’s official title is Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name), you’ll often be engaging with people who know nothing about his bloodspattered backstory. And when a character does know Kiryu’s drama, our guy prefers to chat with his fists.
Mainline Yakuza games have an abundance of cutscenes and fully voiced side missions; Gaiden has far less, its world instead filled with novelties, distractions, and fetch quests. Now, if you’re a Yakuza fan, take a few deep breaths — that last sentence could cause hyperventilation. But honestly, I’ve enjoyed this “Ubisoft open world” approach to Yakuza. Gaiden is the equivalent of eating your child’s entire bucket of Halloween candy because you got a little too stoned watching Charlie Brown. It isn’t good for you, let alone nourishing, and it is, at times, deeply embarrassing. But now and then, it feels great to gorge on junk food.
Like a Dragon Gaiden is magnificent video game junk food. Hell, a generous critic could even read the creation of Gaiden as a parody of Western game development. Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio director Masayoshi Yokoyama recently claimed the game began as DLC and took only six months to develop. The team repurposed the bulk of its world from previous entries and trimmed down the story and all the expensive stuff that would otherwise come with it (fresh voice acting, cinematic cutscenes, etc.). When you open the map in Gaiden, it’s filled with busywork, countless little exclamation points and collectible items. But unlike so many current open-world AAA games, this world is refreshingly small and the to-do list is actually fun. Plus, Kiryu himself has changed into a cross between a certain British super agent, a super soldier, and a Marvel hero.
The Yakuza series has long had a great sense of humor; could this be its finest joke? A game that, in its very creation, is commentary on the current state of game development? Nah, I won’t go that far. Though I wouldn’t label this a cash-in either.
Gaiden reflects (rather than responds to) our new video game reality, in which developers will be wise to make the most of their extremely expensive investments in mainline entries. With Gaiden, I can see a future in which each new core entry of Like a Dragon gets an action-heavy spinoff, set in the same world and with the same characters, made for a fraction of the price but no less appealing to fans — in some ways, perhaps, appealing even more to those without time for a bottomless RPG.
If it’s not obvious: I’m describing myself. After a year of some of the best (and most demanding) games of my lifetime, it felt nice to lose a week of sleep to a game that hooked me like a pulpy paperback. Any moment I would have spent yearning for the richer Yakuza games was spent helping Osakans fend off debt collectors, getting underwear out of trees, and delivering toilet paper to a public restroom user in dire need.
For fans, Gaiden may feel like a speedrun of the full series, the journey of Kiryu condensed into one decadent hurrah — now with drones and superpowers. But for newcomers, I imagine Gaiden will be akin to listening to an iconic band for the first time by opening Spotify and selecting Greatest Hits.
Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name will be available Nov. 8 on PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Sega. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.