Initial release date: February 22, 2014
Rerelease: February 21, 2023
Developers: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, Sega
Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series
Composer: Hidenori Shoji
"Review Copy Provided By SEGA/RGG Studio"
In the past, the Yakuza franchise faced difficulties gaining popularity outside of Japan. Despite being unsuccessful in the Western market, its spinoff games were unable to undergo localization for an international audience. One of these titles, Ryū ga Gotoku Ishin! which was released in 2014, was limited to Japan only. However, the situation improved for the franchise when Yakuza 0 was released in the West in 2017. This game's success paved the way for future games such as Yakuza: Like a Dragon to be released globally. It also initiated a trend of remastering older games for new hardware, such as Yakuza Kiwami and Yakuza 3 Remastered.
After almost ten years, the samurai-themed Ryū ga Gotoku Ishin! is now available to international audiences and modern consoles with the title Like a Dragon: Ishin!. It is a poignant tale of brotherhood and chosen family, featuring the charming characters that are characteristic of the franchise. However, the game's combat system may not always succeed in overcoming its origins in the PlayStation 3 era. Like a Dragon: Ishin! depicts the story of a young samurai named Sakamoto Ryōma, who is based on a real-life figure that lived during Japan's Bakumatsu era, a significant time in the mid-1800s when the ruling shogunate collapsed before the Meiji Restoration. As a form of loose historical fiction, the game effectively merges fictional elements with real-life characters like Ryōma.
Displeased with the deeply-entrenched societal hierarchies of the period, Ryōma starts the game by joining the Tosa Loyalist Party, advocating for a more egalitarian Japan. Nevertheless, Ryōma's mentor, Yoshida Toyo, is unexpectedly murdered, causing him to vow to track down the culprit. His investigation leads him to the capital city of Kyo.
Upon arriving there, Ryōma adopts the name Saitō Hajime, another reference to a historical personality, and becomes part of a new clan of samurai known as the Shinsengumi. The Shinsengumi serves as the city's police force and enforces its rigid social order. During the day, Ryōma is compelled to maintain the status quo, but at night, he attempts to undermine it. He juggles this dual life while pursuing Yoshida's killer, resulting in incredibly tense moments throughout the story where his true identity is nearly revealed.
The characters in Like a Dragon: Ishin! are all based on familiar figures from the primary Yakuza franchise. Ryōma resembles the previous protagonist, Kazuma Kiryu, while the Shinsengumi's elite officers bear similarities to Kiryu's past allies and foes, such as Goro Majima, who appears as unit officer Okita Soji. It's like watching a historical TV show populated by actors who gained fame in a different genre. However, because the characters are distinct from their mainline counterparts, new players can fully enjoy Ishin! without having played previous games. While the primary plot contains a lot of drama, Like a Dragon: Ishin! stands out for its silly side quests. One particularly memorable quest involves a British trader who demands that Japan opens its borders for commerce. However, as soon as he arrives in the country, a severe case of seasickness strips him of his imposing demeanor, which Ryōma cures with a delicious Japanese snack. It's a lighthearted moment that nevertheless touches on the dark history of colonialism, a theme that the primary story addresses more seriously.
Other side stories include Ryōma nodding off while listening to a talkative person who drones on about their life story and then quizzes him indignantly. You can also enjoy absurd mini-games like karaoke, fan dancing, chicken racing, and even cutting cannonballs in half. Kyo is brimming with bizarre and relatable diversions that'll keep you entertained for hours and make the city feel like a genuine, lived-in place.
In Like a Dragon: Ishin!, players can choose from various fighting styles based on Ryōma's weapons, such as the classic samurai sword, revolver, and fists. The game's combat mechanics allow Ryōma to pick up items to throw or smash at opponents in the brawler style, while the Swordsman style is useful for taking down particularly tough enemies, and the Wild Dancer style can handle multiple opponents. Meanwhile, the Gunslinger style lets players take out enemies from a distance, offering a range of options to keep battles from becoming monotonous.
However, Like a Dragon: Ishin!'s combat suffers from stiffness, as players cannot switch between styles seamlessly mid-combo as in other Yakuza games. Instead, Ryōma must stop attacking, pause, and then switch styles, disrupting the flow of combat and leaving him vulnerable to enemy attacks. It is unfortunate that the game's combat fluidity did not match that of other recent Yakuza titles.
Additionally, the game's camera can be problematic, particularly in small, enclosed spaces where it can swing too close to Ryōma's back, limiting visibility. The absence of a lock-on button further adds to the difficulty of tracking enemies. These minor issues combine to make the combat experience occasionally frustrating.
The combat in Ishin! may feel stiff, but the game does introduce new elements like Trooper Cards that add excitement to battles. These cards can provide health regeneration, support abilities, and special attacks such as an electric strike that stuns and knocks down enemies. Plus, players can even summon cameos from real-life figures like actor Rahul Kohli and wrestler Kenny Omega, making the battles even more thrilling and fun.
While Ishin! is a remake like many recent games in the industry, it offers a fresh and unique experience for most players. Its distinctly Japanese story and setting make it stand out, and the fact that the game's publisher was willing to localize it shows a dedication to bringing overlooked gems to a wider audience. Despite some combat issues, Like a Dragon: Ishin! is still a highly enjoyable game with a great narrative, memorable characters, and a worthy addition to the Yakuza franchise.