‘Like A Dragon: Ishin!’: An Eccentric Action RPG Vision of Edo-Period Japan
Like a Dragon: Ishin! originally debuted in 2014, just before its parent series Yakuza got its big break outside of Japan with Yakuza 0. While entries after that game quickly came westward (and now launch the same day worldwide), Ishin remained out of reach for audiences outside Japan until now. Inspired by the franchise’s explosion in popularity and the success of samurai-centric games like Ghost of Tsushima, Sega finally decided to remaster and localize the title.
Unfortunately, Ishin has a lot riding against it. It’s a “new” game outside of Japan that shows its age. Its gameplay and presentation feel dated, closer to 2015’s Yakuza 0 than the more recent Yakuza: Like a Dragon. It also tells a story completely unrelated to the exploits of series favorites Kiryu, Majima, and Ichiban, despite its characters carrying their likeness. However, there’s a lot to love here once you’re willing to accept that.
Unlike the bombastic plots of the main Yakuza entries, Ishin is a slower historical drama. Its greatest strength (and weakness) is its authenticity. Despite layers of absurdity and creative license, protagonist Sakamoto Ryōma was a real person, and many events in the game are based on historical accounts.
Sakamoto was a revolutionary who wanted to end the rigid samurai hierarchy in his home, Tosa Province. When the game begins, he’s just returned from training at an elite swordsman academy in Edo (modern-day Tokyo). He begins conspiring with his adopted father and brother to bring the townsfolks’ grievances to the local governing samurai. However, disaster strikes, and Sakamoto is forced to go on the run.
Like a Dragon: Ishin! features a large ensemble cast. Most of them are based on actual historical figures, some more loosely than others. However, their appearances are adapted from characters throughout the Yakuza series. Longtime fans of the series will get the most out of this, discovering how developer Ryu ga Gotoku Studio managed to weave familiar characters into the story while making only minor changes to their personalities and identities.
Ishin may be one of the more divisive entries in the series in the west because of its foundation as an Edo-period drama. There are many TV shows, books, manga, and games set in pre-Meiji Restoration Japan but little of that media makes its way out of the country, so there’s much in the game’s setting and atmosphere familiar to a Japanese audience for which foreign players have no reference.
Conversley, this is an amazing experience if you love history. The life and death of Sakamoto Ryōma had profound effects on his nation. He was a major influence in bringing about the Meiji Restoration, which shifted the country’s rule from the Tokugawa shogunate to the Emperor of Japan, who had been a figurehead for almost 700 years.
Despite the vastly different setting, Like a Dragon: Ishin follows the dependable format we’ve come to expect from the series. There are still a ton of minigames, substories, and secrets to find. And although the game’s narrative is broken into chapters, you have access to its open world most of the time.
Because of freedom of choice, tone never becomes a problem in Ishin. Like other Yakuza games, the pace is yours to decide. You can head straight through with blinders if you want to play through the whole thing as a samurai drama. If that sounds too heavy, you can spend hours having a zany time in a decidedly weird version of Edo Japan before heading back for more serious political dealings.
In combat, there are four fighting styles to call on, all of which are available shortly after the game begins. The standard hand-to-hand “Brawler” style is similar to previous games’ “Dragon” style and will be most familiar to players. It also allows use of heavy weapons like spears, odachi, cannons, and the like. “Swordsman” style allows you to unsheathe a katana and is best for one-on-one fights. You can use “Gunman” style to draw a pistol for long-range fights, equipping special bullets with unique effects. Lastly, there’s “Wild Dance,” which allows you to wield both katana and pistol for all-out offense (you cannot block at all when using it) and uses rhythmic moves to take on groups of foes.
Being a full-fledged action RPG, you can upgrade your move set for each style. Defeating foes gains experience, which grants you spheres you can use to fill out a circular grid to unlock new moves and combos or enhance stats. Upgrading weapons also gives your attacks more oomph.
Though new to western markets, in Japan this version is considered a remaster. It’s been rebuilt with lighting and texture enhancements in Unreal Engine 4. Yet somehow it still feels closer to 2015’s Yakuza 0 than the recent Dragon Engine entries. Movement out of combat feels awkward, and its dated PS3 origins are apparent.
Another new addition are Trooper Cards. You can equip four of these to provide major advantages in battle by granting healing, buffs, or special attacks. They too gain experience as with use to becoming more powerful over time. In addition to their effects in battle, the cards double as collectibles featuring characters from across the Yakuza series or from IRL influencers and celebrities.
The system feels somewhat out of place in the game. Ishin plays as a period piece despite its often silly side content, and equipping cards with Vtubers feels anachronistic. With the story being grounded in historical events, it’s off putting for Ryōma to blast lightning bolts through enemies and get healed by the internet meme-themed kit.
Yakuza fans have been praying for a translation of Like a Dragon: Ishin! for years, but it’s easy to see why Sega was so hesitant to release it outside of Japan. Players accustomed to the neon lights of Kamurochō may be put off by the new setting and historical references may fly over some heads.
However, despite the major environmental departure, this is a Yakuza game at its core. All the sub-stories, minigames, and heart are here in spades. So, even if you’re not in the market for an Edo-period drama, do yourself a favor and give it a chance.
Like a Dragon: Ishin! is available on Feb. 22 for PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, and PC. This review is of the PC version.
A Young Mom Was Arrested for Theft — and Died Mysteriously in Jail
- Criminal Injustice