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Like A Dragon: Ishin! Feels Like Coming Home After 10 Years

Platform(s): PC (version reviewed), PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X | S
Genre: Period drama hack-and-slash

If you’re a fan of the Yakuza/Like a Dragon series, you’re likely familiar with its digitized actors and captivating stories. Like A Dragon: Ishin!, the latest release, takes things up a notch by giving the series a period drama spinoff, taking Kiryu and his gang back to the 1860s and immersing them in a samurai story.

It’s a fresh take on the series but might feel like familiar territory for long-time fans. Originally released in Japan as a PS3 exclusive back in 2014, the new PC version is a mostly-faithful remake with a few tweaks, some recasting, and updated graphics, but nothing too drastic. This puts the game in a unique position since the Yakuza/Like a Dragon series has been exploring new territories lately, like their turn-based system in Yakuza 7, but Ishin! is a decade-old game getting a modern facelift. It’s a bit like having one foot in the past and the other in the present.

Even though Ishin! brings back many of the franchise’s classic elements, it still falls into some of the same storytelling traps as previous games. But if you’re a fan of the Yakuza/Like a Dragon series, you’ll feel right at home with Ishin! You’ll explore the open world, fight lots of bad guys, and sit through plenty of long cutscenes that reveal character motivations and secrets. It’s basically the same kind of game that Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio has been making for years, just with a new setting and story.

The game was originally only released in Japan, but fans were excited when the series producer said in 2019 that a North American and European version was being considered. Well, now it’s 2023, and that localization has finally happened. Set in 1860s Japan, Ishin! is a return to the series’ traditional roots after the last game, Yakuza: Like a Dragon, changed things with turn-based combat and a smaller cast of characters.

 

Size Doesn’t Matter

Just because something’s old doesn’t mean it’s not good, and that’s definitely the case with Yakuza’s latest game, Ishin. If you’ve played any of the Yakuza games before, then playing Ishin will feel like slipping into a familiar and comfortable sweater, albeit one that’s been stretched out a bit. The town of Kyo (aka Kyoto) is yours to explore, with plenty of odd characters to befriend, restaurants to try, and street thugs to beat up. And if you’re a fan of the Yakuza series, you’ll be happy to know that many of the core characters from past games make an appearance, albeit in historical roles.

While Kiryu goes by the name Ryoma Sakamoto in Ishin, he’s essentially the same lovable character with a new haircut and the same gruff voice that can convey a wide range of emotions. It’s like the intentional typecasting of Danny Trejo in his roles.

But Ishin’s story is more ambitious than your typical Yakuza game. It takes place in the 1860s, a time of political upheaval and imperial loyalist uprisings in Japan. Ryoma finds himself caught up in all of it, adding personal stakes to the already complex political landscape. The performances by the actors are top-notch, especially in the main story cutscenes.

And while some of the characters are familiar, others, like Soji Okita (a reimagining of Goro Majima), take on more violent and menacing roles. Ryoma is also different from Kiryu in that he’s more worldly and focused, less naive and confused.

The game is an excellent starting point for newcomers, thanks to its standalone story and glossary of terms. But what newcomers and veterans alike will get from Ishin is a game with two distinct parts. On one hand, it’s an episodic period thriller, full of dramatic twists and turns and real-time combat. On the other hand, it’s a man-about-town simulator with plenty of minigames and side quests to keep you busy. The transition between the two can be jarring, but it’s a formula that has worked for the Yakuza series for ten games now. Even when I was trying to rush through the main story for my review, I found myself getting lost in the city of Kyo and its distractions.

 

Rock, Paper, Scissors… Gun!

Ishin may not have the sprawling world of Grand Theft Auto or Fallout, but it’s a compact little world that packs a punch. Every step you take leads to something interesting or someone intriguing. The side quests might not be as polished as the main story, but they are certainly more diverse, spanning genres from tragic to screwball comedy, often featuring mini-games and, of course, the game’s fighting system.

The combat system in Ishin is familiar to fans of the series, allowing you to switch between four different fighting styles at will. From bare-handed brawling to traditional samurai swordplay, from trick-shooting with a revolver to a hybrid sword-and-gun style that blends all three, the combat system is exciting once you get the hang of it. The only downside is that the boss battles take a lot of hits to knock down, which makes for some hilarious scenes when Ryoma is surrounded by low-HP goons.

Compared to the more humorous fighting style of Yakuza, Ishin’s combat is more brutal and gory, with enemies getting impaled, sliced, or shot at point-blank range. Ryoma’s Heat Actions, the super moves that consume his special bar, are also more serious, as he mostly just straight-up stabs his opponents. However, it does create a bit of a disconnect with the story since Ryoma doesn’t seem to be too concerned with whether his enemies live or not outside of cutscenes.

One unique feature of Ishin is the Trooper system. As part of his mission to find the masked assassin that killed his adoptive father, Ryoma infiltrates the Shinsengumi, a brutal government police unit. This unlocks a full JRPG-style dungeon crawling mini-game, where you clear out bandit caves and forts. To aid you in this endeavour, you can collect Trooper cards that act like a rudimentary gacha magic system, letting you equip and call in healing, buffs, or damage-dealing attacks. There are even a few special cards that summon characters or animals for spectacular finishers.

Despite the fact that the fighting is a bit more serious in Ishin, there are still plenty of comical moments. It’s hilarious when the four bandits you just shot ten times each all get up, apologize for their rudeness, give you an item, and scurry off home. While the combat can be a bit stiff and limited until you unlock more moves, I had a good time once I’d bulked up Ryoma’s Wild Dancer fighting style to say that is was overpowered and broken is an understatement. And let’s not forget that it’s also pointedly unrealistic, with minibosses taking a comical number of slashes to knock down—but then again it is a hack-and-slash.

Ishin’s farming minigame is not as exciting as previous cabaret club management in past Yakuza games, but it’s a cute and relaxing way to bond with teenage partner-in-farming/delivery girl Haruka. However, the farm is out of the way, and I found it easier to go into the karaoke bar or gambling den to enjoy minigames.

The PC port offers a good range of graphical options and tweaks, and it’s unlikely to tax your hardware either, but there is one notable problem with shader stutter. Due to the game not doing its homework up front, the first time a new effect is used, the game pauses a couple of frames to process it for your specific GPU. While there’s little to complain about with Ishin, it feels a little bit dated, and the key problem it faces is a value proposition. There are 11 English-language entries in the series released in the past five years on Steam alone, many of which are great and can be picked up for a pittance compared to Ishin’s full-fat price tag.

 

Is It Worth It?

Underneath it all, Like a Dragon: Ishin still has that wacky humour the series is known for in the West. It pops up in sub-stories where Ryoma runs into a foreigner who’s obsessed with samurai culture or stumbles upon a cult blocking a street with their erratic dancing. And of course, there is the series’ classic minigames, like a rhythm game inspired by nihon buyo dancing or growing veggies and cooking meals at your home with a young girl you’ve taken under your wing. These activities are nothing new, but they do add a fresh coat of paint.

Overall, Like a Dragon: Ishin! offers an interesting twist on the usual Yakuza formula with its historical samurai theme. Mechanically, the game is solid, including the combat and minigames, and it features familiar faces and tons of fan service in a vivid historical world. However, the game’s value proposition may be an issue for some players, as its full price tag is higher compared to other Yakuza titles that are just as good and often more affordable.

While Ishin! is a good addition to the Yakuza series, it still suffers from its cartoonish humour and jarring ending. The game is a comforting breath of fresh air regardless while it maintains your typical Yakuza mechanics but in a completely different time and place. It’s like coming back to your home town after 10 years and seeing how much has changed; still familiar but different all at the same time.

If you’re a fan of the series or the samurai theme, the price may be steep for some. Still, I highly recommend giving Like a Dragon: Ishin! a try just for its ambition and execution alone.

Pros

  • Gripping drama.
  • Great historical setting that will enthral & immerse you.
  • High-level production values with voice acting and cutscenes aplenty.
  • Big side quest and main quest offerings that will keep you busy for the whole year.

Cons

  • Cartoonish humour & jarring ending equals bizarre story tone.
  • Not as in-depth and impactful as past Yakuza titles like Yakuza Zero.
  • Some tech issues for the PC version.

Final Score: 80/100

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