Like A Dragon: Ishin! - Review in Progress
There was a time not long ago that most Yakuza fans presumed 2014’s Like A Dragon: Ishin! would never make it to the West. Nearing 9 years old, its increasing age compounded with fears it’s Late Edo Period setting wouldn’t capture audiences outside of Japan seemed insurmountable, despite exploding interest in the Kazuma Kiryu saga from 2015 onward. After a deluge of remakes, remasters and localisations over the past several years, the day has finally come for Like A Dragon: Ishin! to grace gaijin consoles and PC’s as an enhanced Unreal Engine 4 remake.
One of two spin-offs set in earlier periods of Japanese history (the other being Kenzan, a 2008 release which would require vastly more work to update for current console generations), Ishin! takes place during the Bakumatsu period of 1853 to 1867 which saw major upheaval to Japanese society including the end of sakoku (the closure of Japan to outsiders) and the final days of Shogunate rule. Leveraging such an exciting historical period allows Ishin! to deliver the drama and action players expect of the series, maintaining many familiar elements whilst recontextualising them to this new setting.
Ishin! focuses on protagonist Sakamoto Ryōma, a fictionalised version of a historical figure who played a prominent role during the period setting of the game and herein closely resembles Kazuma Kiryu rather than his real-life counterpart. Within the first hour of the story, Ryōma is forced to flee his hometown in Tosa to the city of Kyo (modern day Kyoto) where he is dragged further into loyalist plots to overthrow the shogunate whilst also seeking revenge for a personal tragedy. My initial worries that Ishin! would indeed be too far removed from the rest of the Yakuza/Like A Dragon series were allayed within the first few chapters; despite the shift in setting, this is still very much the experience fans are looking for.
It’s quite pleasing how intact the general flow and abundance of side activities which populate many of the Yakuza games remain in Ishin!, none feeling tacked on or inferior while some seem enhanced by the period setting in which instances of lawlessness and conflict feel more likely to have happened as a daily occurrence than they do on the streets of modern-day Japan. Any plot confusion in the player caused by unfamiliarity with the many cultural and historical aspects of Ishin! are handily smoothed over by an in-game glossary which explains certain terms and concepts via an extra text window during dialogue and remains an option throughout no matter how many times it has appeared prior.
Unlike mains series Yakuza entries which tend to focus solely on hand-to-hand combat styles, Ishin! not only encourages but requires the use of period appropriate weapons such as katana, pistols, spears and cannons. Four combat styles are available to Ryōma and each is suited to the differing types of encounters the game throws at the player. Starting with the bog-standard Brawler style, players will quickly expand to Swordsman, Gunner and the final, Wild Dancer which combines sword and gunplay with dizzying results. Using a fighting style will increase Ryōma’s efficacy in it and unlock coloured orbs, which slot into a circular maze-like path housing the upgrades, skills and abilities of each respective style. Alongside the coloured orbs, players also earn a grey ‘wild’ version which slot into any wheel. These can help bridge gaps in a style that has gone underutilised but may become key to a certain enemy or boss, however it’s both beneficial and engaging to be shifting between fighting styles, especially early on when their individual movesets are rather limited. Some weapons and techniques are locked behind story and side content, one minor frustration being that it isn’t always immediately clear what a player needs to do or where they need to go to gain access.
As with every other Yakuza/Like A Dragon title, it’s quite possible to ‘mainline’ the story, a move that any afficionado of the series would say is losing out on what of makes these worlds a joy to explore. Activities and substories are scattered all over the progressively larger maps of Ishin!’s world, providing much of the character building for Ryōma and making Kyo a much richer environment. Whether it’s fishing, trying to deflect cannonballs with a katana in lieu of baseball practice, providing backup vocals for a local singer or finally (FINALLY!) endeavouring to learn mah-jong, the mini-games in Ishin! hold up against those in many of its predecessors. Similarly the substories still house much of the games quirky sense of humour, no doubt aided in part by a winking localisation which leans into the drama and comedy in equal measure. I think many fans would agree that it’s this willingness of the series to not take itself too seriously in parts that juxtaposes strongly with many of the more emotive sequences in the game to heighten the impact on the audience and elevate the material overall from what would rightly be considered soap/pulp otherwise.
Like A Dragon: Ishin! has its hooks in me without a doubt and is an easy recommendation for anybody who has enjoyed the Yakuza or Judgment games in the past, feeling more like a variation of the formula over something wholly new. At roughly 1/3 of the way through, I’m excited to continue experiencing Ryōma’s story and providing a full review in the near future for Player2.