Review: Like a Dragon: Ishin!

17 Feb 2023

What a difference a decade makes, huh? Before the release of Yakuza 0, the overall franchise was largely regarded as a niche that a handful of dedicated fans passionately latched onto since its inception. Because of that, it didn’t exactly make much business sense to release any spinoffs outside of Japan. Especially with how Dead Souls landed in the States without much praise. Since 0, the Yakuza/Like a Dragon franchise has found itself in a bit of a renaissance, and Gamer Escape has been there to cover the bulk of it. Instead of putting in the effort to obtain each original mainline entry, gamers can pick up the remasters with ease and treat themselves to the absolutely phenomenal Judgment spinoff games (both of which I highly recommend you play, mind you).

Now that the franchise has more of a foothold than it used to, and spinoffs have proven successful, longtime fans were treated to some really good news at last year’s RGG Summit. Not only were both Judgment games being ported to PC after the drama surrounding Johnny’s, but there would also be a new mainline and side entry on top of the long-awaited localization of Ryu Ga Gotoku: Ishin! as a ground-up remake. It should go without saying that fans would be eating pretty well for the next couple of years. Some might bemoan that Kenzan! wasn’t also part of the localization plans, but the fact that we’re finally getting any localization of either of these games at all is a victory in itself.

Given developer Ryu Ga Gotoku’s track record with their premier property as of late, giving the fans what they’ve been asking for just seemed like a no-brainer. Compound that with the addition of Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name and Like a Dragon 8, RGG isn’t quite ready to let their leading man go just yet.

Published by SEGA, Like a Dragon: Ishin! will release on PS4/PS5/Xbox One/Xbox Series X | S/Steam on February 21 2023. The PS5 version was played for this review.

A Healthy Dose of Mystery and Chanbara

After opening with a flash forward of sorts, we’re treated to the arrival of Ryoma Sakamoto in the remote town of Tosa. It’s the Bakumatsu era of the Edo Period, specifically 1867, right near the tail end of both time periods. Once in Tosa, it doesn’t take long for Ryoma to find himself in some trouble that requires some intervention from his father figure Toyo Yoshida. After bailing him out, Toyo privately lays out a bold and bloody plan to shake up the class structure in Tosa.

In the middle of this discussion, he’s cut down by an unknown masked assailant. Being a victim of circumstance and a bit of a meme in the franchise at this point, Ryoma finds himself taking the fall for Toyo’s death. But not before locking away his injured sworn brother and banishing himself from Tosa to figure out who the “masked man” that killed Toyo ultimately is and what brought the masked man to murder him.

One year later, we find that Ryoma has escaped to the capital city of Kyo. He’s assumed the alias of Saito Hajime, and hasn’t made much progress in obtaining relevant intel on the man he’s searching for. After all, the only bit of information that he has on them is the fact that the assailant has a very niche fighting style that’s only really found in Kyo. Eventually, he discovers that the best way to solve this mystery is to join the deadly special police known as the Shinsengumi.

While we’re not too far removed from the murder mystery plot in Lost Judgment, this feels more like a return to the concept despite it preceding that game. With the bulk of the cast resembling their main franchise counterparts (Ryoma has Kiryu’s appearance, Okita Soji adopts Majima’s, etc), it’s pretty clear that they wanted to tell a story in a different setting while essentially retaining the same-but-different characters. Being that this was one of the first spinoffs in the franchise, it would make sense to stick with what fans are used to. Hell, some characters from newer titles were slotted in to treat newer fans.

It should go without saying, but I find myself welcoming the change of scenery and time period. It’s pretty obvious that they weren’t trying to emulate Kamurocho, but instead, transfer the drama and detail of the mainline series into the Edo period. We may not be dealing with the same setting or time period, but the classic hallmarks are present and accounted for. Most fans know what they’re in for when they fire up a Yakuza/Like a Dragon game, and Ishin! is no different. What usually starts off simple enough ends up becoming a lot more complicated as the game progresses, and here it’s littered with references and characters/historical homages that hail from the era they’re telling the story in.

Because of that, I feel the enjoyment of the game may vary from person to person. It’s by no means a bad story, as RGG has largely stuck to a formula that works for them. But I can see longtime fans getting more of a kick out of seeing their favorite characters as samurai more than the casual ones. It does have the advantage of being a side story, so new fans could use this as one of many entry points in the franchise.

Admittedly, while still better than other games, this is not one of the strongest stories out there for this franchise. Though that’s more due to the fact that other titles have eclipsed it in quality more than anything else. Taken on its own, it’s great storytelling done in the vein of classic Kurosawa films. Just on that aspect alone, it should be given some recognition for straddling the line between a good homage and a classic Yakuza/Like a Dragon plot. While the overall story is undoubtedly good, it can’t help that later stories have succeeded and surpassed it. Don’t let that detract you from diving in, because it’s far from weak.

Blades, Bullets, and Buckets of Blood

If you’re going to ask any longtime fan of this series about the core combat of this series, most of them will mention the various ways RGG has handled hand-to-hand combat mixed with found and improvised weaponry. The fighting styles may change from title to title, but most will be comfortable with this bread-and-butter routine. More often than not, though, you will get a fan or two that will openly state something like “I really wish Kiryu could just pull out his own gun and mow some guys down.” Psychopathic as that sounds, firearms in this series have largely been found weapons with limited usage. But Ishin eschews this for having era-appropriate handguns be part of the core gameplay.

More to that, it’s part of four on-the-fly fighting styles you can switch between in combat, namely:

  • Brawler: The classic hand-to-hand gameplay the series is known for.
  • Swordsman: Katana-centric hack-and-slash gameplay that’s pretty solid. Best used in close quarters.
  • Gunman: Revolver-centric gunplay that’s primarily useful from mid-to-long range.
  • Wild Dancer: A fusion of Swordsman and Gunman with more graceful dodges, but at the expense of not being able to block.

With the exception of Wild Dancer, each fighting style has classic light and heavy attacks with blocking. Every style has unique Heat actions, naturally. But I’m glad that each style is well-balanced. Those worried that the Gunman and Wild Dancer will break the game in half can be assured that it won’t. You might be able to get away with idly popping away at stray ronin in Kyo, but more plot-heavy bosses will lay you out if you don’t strategize enough or have a strong enough weapon equipped (some can be crafted).

More to the point, later story beats will have you learning about Trooper Cards. It’s not MesuKing, nor is it a side activity like Clan Creator. It’s more like an enhancement to your fighting styles that you can use on the fly. Think more in the vein of regenerating health, boosting attacks, using a special attack, and things like that. These perks can be modified and tweaked, and you are encouraged to seek out ronin that have deserted the clan to obtain these perks. These were helpful in a pinch, but also another box for completionists to check off.

Core gameplay is undoubtedly solid, and bears that Yakuza/Like a Dragon feel that you know and appreciate. This isn’t really surprising when you think about RGG’s history, but one not-so-hidden change was the use of Unreal Engine instead of the Dragon Engine that’s been used in quite a few of their prior titles. This doesn’t drastically alter the experience. But after playing quite a few games in their in-house engine, I couldn’t help but be a little surprised. Any glitches I ran into were rare (and occasionally funny) and didn’t detract from the overall gameplay. If anything, it feels like the remake treatment the titles in the Yakuza Remastered Collection should have had from the get-go.

Other elements from prior games are also present here. Skill trees that are leveled up with spirit orbs may be familiar to those who’ve played Yakuza 4 and the like. Striking bonds with people around town makes its way here. Obtaining secondary points to spend and expand skills at a specific spot, known as Virtue here, is a welcome addition. Grabbing random stuff off the ground to use elsewhere in the city in the form of a sort of lottery ticket is in line with the locker mechanic.

Really, none of this should surprise you if you’ve been here before. For newbies, it can be overwhelming. Much of the stuff I’ve mentioned is mostly optional but can help make your playthrough a little more enjoyable. There’s much more depth than one might expect here, but at the bare minimum, you can take on as much as you’re comfortable with doing. Nothing’s stopping you from taking the critical path and only focusing on the story.

But it wouldn’t be a Yakuza/Like a Dragon game if there wasn’t a dearth of distractions around to dive into. Obviously, you’re not going to be firing up Space Harrier at a Club SEGA in 1867. But there’s plenty to do during your stay in Kyo. Series mainstays like karaoke take the form of a singing bar, and I’m going to keep playing Baka Mitai until they pry it from my cold dead hands. It’s a welcome change of pace to play this rhythm game in front of a captive audience, and the franchise’s trademark silliness is still on full display. Though this isn’t the only rhythm game option here, as buyo (fan dancing) is the Edo version of club dancing. Honestly, the gameplay here is pretty simplistic. But this minigame is a fun way to show off some Japanese performance art history and let our Kiryu stand-in get in touch with his feminine side.

Naturally, there are other distractions to sidetrack yourself with during your playthrough. True to form, some of these can get as deep or deeper than the core gameplay. Just this time around it’s more era-appropriate instead of being in multiple titles by virtue of it being in the Edo period. I can easily see someone get super into chicken racing in the same way some people really fell hard into the Pocket Circuit minigame. You’ll also have some series mainstays like mahjong, shogi, and fishing along for the ride as well. Not everyone may fall into each distraction as hard as others, but they’re worthy value-adds regardless.

You’ll also run into the usual dearth of substories as well. Like other titles, these can be a source of tender drama or absolute absurdity. Per usual, you’ll run into these just roaming around the city. Though it was a common occurrence for these substories to interrupt at the weirdest times, and it happened pretty frequently. It’s not like the stories themselves were bad, but I found myself being pretty annoyed with having to try and rush through opening lines of substories just to get back on the critical path. It’s ultimately a minor to mid annoyance depending on your gameplay goals, but I’m sure I won’t be the first person to gripe about this.

You’ll even get the chance to get your Stardew Valley fix in the form of Another Life, where you help a young orphan amusingly named Haruka save her farm by helping pay off her debts by helping her remote farm become the best it can be. If you know your farm sims, you know what to expect here. It’s not trying to emulate the whole farm sim experience, but it’s also not doing it in a half-assed manner, either. Such things aren’t quite my cup of tea, but I’m sure that it will satisfy those that are into them.

Collectively speaking, this is par for the course for any title in the franchise. But even weaker titles like Yakuza 3 maintain a consistent value-to-content ratio, and Ishin! doesn’t stray far from this either. The core gameplay is just different enough to feel fresh in comparison to other titles, the distractions are still compelling despite the era, and is a solid game in spite of the engine shift. Not bad for a standalone spinoff.

Brushstrokes of the Past

There is a bit of irony in the fact that this game (regardless of version) has now spanned across three generations. With the original release in Japan on PS3 and PS4 and now this remake on current and prior generation consoles, it’s amusing to say that this game has seen as many consoles as Grand Theft Auto V has. I just find this little factoid amusing, but I’m sure those who picked up the Japanese original will find plenty of things to pick apart in terms of the overall look and feel of the game the same way that GTA fans have.

For one, the setting does look the part. Given that this is considered to be more of a historical fantasy, absolute accuracy isn’t exactly a priority here. But I dare you to drag someone who isn’t familiar with the franchise in front of this game and get their reaction to the setting. More than likely, they’re gonna say something along the lines of “this definitely looks like a samurai game set in the past.” There will be inevitable comparisons to games like Ghost of Tsushima (there is a Kurosawa-style filter in both games, for one), but it’s not like I’m going to dock it for sticking with an established period and taking a few liberties along the way.

I wouldn’t go out of my way to say that this is an all-out visual powerhouse, either. RGG wanted the setting to look the part, and it succeeded. It looks like it belongs on modern hardware, and runs smoothly as well. Older consoles and PC setups might struggle to maintain 30 frames a second on certain resolutions. But given that we still haven’t fully moved on from the prior generation, the fact that it’ll run at a playable framerate at all for those still unable to make the next-gen jump is a welcome concession. Modern Yakuza/Like a Dragon games have never been one to be the kind that skimps on good visuals, save for maybe the visual weirdness in Yakuza 3. Ishin! is a game that’s pleasant to look at, and I wouldn’t expect anything less from RGG.

The era-appropriate direction also extends to the audio side of things as well. Overall music sounds like you would expect for this era, with a bit of a modern twist thrown in that isn’t too egregious. Other musical additions, like the singing bar, are just as good as you’d expect (and yes, the Edo period version of Baka Mitai is beautiful). But those looking for an English dub won’t find that here, as the Japanese voice cast once again takes center stage. Personally, I don’t mind this decision because that voice cast has been solid for years and the setting lends itself to really only needing subtitles to add to that Kurosawa feel. But those looking for an English dub will leave a bit disappointed. I find it part of the charm of these games, but I can also count on one hand how many of these games even have said dub. It’s not a deal breaker by any means.

Regardless, I’m not sweating over the presentation. By now, if RGG somehow dropped the ball here, I’d be very shocked. Given that they should be familiar with modern hardware by now, bringing this game up to modern presentation standards doesn’t seem like much of an issue to do in the first place. With the Judgment games and Yakuza: Like a Dragon being their initial stabs at modern hardware, having Ishin! maintaining that level of quality shouldn’t really surprise anyone.

Making the Cut

Over the years, I’ve found myself celebrating the victories of games that have been getting the due they deserve. It’s even better when it’s a game like Like a Dragon: Ishin! finally getting the due it deserves here in the States. Really, we should be celebrating that it’s even on our shores at all. It’s a reminder that there was a time when these games flew under the radar for the longest time, and the timing just felt right to finally bring this missing piece of the franchise over.

While It finds itself in the company of phenomenal ground-up remakes like Dead Space and Metroid Prime: Remastered, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio should feel good about what they’ve done here. Not only does it bring a previously inaccessible entry of the franchise to a captive audience, but it also shows that they can breathe new life into them as well. That part alone is worth celebrating. There are times when this remake does walk. But when it sprints, it really turns on the jets.

Longtime fans and curious newbies will find a lot to like about this samurai epic, and maybe those newbies might branch out and see what all the fuss is about the drama in Kamurocho. I’m just hoping that there’s enough momentum in this game’s sails to carry Kenzan! to our shores, too.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review code provided by SEGA for PS5. Screenshots and featured image taken by reviewer.