Like A Dragon Ishin! review "More than a spin-off"
There is a video game anecdote that I love, and it comes from an interview with Shigeru Miyamoto. The creator of Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda was answering some questions posed by Dan Ryckert, then of Game Informer. He asked Mr Miyamoto why, even though Bowser kidnaps Princess Peach time and again, Mario still plays golf and goes go-karting with him.
Mr Miyamoto's answer compared the cast of the Mario games to an old cartoon or comic, where the characters would often play different roles depending on what was needed of them. He referred to them as "like one big family, or maybe a troupe of actors." The same could be said of Like a Dragon Ishin!, a historical spin-off of a modern franchise, where the cast of actors playing beloved characters take on different roles in a different setting.
Better late than never
Like a Dragon: Ishin! is the latest re-release from Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, best known as the creators of the Yakuza/Like a Dragon series. The Yakuza series has exploded in popularity outside of Japan over the last several years, spurring not only new releases but also remasters and remakes of older games. Ishin! is one of these slightly older games, originally released in 2014 but never made available outside of Japan.
The original Ishin! was one of several Like a Dragon spinoff titles, following on from Like a Dragon Kenzan, and the much-maligned Yakuza: Dead Souls. Although their stories are unrelated, both Kenzan and Ishin take the familiar faces of the franchise back to the past, and centre the story around samurai during a period of Japanese history.
Ishin! takes us back to the 1860s, the latter days of the samurai in Japan. Our protagonist is Ryoma Sakamoto, a samurai from Tosa, a town which is struggling under the yoke of a discriminatory class system. Ryoma, along with his adoptive father and sworn brother, set out to upend the oppressive rule over their town and ultimately reinstate the rule of the Emperor.
Ryoma is an original character, despite looking and sounding an awful lot like Kazuma Kiryu. Most of the main cast share their appearance with a significant character from the mainline series and are portrayed by the same actors. Staples like Goro Majima, Haruka Sawamura, Shintaro Kazama, and Akira Nishikiyama make appearances in important roles.
In this new version of the game, we see even more familiar faces joining the cast. Specifically, newer characters like Koichi Adachi and Tianyou Zhao from the most recent mainline game, Yakuza: Like a Dragon, make appearances as members of the Shinsengumi faction.
There are characters here that both recent and longtime fans are going to recognise, and do that Leonardo DiCaprio point-at-the-TV thing. Seeing these altered portrayals of characters we know and love is a lot of fun, like a peek into an alternate reality.
There is more to this game than simple nostalgia and finger-pointing. It is its own story and it has its own merits. The tale of Ryoma Sakamoto is one we will not spoil here, but will say that it involves vengeance, honour, and a murder mystery. All elements that make up a great samurai tale and, unsurprisingly, a great Like a Dragon/Yakuza story.
Like meeting an old friend...
Fans with plenty of experience with the series will feel very at home here. The early goings of Ishin! might leave you feeling like this is game a completely different beast from the mainline series, but before long the familiar beats of a Yakuza game kick in.
The first few hours feel very directed and serious, but rest assured, it won't be long before you are wandering freely around town, eating at restaurants, getting into random fights, and meeting strange people.
Some of the earliest substories include meeting a lady who has driven away everyone she knows with her constant chatting, or encountering a flash mob of aggressive dancers and getting so caught up in it that Ryoma starts dancing along too.
I ran across a young boy who was upset because he didn't have the same toys as his friends, He asked if I had anything to give him that he could play with. I gave him an octopus that I had just caught while fishing, and he was very happy with it.
The overall tone that the series is famous for, with its dramatic shifts between the serious and the silly, is present in Like a Dragon Ishin! The characters and setting may be wildly different from what we are used to, but the game is unfiltered Yakuza goodness. Perhaps the only drawback is that it is too faithful to the original formula.
...and that friend has not changed
Over the last few years, we have seen both remakes and remasters of classic Yakuza/Like a Dragon games. The first two games got full remakes in the modern engine, whereas Yakuza 3 - 5 were brought back in the remastered collection. These games look much better than the originals, but under the hood, they are effectively the same games you played on the PS3. Of these two methods, Ishin! steers toward the latter.
As gorgeous as the game is running on a PS5, Ishin! has the unmistakable feel of an older Yakuza game. It is noticeable in the smaller things; like how you have to constantly hold R1 to lock on to enemies, how you often have to fight with the camera to keep it centred, how you spend most of your time running the length and breadth of the map, or how boss fights feel less like a test of skill and more like a test of how many healing items you remembered to stock up on.
These preserved elements of the game feel anachronistic now, not much of a detriment as much as a reminder of just how long ago 2014 was. The series has come a long way since then and reached a whole new audience.
That new audience may not be ready for some of the inconveniences of the older games, giving the game a slight barrier to entry. For fans who know the series well and know what they are getting into, Ishin! is an easy recommendation. If you have played the remasters, you are more than ready for Ishin.
Regardless, there is much to love about Ishin! As mentioned, it holds true to the Like a Dragon formula and in all the best ways. The intrigue that these stories are known for is strong here. Much of the plot would not feel out of place in a modern Yakuza setting, but the added themes and tropes of a samurai tale give the game its own flavour.
I am by no means an expert, but a strong-headed, noble warrior seeking vengeance despite the inevitably dire consequences sounds like a samurai tale to me. It also sounds like a Yakuza game, which only furthers the point that these two things are an excellent match.
Being set in the 1860s makes this more of a 'dying days of the samurai" kind of story, with the advent of guns rapidly replacing swordsmanship. This factors heavily into gameplay, as Ryoma wields both his sword and a revolver. In this way, the game feels similar to Red Dead Redemption 2, where you can see our modern world encroaching on the past.
Elements of the past and future
The gun and the sword give the game the various combat styles that Yakuza games of the time were known for. You can fight barehanded, with your sword, with your gun, or with both at once. There are pros and cons to each style, suiting different situations.
Perhaps the biggest con to the whole combat system is that the least fun way to fight, the gun, is the most effective. As you might imagine, a gun beats a sword almost every time.
That said, the game gives you plenty of reasons to mix up your styles. Sometimes the reason is that it can get boring to stand there and mow down a group of enemies with your infinite bullets, but sometimes doing that is incredibly funny, so there really isn't much to complain about.
As is generally the case with these games, the combat is fun but nothing to take too seriously. The point is to fill up that heat gauge and throw dudes off of bridges, into a tiger cage, or whatever wild nonsense the developers come up with.
Again though, we are reminded that we are playing a Like a Dragon game from 2014 with a fresh coat of paint. Combat is fun but it lacks the weight it would get in later games. You spend a third of every fight waiting for Ryoma to stand back up, and another third in your inventory downing jars of ointment. It pays to remember that this is not a modern game, as much as it may look like one.
A cautioned but whole-hearted recommendation
I feel I may be harping on the point that this is a remaster, not a remake, and how that may not be as appealing to some. I remember all too well the years when Yakuza games flew under the radar. The quality of the games was marred by technical limits, but once they struck gold with Yakuza 0 we got to see the series flourish.
Going back to the older games is a treat for those who have become invested in the recent titles. With some love for the franchise, it is easy to see past the outmoded mechanics. It isn't a huge hurdle at all, but it might be a stumbling block for someone not as familiar with the series.
If this is your first time going back to an older Yakuza title, you are in for a good time but you might also be in for a shock. The game isn't a million miles from what we see today, but some aspects of it are a little jarring.
With that disclaimer out of the way, Like a Dragon Ishin! is an easy game to recommend. It looks fantastic on modern systems, and runs beautifully as you would expect it to. The core experience that makes every Like a Dragon/Yakuza game great is alive and well here.
It is a joy to watch the plot unfurl, or deviate into the many side activities and stories. You could even spend all your time in your little garden, growing crops, cooking meals, and tending to your pets- completely renouncing your samurai life.
The love and charm of the Like a Dragon franchise is at the core of Ishin!, a fact alone that makes this one of the best games you will play this year. The change of setting and time only adds to the appeal, you won't find yourself missing the bright lights of Kamurocho when you are watching the sunset over the river or wandering the city streets by torchlight.
My personal love for the franchise gives the nostalgia of this game much of its appeal, but Like A Dragon: Ishin is more than a spin-off; it's a worthy chapter in the series that stands on its own as an excellent entry into an iconic franchise.
Reviewed on PlayStation 5. Code provided by publisher.