Fortunately, it didn’t. Were!’s portrayal of Bakumatsu history squirms between encouraging and retreating from an advocation of nationalism and militarism. Similarly, past Like a Dragon games avoided the endorsement of specific viewpoints by taking complex portrayals of thorny issues, like government corruption, and boiling them down to simpler messages about the power of determined, pure-hearted individuals to overcome political cynicism.
If Were! is hesitant to make strong judgments about sticky matters—like the form of government Sakamoto and his fellow loyalists fought to create, which in certain vital elements presaged Japan’s fascist empire, or Sakamoto’s fictionalized membership in the Shinsengumi police force—it’s only following suit with earlier games.
Most notably, however, the goofball spirit that runs through every Like a Dragon game remains intact in both Were!’s side stories and its main plot. Walking around 19th-century Kyoto, Sakamoto is frequently accosted by locals or tourists who seek his help in matters that include picking mochi thieves out of a suspect line-up, cooking lunch for a visiting warlord, helping author Natsume Soseki title his books, and matchmaking an unconfident samurai with a woman he believes himself too ugly to date. When he stops by local businesses, Sakamoto might end up taking a busy shift at an udon restaurant or helping to entertain a bar’s customers by taking the stage to sing a kind of proto-karaoke.
This breezy tone surfaces in the main plotline, too. As expected of the series, heroic male characters frequently settle scores or end debates with fights, whose over-the-top expressions of “traditional” gender roles reach heights of ultramasculine camp on the level of winking homoeroticism. (A bathhouse brawl between Sakamoto and another character presents a series highlight in this regard, with two gruff men taking the measure of each other by fist-fighting naked, puffs of steam obscuring their genitals as they roar, grunt, and grapple with each other.)
The portrayal of key historical figures is similarly flippant. Throughout the game, Sakamoto encounters those controlling the levers of political power, and, more often than not, ends up facing off against them in boss battles where names usually seen in history books hover above health bars.
This kind of good-hearted charm falters in Were!’s depictions of women, famous or otherwise, who function not as characters but as accessories to the male heroes and villains. This, unfortunately, is a problem as common to the entire Like a Dragon series as the rest of the game’s features.
Were! shows that Like a Dragon’s spirit—its desire to meld melodrama, social commentary, and unselfconscious silliness into a surprisingly coherent whole—can be translated to just about any setting, even one as outwardly incongruous as an era defined by years of violent political strife and cultural upheaval. This speaks to its creators’ understanding of what makes Like a Dragon work, even if it also demonstrates blind spots in plot and character writing. It also shows the boundless potential for reinvention in a series that’s been regularly releasing entries for nearly two decades, without any signs of slowing down in the future.