I'll admit, when Yakuza 7 was announced, the first mainline game in the franchise since Kazuma Kiryu's story concluded, I was highly sceptical. Any new protagonist would have big shoes to fill, after all. And then there's the fact that it's turn-based. There's a lot to take in.
Thankfully Yakuza 7 is a lot of fun, and is a loving tribute to JRPGs and many other games besides. It all begins not with new hero Ichiban Kasuga, but with a glimpse into the life of Masumi Arakawa, head of the Arakawa Clan, itself a small family under the Tojo Clan. Arakawa hasn't had it easy - among other things his son was left disabled after Masumi had to hide him in a train station locker (!) as an infant. In typical Yakuza fashion, Arakawa saves teenage Ichiban's life, who then swears fealty to him and later goes to prison in his stead.
When Ichiban gets out of prison in 2019, 18 years after his incarceration, the world has changed rapidly, but the biggest shock is probably that the Arakawa family has joined the Omi Alliance, famously the nemesis of the Tojo Clan Arakawa originally served. When Ichiban tries to demand an explanation from Arakawa, his former saviour shoots him.
Since Yakuza tends to only really get going where other games end - the intro sequence took me a stark ten hours to complete - Ichiban doesn't die, but instead wakes in a dumpster in Isezaki Ijincho, a Yokohama suburb. While this setting is once again modelled after a real red light district, that's not the most important aspect of the town. Ijincho literally means "outsider town" and the name marks it as a place where people come together who don't quite fit anywhere else. This includes, how else, a mafia triad, but also a large homeless population. Ichiban and his new friends, former policeman Koichi Adachi and ex-nurse Nanba, belong firmly to the latter.
There is actually an in-game explanation for the JRPG elements. Ichiban is famously a big fan of the Dragon Quest franchise, and now that he isn't a yakuza anymore, he decides to become a hero instead. This tells you a lot about the kind of guy Ichiban is. Kiryu was sweet, but Ichiban has an even bigger heart. He's also loud, impulsive and pretty stupid. A refreshing contrast to stoic-larger-than life heroes.
When you run into enemies on the streets of Ijincho, combat starts as soon as they spot you. They'll also respawn in roughly the same location. Once combat begins, you can choose between a melee attack, guarding, special attacks and using items.
What keeps battles from feeling static is how everyone moves around all the time. Unlike JRPGs with pseudo movement, positioning matters a lot here. While you can't move characters yourself, it's worth waiting for enemies to cluster as many special attacks can hit more than one target. On the other hand, a cluster of enemies means one of them may interfere when you try to get at their buddy. If Ichiban is close to a weapon, like a traffic cone or a bicycle, he'll pick it up and use it automatically. Guarding is crucial - pressing circle the moment an opponent's attack hits saves you from quite a bit of damage. Overall, combat seldom takes long - it's possibly even quicker than Yakuza's previous beat-em'-up-style street battles.
The attacks themselves are fun to watch even after repeated use, because they still have the same impact as attacks from earlier Yakuza games. Enemies bounce and ragdoll after a good beating, special attacks make the screen all but erupt. Sometimes the wires show - I've had my characters feebly kick at obstacles instead of enemies or stop in front of a fence like a lost Sim.
Yakuza 7 uses a job system for further variety. Since Ichiban is homeless, his main concern is making money somehow. Battles still bring money, but you don't beat wads of cash out of people anymore - I guess no one in Ijincho carries that much. Jobs, which you gain as part of the main story, are like costume changes in Final Fantasy X-2 or Lightning Returns. Once you've unlocked a new job, your character gains not only a new costume, but also different stats and completely new attacks. You can't change classes midway through battle though, in order to do so you actually have to visit the local jobcentre. So far, new jobs and party members seem to be really few and far between, however.
I love how much effort went into incorporating role-playing systems into a normal, everyday setting, down to the smallest detail. To cure status effects, you buy medicine and home remedies from the drug store. Your equipment is sold to you by old ladies in boutiques or, notably, in the sex toy shop, and includes weapons like aviation signal batons, walking sticks and obviously, giant sex toys.
During the sub stories, you now earn skill points that go into stats like wisdom and passion, depending on what advice you give people. In order to learn combo attacks with your party, you have to invest in Ichiban's bond with his friends by drinking with them or similar activities such as watching films together or group karaoke. Generally there's a stronger incentive to engage in these mini games and side quests knowing you can earn much-needed items and money - so far I've always been tight on one or the other, and good equipment makes a notable difference to combat. You can also meet characters from previous Yakuza games such as Gary Buster Holmes in substories and then use them as summons in battle for a fee during a feature called delivery help.
Among the minigames you have everything from previous games such as Mahjong, casino games, the arcade and of course karaoke, but all of that pales in comparison to the new games such as racing other homeless during PET bottle collecting and Delinquent Kart.
So far I love Ichiban, I'm having fun during the mini games and I enjoy the changes. I've also barely made a dent in the game. Feel free to deduct some hours for me playing in Japanese and thus having to translate everything I see first, but I'm coming up on 30 hours and I'm midway through the fifth chapter of 14. Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio did promise Yakuza 7 would be the biggest yet, but I wonder if it may become a game like Persona 5 that many people start and then lose the energy to finish. Yakuza 7 loves to go off on tangents that don't reconnect to the plot for hours, something I already found fairly tiring during last year's Yakuza spin-off Judgement.
A western release date is yet to be announced but I'm not surprised - there's more of everything, and every aspect of it comes with so much story and commentary that I'm sure it takes the excellent localisation team at Sega a while to get it all done. Look forward to it - Yakuza 7 is a credit to its franchise.