The rise of Yakuza’s popularity in the West has been something to behold over the last few years. Starting with Yakuza 0’s worldwide release in 2017, the franchise has propelled itself into the limelight, finally garnering the recognition and reception it deserves. The results of this have been felt quite quickly, with simultaneous releases and a slew of new projects in the coming years, including the long-awaited remake/localisation of Ryu ga Gotoku Ishin!, which only released in Japan when it originally launched in 2014.
It comes to us in 2023 rocking the brand new moniker for the series as Like A Dragon: Ishin!, and is fundamentally different from prior entries. Serving as a spin-off set in the samurai era of Japan as opposed to the bustling modern-day landscapes seen in mainline entries, Ishin offers up a unique flavour of Yakuza, one most comparable in gameplay to the likes of 5 and 0, but narratively, unlike anything we’ve had before. Despite some flaws, Like A Dragon: Ishin! is a wild ride that deserves a place in the pantheon of its predecessors, and is a must play for series veterans and newcomers alike.
Specifically set in the late Edo period, Japan is undergoing a transformation after the arrival of Western ships during the Bakumatsu era. Players step into the shoes of Sakamoto Ryoma, who bears a striking resemblance to former series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu. Ryoma returns to his hometown of Tosa after spending time in Edo studying swordsmanship, and is soon pulled into a political conspiracy to upend the discriminatory social class system Tosa is embroiled in. Ryoma, together with his surrogate father Yoshida Toyo, and his best friend, Takechi Hanpeita, hatch a plan to free Tosa from its oppressive government.
Things quickly turn sour, though, as Toyo is assassinated by a masked assailant, forcing Ryoma to leave Tosa behind as the prime suspect of the murder, fleeing to Japan’s capital of Kyo. One year later, and going by the alias of Saito Hajime, Ryoma seeks to infiltrate the Shinsengumi in the search for his father’s murderer. In typical Yakuza fashion, what unfolds is a grand conspiracy that reaches far across Japan, with Ryoma taking centre stage in the conflict.
What’s most fascinating about Ishin’s narrative, though, is that it’s largely based off of people and events that actually happened in Japan during this time of turmoil. It’s obviously quite dramatised for the purpose of entertainment, but this aspect of the story folds in an element of historical accuracy that’s new to the series. Reading up on the people these characters were inspired by, and the events that they become entangled in was a cathartic moment of realisation and connection to the country’s storied history.
Series veterans will no doubt get a kick out of seeing fan favourite characters translated into these historical figures, which also keeps the narrative firmly rooted within the realms of Yakuza. These characters also don’t always align in behaviour and morals as their mainline series parallels, which makes for many unexpected moments and interactions that had me grinning from ear to ear. Another nice touch is the inclusion of characters from Yakuza 6, and Like A Dragon, who weren’t present in the original Japanese release. While I haven’t played the original, the inclusion of these characters feels more celebratory and reverent as opposed to invasive or out of place.
The story itself is compelling from start to finish, brought to life by consistently stunning cutscenes, excellent performances, and unending attention to detail. It holds remarkable pace, constantly dangling the carrot in front of you without ever divulging all of its answers until credits roll. Myriad twists and turns constantly kept me on the edge of my seat, and while I appreciate the labyrinthian plots of prior entries, it’s nice to have something more straightforward in nature, meaning Ishin spends less time exposition dumping, and more time with its characters and moral quandaries.
If you weren’t a fan of Like A Dragon’s shift to turn-based combat, Like A Dragon: Ishin! has you covered. With the original Japanese release slotted between Yakuza 5 and Yakuza 0, it comes as no surprise that Ishin offers some of the most well-realised action combat in the series. Ryoma has four styles accessible to him in combat; Swordsman, Gunman, Wild Dancer, and Brawler, each one offering their own set of strengths and weaknesses.
Where Brawler lacks the raw damage of Swordsman, it gives you access to grabs and environmental weapons. Likewise, Gunman grants you a slew of ranged attacks which are great at a distance, but will put you in a tricky place if enemies close in, while Wild Dancer offers loads of crowd control and far-reaching attacks in a trade for riskier defence options. It’s a more considered and deliberate combat system in comparison to the scrappy scuffles of prior games. Heat Actions also return in all their glory, with each style boasting a heap of satisfyingly crunchy attacks that rarely wear out their welcome.
The way Ishin handles progression ensures that you’re constantly unlocking new moves within each style to play around with. Using styles unlocks respective orbs to spend in their vast skill trees, where Training Orbs unlocked by accruing regular experience points can be used in any tree. This means you can always progress a tree you aren’t using as much as the others. The ability to refund Training Orbs in place of style specific orbs means you can chop and change skills as needed, and adds a nice degree of customisation to how you move through each style’s tree. You’ll also unlock the ability to use powerful special weapons that bring their own flair to combat.
The other system that spices up combat comes in the form of the Trooper Card system. These cards give Ryoma additional abilities to play with, from area-of-effect attacks and damage boosts to health regen and knockbacks. While they can feel overpowered early on, they balance out towards the second half of the game, and add an extra layer of progression aside from the stuff tied directly to Ryoma. A few of these are real-world celebrities and influencers which can be immersion breaking, but the Trooper Card system can be disabled if you want to play without it.
The flipside of progression comes in the form of crafting, where materials obtained through various means can be spent to craft and enhance weapons. It works as a system and clicks nicely with the overall setting of Ishin, but can feel arbitrary when you’re constantly getting new weapons from bosses, Substories, and countless other sources. It’s a system where you get out what you put in, but I feel like there could’ve been more incentive to engage with it – especially in comparison to Yakuza: Like A Dragon’s crafting system.
A Yakuza game isn’t a Yakuza game without a compact open-world full of Substories and side content to engage with, and Ishin does not disappoint in this regard. Series mainstays like karaoke and dancing return in full-force here, but Ishin also brings along it’s own minigames to play around with. A highlight was chicken racing, where you can bet on rivalling chickens as they race around tracks. Another worthwhile distraction comes in the form of Ryoma’s villa, where you can have another life with Haruka, expanding your countryside villa as you farm, cook, and raise pets. There are so many to play around with when you want a break from the main plot, and they work together to produce the whacky tonal dissonance Yakuza is known for.
While not quite as many as other entries in the franchise, Ishin still offers a hefty number of Substories to engage with. While I can’t attest to the quality of all of them, the ones I did complete were thoroughly entertaining and well worth seeing through to the end. There’s one in particular surrounding an inari sushi salesman who sells out of product every day, where you’ll return to him morning after morning in the hopes that you’ll make it to the front of the line before he sells out. Without spoiling it, this absurd premise takes an unexpected yet heartwarming turn that further develops Ryoma’s character, while also building up the world around him.
From a technical perspective, Like A Dragon: Ishin! is mostly fine, but there are a few glaring flaws that often make themselves known while playing. The game looks and runs great, it might not stand up to the visual fidelity of Lost Judgment or Yakuza: Like A Dragon, but it definitely satisfies as a remaster/remake of a PS4 game. Cutscenes are remarkably gorgeous, and the art direction is well-realised within the setting of a historic Japan. The streets bustle in realistic fashion, with people going about their days, only to give way to atmospheric nights lit by restaurant lanterns and candles, creating a palpable sense of time and place.
Unfortunately, Ishin hitches a lot when jumping out of menus, whether that be when levelling up or accessing your inventory, often for a noticeable amount of time. I also had the game crash on me once, and the UI is noticeably bland – especially the text. None of these things were enough to outright ruin my experience with the game, but they happened often enough that it took me out of the experience.
Hopefully Like A Dragon: Ishin is the start of an effort to bring more of the Japan exclusive Yakuza games to the west. While Yakuza: Like A Dragon offers its own turn-based take on the franchise with a fantastic cast, I’d be lying if I didn’t emphasise how much of a blast it was to play a more traditional Yakuza game, for lack of a better word. Jumping into a game with familiar faces you’ve spent so many hours with is cathartic, especially in a setting as unique and well-realised as this one. Despite the core appeal to long-time fans, Ishin is also a great place for newcomers to jump in as well, with only tangential connections to the mainline series.
Like A Dragon: Ishin, offers both a familiar Yakuza experience in an entirely unique setting. Some technical issues and arbitrary systems can't hold back a compelling narrative, excellent combat, and a compact open-world packed to the brim with engaging content. Like A Dragon: Ishin shouldn't fly under your radar during this busy period, and is well-worth diving into for both series veterans and newcomers alike.
Compelling and Engaging Narrative Told Through a Fascinating Lens
Gorgeous Cutscenes and Excellent Performances
Some of the Best Action Combat Yakuza has to Offer
Packed with Addictive Substories and Minigames
Well-Realised Art Direction and Setting
Crafting System Feels Arbitrary
Bland UI, and Relatively Frequent Technical Issues