Take the faces, voices, and over-the-top theatrics that have made the Yakuza franchise renowned, and transport all that back to 19th century Japan. The result is Like A Dragon: Ishin, an enticing period piece that also includes the series’ action-brawler gameplay and ridiculous hijinx. Even though the context has changed, swapping the gangs of the modern criminal underworld for political factions in a tumultuous time in history, Ishin is yet another example of what developer RGG Studio does best: melodramatic storytelling.
It’s been a long time coming as Yakuza: Ishin, originally a PS3/PS4 game from 2014, was not previously localized and brought to the West like other entries in the franchise. This new version lands somewhere between a remaster and remake, but it is based on older iterations of Yakuza games which makes Like A Dragon: Ishin feel dated in several respects, particularly in moment-to-moment gameplay. Still, its fundamentals are solid and the main draws of the franchise remain intact, hooking me with its characters and twists that had me eager to see its historical fiction unfold from chapter to chapter.
Instead of the glitz and glam of Kamurocho, Ishin takes us to late-Edo period Japan, around the time of the end of the samurai class and just before the country’s modernization. In the same way previous Yakuza games offer a sort of virtual tourism, Ishin’s vivid reconstruction of Japan’s past (albeit with more creative liberties) delivers the same thrills. The streets are filled with menacing men wanting to cut you down as you mind your business strolling through the markets, restaurants and bars represent the era’s cuisine, and tons of side content reflect the culture and traditions of the time. While it may not be as dazzling as the neon-lit streets of the modern day, the more low-key setting of Kyo (which is now modern-day Kyoto) is refreshing and a welcome change of pace that lets the Yakuza formula thrive once again within a framework it is comfortable with.
What you really come to this series for is the drama, and the Bakumatsu period of the Edo era is fertile ground for Ishin’s historical fiction. It’s a time in Japanese history when internal conflict and political strife came to a head, with various factions vying for power, leading to a transitional phase for the country. Ishin uses this as a stage to tell another story of betrayal, conflicting ideals, and seeking personal truths, but fits it into a pivotal time of widespread violence and societal turbulence. Ishin melds these parallel themes gracefully using strong characters as the focal point for both the gripping personal drama and the escalating struggle for power to steer Japan’s future.
By using the same character models and voice actors from the Yakuza pantheon, Ishin creates an immediate familiarity that made me feel right at home but ever-curious about the direction of its story. Series legend Kazuma Kiryu takes on the role of Ishin’s protagonist Ryoma Sakamoto / Hajima Saito (as an alias), loosely based on the revered real-world figures of the same names. Other favorites like Majima, Saejima, and Akiyama fill in the roles of Soji Okita, Shinpachi Nagakura, and Katsura Kogoro, respectively–just to name a few. It’s wild to see such an all-star cast don the names and roles of historical figures, but what’s more striking is that each character remains true to their ethos and personality from the mainline games. Although no experience with the Yakuza series is required to understand or enjoy Ishin, the little nods and references in dialogue, visual flourishes, and musical themes along the way are real treats for Yakuza sickos such as myself.
The dynamics between each character make for some hype moments and thrilling battles, especially with its prestige-level cutscenes that perfectly frame the story’s pivotal moments. Facial close-ups where you can see every little expression and the elegantly choreographed duels sell you on the emotion established in each cutscene, making the melodrama feel earnest, as the series always does. I was drawn to each character as if I needed no introduction, like seeing old pals and rivals from a movie screen fit right into a stage play.
However, Ishin does take its time to get the ball rolling. It wasn’t until roughly 8 hours in, around the halfway point, that I started to see the various pieces fall into place and the story comes into clearer focus. It drops a lot on you, frontloading the story by establishing factions, political terminology, and the deep cast in a way that can be tough to follow if you’re not already familiar with Edo period history. Ishin is ambitious in that way, trusting that you can keep up and track the things it throws at you. But at the same time, the first half sort of spins its wheels before having real consequences and character motivations take center stage. Once the tangled web of alliances started to carry more narrative weight, however, it was hard to put down as the momentum of the drama propelled me to the end, leaving me eager to find out what happens in each subsequent chapter. I’ve played too many of these games to be completely surprised by their plot twists at this point, but time after time, Yakuza games still activate those good brain chemicals with their cinematic storytelling panache, and Ishin is no exception.
Whether it be the Bakufu, Shinsengumi, Tosa Loyalist Party, or the various schemers looking to get a leg up in the upper classes, these organizations are focused on seizing power and enacting their brand of order in society. The story opens up by showing you firsthand the ugliness of the feudalistic caste system in place at the time, motivating you to fight the power, but as Ishin shows, virtue is in short supply no matter where you look. There are some patriotic platitudes sprinkled throughout for dramatic effect and to show a seemingly genuine desire for what’s best for one’s country, especially in the face of persistent meddling by deceptive western powers, but it keeps the romanticization of honor and glorification of samurai at arm’s length, unlike popular stories that have reveled in those myths. And as history has shown, the Meiji era of imperialism and nationalism that soon followed the period Ishin takes place in had a brutal and destructive impact. So while the political backdrop is fascinating and critical to the entirety of Ishin, it pretty much sticks to familiar beats of mainline Yakuza games to show that in its ugly history, there aren’t really any “good guys.”
Ishin’s tried-and-true action-brawler combat serves as a sufficient vehicle for all the gripping drama and larger-than-life characters. It’s similar to the Yakuza games of old but with a focus on swordsmanship and firearms. The four fighting styles feel more distinct than the various stances from previous Yakuza brawlers and have their own advantages in certain combat situations. I can elegantly slice through a crowd of enemies with the nimble Wild Dancer that combines sword and handgun, then switch to the deft-handed Swordsman stance to lay on heavy damage in one-on-one battles. The grappling-based Brawler, meanwhile, can be used for brute force and the Gunman can chip away at enemies from a distance, which helps mix things up.
A flexible upgrade system rewards you for using different stances and lets you add perks like new, devastating Heat Actions–the series’ signature cinematic finishers–or extended combos as you level up. Dojos throughout Kyo have their own little stories and unlock more options to get the most out of your stances and Trooper Cards act as special abilities that either provide buffs or magic-like attacks that somehow fit the ridiculousness I’ve come to love about the series.
Ishin can be as technical as you want it to be, even though basic hacking and slashing can get you through most of the story’s battles well enough. Like other entries, you’ll fight through hordes of enemies in story-driven scenarios, and they tend to have a bag of cheap tricks in their back pockets that are inoffensive at best and annoying at worst. On the other hand, Ishin’s boss fights are a highlight, which feel less like a war of attrition and more like a duel between skilled swordsmen. And these battles are topped off with over-the-top theatrics–in true series fashion, I can stab a dude in the gut five times and fire 10 shots point-blank, but when the dust settles, those gruesome Heat Actions were just a bloodless way to settle the score.
This new version of Ishin is faithful to what the original was when it came out in 2014 and uses an identical gameplay foundation from the older series entries. So, while it’s rebuilt on Unreal Engine 4, it plays much like Yakuza 0 and Yakuza Kiwami. However, that’s a noticeable step back after five other entries in the modernized Dragon Engine–especially coming off the latest in Lost Judgment, which featured the best brawler combat system RGG has made thus far. Playing through Ishin, it’s clear how much the series has evolved, with better fluidity of movement, and how that manifests in a more robust combat experience. Even though I can enjoy it for what it is, I had to place the game in context and keep my expectations in check.
The older tech shows its age in other aspects, as it’s apparent with quality-of-life features seen in later entries just aren’t present here. With the Dragon Engine having flexed the seamlessness of walking into the various shops and establishments, the segmented design of the open world reminds you that this is a game of generations past.
The actual content of the various activities that fill the streets of Kyo, however, are as good as they’ve always been. Signatures like rhythm-based karaoke feature a playlist of bangers that has Ryoma on stage singing his heart out to a crowd of bar patrons–good old “Baka Mitai” gets another goofy rendition here, and finally, I get to play through the original folksy version of “Iji Sakura,” which grabs you with a catchy, somber melody and voice actor Takaya Kuroda’s deep tones. And as someone who loves rhythm games, the fan dancing minigame and substory had me sinking even more time in chaining combos to some catchy Japanese folk tunes as Ryoma showcases his elegant traditional moves.
I sunk the most time into farming, fishing, and cooking, which all feed into the side content dubbed Another Life. Here, Ryoma lives off the land as you manage crops to grow in the backyard of his own home. As you harvest fruits and veggies, and reel in more fish from the rivers and open seas, you can cook more dishes. Cooking is done through cute little minigames that reward you with food as powerful healing items and extra money if you want to fulfill food delivery requests. It’s also how you connect with Ryoma’s adoptive daughter Haruka, who is essentially the same character as in the mainline games.
As with any Yakuza game, substories litter the streets as either short diversions for silly side stories with absurd or heartwarming moments. You’ll be doing a logic exercise to correctly accuse the culprits who stole a coworker’s mochi, helping a kid repair a relationship with a friend who’s moving away, slicing up dudes to protect some escaping an arranged marriage, and many other bizarre or amusing divergences–this version of Ryoma Sakamoto gets comically roped into everybody’s business and is just as naive but good-natured as the Kiryu we’ve grown to love. There are a ton of these substories as well, which can be overbearing when they automatically trigger and interrupt the main story’s momentum. And while not every one of these substories is worth writing home about, they’re always welcome as a reason to keep playing and experience the ever-present goofy side of RGG games.
Like A Dragon: Ishin is a fascinating part of the RGG Studio catalog, creatively blending the characters and drama we know and love across the Yakuza lore with a period piece set during a turbulent time in Japanese history. By virtue of its brand of storytelling, Ishin forgoes some of the tropes that have glorified samurai but rides that line ever so closely. If the series is one thing, it’s consistent–because despite the shift to Edo-era Japan, there’s an unmistakable familiarity. The days of asking Sega to bring Ishin to the West are thankfully over. And although this revision uses an older foundation that shows its age, it’s nice to finally have a version of the game that has been tidied up for modern platforms. Like a Dragon: Ishin brings an all-star cast back together for a story that’s bigger than any one character, and it makes for a fine addition to the series’ deep history.
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