Like a Dragon Gaiden The Man Who Erased His Name review: Shorter, but no less brilliant
Dying isn't easy, it's a logistical nightmare at the best of times. If you're Kasuma Kiryu, legendary Yakuza and the Dragon of Dojima, dying is especially tricky. For Kiryu, the really difficult part is staying dead. Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name is the latest adventure from the legendary crime thriller saga, a short but sweet side story that bridges the gap from Yakuza 6 to Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth, and answers an important question: where has Kiryu been all these years?
Like a Dragon Gaiden is a small(ish) game with a big job; get new players caught up on the old story, while tying the story of the previous protagonist Kazuma Kiryu in with the new series lead, Kasuga Ichiban. When Infinite Wealth was announced and Kiryu's front-and-centre inclusion was confirmed, players both old and new were left with a reem of questions. Those questions are what Gaiden hopes to answer.
Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name is a throwback and a step forward, putting a potential end to what came before on the way to something new. As it does so, it is a shorter, but still truly excellent example of everything that has made the Like a Dragon series so great for so many years.
On it's own merit
First, let's discuss The Man Who Erased His Name on its own. LaD Gaiden is an action-adventure game very much in the same style as the Yakuza games up to the change to the new RPG system. If you have played any of Kiryu's previous adventures, or either of the Judgement games, this will all be extremely familiar to you. Familiar is the name of the game, as Gaiden plays wholeheartedly to the strengths of games passed.
The main plot is the kind of story we expect from the franchise, a thriller filled with mystery and suspense. There are machinations on machinations happening within the underworld of Japan, and our hero finds himself unwittingly caught up in it, discovering yet more layers to the plot as he punches his way through. It is excellently written and full of great new characters. the only real issue is the pace is a bit quicker than what we are used to in Like a Dragon games.
Alongside the straight-laced, serious main story is a smorgasbord of outlandish side activities to take part in. There are many side stories to complete, each one its own little tale that fleshes out the world. Then there are all of the side activities we have come to expect; arcades, darts, pool, golf, the ever-present and always welcome karaoke.
One of the more in-depth activities you can take part in is Pocket Circuit, racing toy cars much as Kiryu did in Yakuza 0, 30 years earlier. The other major side activity is the Coliseum. Here, you can take on individual fights to climb the ranks or participate in group battles where you and a crew of NPC teammates face off against other groups in giant brawls.
Playing the hits
The formula of Yakuza is alive and well in Gaiden, which feels a bit like a greatest-hits collection of the history of the series, or maybe more like a long-lost Beatles song reclaimed from the past. As a massive fan of the franchise, Like a Dragon Gaiden felt to me like a cosy old jumper, familiar and inviting. While sceptics might look at it as a step backwards, I don't expect long-time fans to be disappointed.
That isn't to say Gaiden has nothing new to offer. First of all, it is a brand-new story starring a beloved character. Eerily similar to the recent Phantom Liberty expansion for Cyberpunk 2077, this story takes our criminal protagonist and thrusts them into a world of espionage. Gaiden does this in exactly the kind of ways that you would expect from Like a Dragon. In other words, ridiculous and fantastic in equal measures.
Combat in Gaiden is in the familiar action style of the original games in the series, with a new twist courtesy of Kiryu's fancy new gadgets. Since Kiryu faked his death in Yakuza 6, he has been working for the shadowy political group that helped him do so. During that time, he has been learning some new moves, and throughout Gaiden, gains new tools of the trade.
These gadgets are called Spider, Hornet, Firefly, and Serpent. Spider is his spy watch, which shoots out a grapple line that can be used to grab enemies and reel them in, or swing them around. Hornet is a swarm of attacking drones, Firefly is an explosive cigarette that's great for clearing out groups, and Serpent is a rocket booster in Kiryu's shoes, which allows him to skate about the battlefield knocking over enemies.
As such, Kiryu has two fighting styles- Agent and Yakuza. It isn't the most complex fighting system we have seen for Kiryu, but it fits the game well. Thematically, it divides Kiryu into his past and present, his old ways and his new. This is a major part of the plot, as Kiryu contends with both throughout the story.
On the same page
Without spoiling much, the story is great. Pretty standard fare for Like a Dragon, but there is little to complain about with continued quality. The events of the game take place concurrently with the plot of Yakuza Like a Dragon, and occasionally tie quite closely into the adventure of Ichiban and his friends. Through this and other factors, Like a Dragon Gaiden does its best to catch everyone up to speed.
As mentioned before, Gaiden has a job to do. It has to tie the old in with the new, bring returning fans forward and also fill in the blanks for newcomers. To that end, Gaiden weaves much of Kiryu's past into the plot. While it doesn't outright recount all of his previous exploits, it does an excellent job of establishing who Kiryu is, what he has done, and why he is so important.
The plot makes clear that his very presence is influential on the world around him, and the significance of his "return from the dead". Anyone who has only played through Ichiban's story and is wondering what all the fuss is about will have a pretty good idea of who Kiryu is by the end of Like a Dragon Gaiden. For returning players, the game is filled with references and callbacks, making it an equally enjoyable stroll down memory lane.
Smaller, but not lesser
Like a Dragon Gaiden is a "budget" game, insofar as it is a bit cheaper than typical new releases. I think one of the best ways to explain is to consider it a bit like Uncharted Lost Legacy. Lost Legacy was a shorter side story built on the same tech that made Uncharted 4, but Lost Legacy was still a fantastic game in and of itself.
Gaiden is built on much of what came before it, but that is always true of Like a Dragon games. It takes place in Sotenbori, Osaka. The same location as half of Yakuza 0, and a chunk of Yakuza 7. The combat is pretty straightforward and familiar but it has its own elements in the new Agent style.
Like games in the past, you still have an open map to explore, people to meet, and things to do. There are dozens of side adventures filled with characters and stories, as you would expect from any Like a Dragon game. This time, they are funnelled through Akame, a new character, a sort-of fixer in Sotenbori and one of the better characters Kiryu has developed a relationship with, someone who could and should absolutely make more appearances in the future.
The Coliseum is a side game in itself, with plenty of fights to work through, and your clan to build up and expand. Early on, someone mentions that the Coliseum's top fighters are known as the Four Kings, which should immediately catch the ear of anyone who has put time into one of these Yakuza side plots.
In truth, the only thing that makes this a "budget" Like a Dragon game is the length of the main story. It will still take you 10-15 hours to complete if you rush through, so we're not talking Modern Warfare 3 levels of brevity here. With another five hours to the plot and a handful more new features, this could easily be another mainline entry in the series.
Return of the Dragon
As a long-time fan of the Yakuza/Like a Dragon series, I feel spoiled these days. With all the various projects from RGG Studio, it never feels like long between releases from this franchise or some adjacent part of it. The wild part of that is, that they never miss. Sure, not every game from RGG is an instant classic, but every game from them feels like home.
It doesn't matter to me that I have already done it seven or eight times, it doesn't matter that I have seen Kiryu as everything from a samurai to a secret agent, from a mascot outfit to the classic silver and red. I imagine I am not alone in that, and that many fans like me will never say no to another adventure with the Dragon of Dojima.
Whether you have been with him since 2005, a recent convert meeting Kiryu for the first time, or somewhere in between, Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Main Who Erased His Name has something for you. It is everything great about the franchise's past, rolled up and condensed into a shorter but equally intense and brilliant package. It may well be the final hurrah for what Yakuza was, the last of its kind, and if so it is a worthy sendoff.
Gaiden is a stepping stone to Infinite Wealth, this is true. The game comes with an exclusive demo for the next main instalment which only becomes available when you beat the story of Gaiden. Make no mistake, this isn't one of those games you only buy because it gives you a sneak peek of a better game.
Much like when folks bought Crackdown in 2007 because it came with a beta code for Halo 3, you shouldn't sleep on this game just because a bigger one is coming. Like a Dragon Gaiden is fantastic in its own right and deserves your attention.
Reviewed on PlayStation 5. Code provided by the publisher.