Why Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s English dub is such a triumph for the series

Now you're speaking my language!

As a fan of Japanese games, one of the first things I’ll always do first is go into the settings and switch the audio to Japanese, or sigh with dismay when I discover that there’s only English audio available. Listening to the original language has always been important for immersing me in a story, especially when it’s a game as Japanese as the Yakuza series.

I’m especially reminded of the early days of voice overs in games. For Western audiences, the dodgy dubs of Hong Kong martial arts films or Japanese RPGs, might have given these exotic products a hilarious endearing quality. As an Asian person myself, I end up feeling even more embarrassed having these botched recordings trampling over any intended pathos especially at a time games were getting more realistic.

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So it’s been a huge surprise that for Yakuza: Like a Dragon, I decided to take a leap in with the English audio, which has completely changed my mind on the matter. Atlus’ job on localisation has been among some of the best in the industry but this really is their masterpiece, not just with the text but bringing it to life in one of the best dubs I’ve ever experienced in any medium.

Of course, Sega also did a great job with last year’s Judgment which could be considered a test run, since it was a spin-off that introduced completely new characters but still in the Yakuza universe. This was also following the soft reboot of the series, since Yakuza 0 and the Kiwami remakes that were responsible for giving a previously niche series much wider attention to Western audiences. Back then, I had asked Yakuza’s localisation producer Scott Strichart some questions about the decision to dub Judgment in order to reach an even wider audience.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon Guide – Find collectables, unlock job skills, and get quick XP

“I don’t think a lot of our core fanbase really realizes how many people pass on playing Yakuza because they have to read subtitles,” he says. “That’s not a slight against anyone, it’s just how they play, whether that’s because they’re balancing other tasks while they play video games or they’re the type that just wants to be able to get up and get a snack during a cutscene, you know?”

Audience exposure to foreign language media has also improved tremendously over the past decade, especially with platforms like Netflix, but Strichart still believes there’s a huge gulf when expecting any media in a foreign language to truly permeate an English-speaking culture. And when the latest Yakuza game is actively going up against holiday blockbusters like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Spider-Man: Miles Morales, it has to step up if it wants to be more than just the dark horse cult title.

What the dub gets right immediately is the lip sync, either by ensuring the lines and the experienced voice over cast’s delivery matches the Japanese during pre-rendered cutscenes or by having the developers re-animate lip flaps for the English audio. When these games luxuriate in lengthy dramatic cutscenes with huge close-ups, that detail matters, and the excellent results here make a mockery of the so-called authentic ‘Kurosawa mode’ in Ghost of Tsushima.

There’s also of course the incredible cast themselves, some which you might recognise from plenty of other Atlus releases but working at the top of their game. The Yakuza games are often highlighted for their absurd moments but that also risks giving a very narrow backward take of ‘weird Japan’ when the reality is they’ve always struck a balance between surreal silliness and heavy melodrama. This dub captures these tones faithfully, making you laugh out loud during its comical moments and at the brink of tears when Ichiban’s completely overwhelmed with passion and emotion.

Part of that faithfulness could also be attributed to some appropriate casting for its major roles, even if that’s not usually expected for a dub, where you’re already replacing audio from another language in the first place. Yet Yakuza is also grounded in realism unlike say an anime production, so I think it’s significant that quite a few of the lead roles in Like a Dragon are played by Asian actors, including Kaiji Tang in the starring role, Greg Chun (Judgment), Will Yun Lee (Sleeping Dogs), as well as the legendary George Takei, who brings a real gravitas to patriarch Masumi Arakwa, one of the most fascinating antagonists in the series’ history. Kudos to Sega for giving these talented actors the spotlight during the game’s promotion worthy of any Nolan North or Troy Baker.

I also have to commend them for going the extra mile and actually translating the karaoke songs into English. Those who played the recent Yakuza remasters will have seen the option to play these mini-games with translated lyrics already but to have its cast also belt out these tunes in English is quite another level.

More importantly is that, regardless of your view on subtitles or dubs, you have the choice to pick whichever you prefer. Having dual audio has thankfully been more common in all of Sega and Atlus’ games, especially as storage limits are no longer a concern. Diehard fans who want the original audio don’t have to feel short-changed with being forced to only have English, whereas those who don’t want to have to read subtitles also don’t have to just make do with a poor quality dub. Fans of subs are even better catered to since there are also two English subtitles, one for the English audio, while another more accurately translates the original Japanese.

Naturally, the next hurdle is whether Sega can aim to have the localisation done in conjunction with development so that we get to a point where future Yakuza games have a simultaneous release, which Strichart has stated is a goal from an interview in Inverse. On the other hand, I also wonder whether they might also have an opportunity to look back.

I actually went back to play the original PS2 game this year, and quite honestly, the dub wasn’t half bad. Voice-acting has certainly improved a great deal since then but if you were to compare it to say Shenmue, it’s a damn sight better. If Sega want the series to reach a wider audience, as well as putting Yakuza 0, Kiwami and Kiwami 2 on Game Pass, perhaps the next step would be to patch in an English dub for these games too. Doing this retrospectively is arguably too costly, though for anyone who’s finished the latest game, getting the cast for it isn’t out of question either. It’s something I would have balked at in the past, but based on the standard achieved in Like a Dragon’s localisation, my ears are open at such a prospect.


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