Video game reboots are usually undertaken in order to drag longstanding brands into 21st-century modernity. But Like a Dragon preserves the old-fashioned, somewhat unreconstructed vibe of the previous Yakuza games, while adding a new twist that diverts it into a different genre. Like its predecessors, this is essentially an interactive Yakuza film, but instead of beating up street goons by bashing buttons, Like a Dragon has you choosing actions and attacks from a menu as you would in Final Fantasy. This lets you control a group of characters, rather than just one – a bold move that in the context of a Yakuza game, makes perfect sense. Rather than following just one character, this is a gangland buddy movie.
The action starts in the familiar surroundings of Tokyo’s fictional Kamurocho district, where Ichiban Kasuga is happily employed as a low-level yakuza. Ichiban is an interesting character: orphaned and brought up in a soapland (a brothel masquerading as a bath house), he’s far too nice to be a gangster. He keeps doing things like letting people he’s supposed to be shaking down off their debts, inducing apoplexy in his Clan Captain. Luckily the Clan Patriarch sees him as a surrogate son, but soon, everything is turned upside-down: Ichiban displays his blind loyalty to his boss by taking the fall for a murder committed by another Clan member, and he spends the next 18 years in prison.
On his release, things don’t work out as planned, and that’s where the buddy movie aspect of Yakuza: Like a Dragon begins to gather steam. A washed-up cop named Adachi meets him at the prison gates, and shows him how the balance of yakuza power has radically shifted while he was in jail. A confrontation goes disastrously wrong, and Ichiban ends up in Yokohoma, literally on Skid Row, recovering from a bullet wound with the help of Nanba, a bum who was once a nurse.
An agreeably convoluted storyline about the Yokohoma criminal underworld then unfolds. Ichiban acquires a group of mates, and at times Like a Dragon feels like a soap opera. It’s dialogue-heavy, unfolds slowly and presents all manner of blind alleys for you to explore. How you choose to behave changes Ichiban’s personality, and conversations while walking or in restaurants and bars help him bond with his gang. Like all good Japanese RPGs, food features heavily.
Plus, the game has a hilarious obsession with jobs (which begins when Ichiban is living on the streets). The job each of your team’s characters takes on determines their fighting style, and some of them are amusingly inventive. Gloriously, if Ichiban gets a job as a Breaker he fights using breakdance moves, while Saeko can adopt a pop-idol fighting style that causes enemies to become infatuated with her.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is one of the funniest games you will encounter this year: it has a vast array of sub-stories, some of which are purely played for laughs, such as one involving a Clan Patriarch who likes to dress up as a baby. There is also an almost bewildering plethora of mini-games (ranging from driving tricycles around Skid Row in order to collect empty cans, to a full-blown company-management sim), plus hidden objects to collect. It can be quite vulgar, as befits a game about Japan’s criminal underbelly – you might, for example, find yourself fighting bin-bag-clad flashers in Yokohama’s sewers or bonding in a hostess club.
Offering a unique brand of tongue-in-cheek escapism that should induce a laugh roughly every five minutes, Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a perfect lockdown game. The one unintentionally amusing element is the voice acting, which you can thankfully eliminate by opting to keep the original Japanese dialogue with subtitles. Sega’s Yakuza games have always seemed like a well-kept secret, but they’ve recently been enjoying much more appreciation abroad. If you like the idea of a very Japanese, gangster-themed, interactive comedy soap opera, you’ll absolutely adore it.
• Yakuza: Like a Dragon is out on 10 November; £49.99