Like a Dragon: Ishin! – Let The Past Die
Following up from my early impressions and having rolled credits on Like a Dragon: Ishin!, my beyond lukewarm take is that while an enjoyable entry in its own right, Ishin! doesn’t quite hit the previous high watermarks of Yakuza 0 or Yakuza 6. But hey, that’s how it goes for any long-running series with such a dearth of releases – not every ball gets knocked out of the park.
Eschewing much of the gritty crime drama for a semi-fictionalised version of Japanese history focusing on political and societal struggles in the face of rapid modernisation (courtesy of the gunship diplomacy of Commodore Perry), Ishin! lacks many of the genre-based anchor points the wider western audience had for its predecessors setting. Steeped in the complex hierarchy of the period, it nevertheless incorporates many of the overarching themes of the series as a whole including loyalty, identity, sacrifice and found family. The story reaches a satisfying conclusion, albeit one that would have perhaps benefitted from an epilogue chapter or two were it a truly modern title rather than decade-on remake. Ishin! creaks in many ways, a fresh coat of paint not quite concealing design and gameplay elements from a bygone era.
Archaic UI and menus aside, frequent loading screens and repetitive side quest design are things I may have overlooked a few years ago, but in 2023, I find it increasingly difficult to give such elements a pass. Ishin! of course hasn’t had the luxury of a western release prior to now, so I understand the desire to keep it as intact as possible, but I was quite unengaged with many of the side quests which seemed to drag on longer than was necessary. The main story however is as explosive as one would expect, often to the detriment of the surrounding material as I pushed towards the boss-rush climax rather than getting caught up in the everyday problems of the citizens of Kyo like I would in Kamurocho.
Exploring the city of Kyo was quite fascinating as someone who was recently holidaying in its modern-day counterpart of Kyoto, only a handful of shrines, temples and the Imperial Palace still recognisable amongst over a century and a half of staggering urbanisation. Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio should be commended in the ways they reimagined the side activities for the period setting and kept as many as felt historically and culturally appropriate. While there’s no SEGA Arcade, there is still plenty of arcade action amongst the singing, dancing, udon preparing and gambling mini-games littered throughout Kyo. Again, there’s nothing here that sunk its claws into me anywhere near as much as the Real Estate Mogul or Cabaret Club Manager of Yakuza 0 but I have strong doubts that RGG Studio will ever surpass that particular magnificence.
Faithfulness to the original release also hampers the battle system, which predates the Dragon Engine entries that freed up combat and exploration quite a bit since its debut in Yakuza 6, ensuring encounters would spread into nearby businesses and smoothing out a lot of other dated gameplay elements. Of the four combat styles, only the Swordsman and Wild Dancer struck me as both viable and enjoyable in Ishin!; Brawler hearkens back to every other Yakuza system and Gunman felt entirely too situational for my tastes, nevermind how unsatisfying it felt to try and maintain distance from enemies rather than get up close and personal – if I’m carrying around a samurai sword, I damn well want to use it every chance I get.
If I sound overly critical, rest assured it comes from a place of admiration – I won’t let a single game in this franchise escape my attention, but as the developers have pushed themselves across Yakuza, Judgment and Like a Dragon titles my expectations lift. Ishin! may just be the tipping point for me in the oeuvre of RGG, the point at which I stop looking back longingly at previous entries once inaccessible for western audiences and instead focus on what is still to come. I enjoyed the 25 or so hours I spent helping to jumpstart the Meiji Restoration, but I’m now itching to see what could be done with a fresh entry in this period setting rather than another remake or remaster.
Like a Dragon: Ishin! was reviewed on the PS5 with code kindly supplied by Five Star Games Australia.