For as much as I have enjoyed almost every entry in the Yakuza series (known in Japan as Like a Dragon), I was surprised to find I had never encountered Like a Dragon: Ishin! Funnily enough, western fans might have felt the same way, upon realising that this entry is actually a remake of a 2014 title released exclusively to Japanese audiences. With this entry now available in every region and on next-generation consoles, Like a Dragon: Ishin! serves as a memorable and functional entry to the Like a Dragon franchise, rarely reinventing the wheel, but delivering with confidence the outlandish style and addictive mechanics that have allowed the franchise to flourish for this long.
A Ronin’s Revenge
Like a Dragon: Ishin! takes place in 1860s Kyoto, putting players in the shoes of Sakamoto Ryoma, who might bear a strong resemblance to recurring protagonist Kazuma Kiryu. Well, that’s because it is. Right down to that signature frown and calm nature, this is very much the same protagonist living in an alternate era, similar to the Bruce Wayne featured in the Gotham by Gaslight comic run. The story sees Sakamoto Ryoma seeking revenge for the murder of his father figure, ultimately resulting in an intense gang war. It certainly feels in line with previous Yakuza titles, as our protagonist must weave through a sea of corruption and ulterior motives in search of justice. I can appreciate the fact that it pulls no punches and intentionally engulfs payers in a battle between culture and honour , constantly blurring the lines between right and wrong.
That being said, Like a Dragon: Ishin! is well paced and wastes no time getting players into the thick of its turmoil, given it’s 20-25 runtime. The stakes are high from the very start and the narrative only builds towards its climatic final battle, which is consistently discussed and interwoven throughout the more immediate narrative. Performances are also fantastic, even if Like a Dragon: Ishin! only provides Japanese dialogue with English subtitles. While recent entries including Yakuza: Like a Dragon have included English dubs, the original Japanese voice performances simply provide a more believable and authentic layer to these characters, that should generally be encouraged. On the other hand, it does take away from any chance at accessibility, for those who may be visually impaired and do not understand Japanese.
Put em’ Up
As you would expect, Like a Dragon: Ishin! isn’t just a tale of redemption and revenge. It’s also a wildly fun and frantic beat em’ up that sees Ryoma taking on waves of rival gangs in the town streets and pummelling them like ragdolls. Combat feels generally responsive and satisfying, and given its newer diversions, rarely stays too far off the beaten path. Katana swords and guns now feature and Ryoma will be able to cut enemies to ribbons while pinning them from a distance in rapid succession. You’ll be able to select from one of four stances or fighting styles using the directional pad, prioritising a bare handed approach or a more tactical swing of the blade.
Blades feel incredibly satisfying and unique, along with a range of special weapons like golden guns and swords, each with their own powerful perks. Unfortunately, gunplay leaves much more to be desired. While you’re able to wield a number of pistols, once again with their own unique perks, they rarely feel as satisfying as the blades. They frequently go from feeling powerful enough to wipe out an entire arena of enemies in just a few seconds, to choosing at random when to hit and miss based on the wonky auto aiming mechanics. While it doesn’t go as far as to break the combat, the experience simply feels more gratifying when it’s up close and personal.
Aside from weapon perks, you’ll also get the chance to upgrade Ryoma’s skill trees in accordance with each of his four fighting styles. Each of these trees is incredibly expansive, but I can imagine most players will focus on one or two of their preferred stances in order to get the most out of the experience. The depth and variety on offer her is most welcome, but it feels as though Like a Dragon: Ishin! isn’t long enough for you to flesh out each of these four fighting stances to completion. Players can also utilise the Trooper card system, which adds yet another layer of depth to combat. These cards act like pre-set loadouts that Ryoma will carry into battle, from increased health and stamina to additional weapons and equipment for use in combat. Cards can even be combined for enhanced effects, which encourages a newfound sense of experimentation.
Off the Beaten Path
When you’re not fighting off waves of enemies, Ryoma can traverse the town of Kyoto to take on a bunch of secondary storylines and additional activities that fans of previous Yakuza games will surely gravitate towards. Chop wood, fish, dance the night way, sing karaoke, play poker and race chickens in any order that you see fit, each complete with their own mini-games. While they’re relatively linear and repetitive in the long run, they’re immediately charming and act as a constant reminder of the world that players are inhabiting. While these light-hearted activities do blatantly oppose the seriousness of the narrative, they act as a nice refresher between longer portions of story.
Secondary missions on the other hand, feel like a mixed bag. While the Yakuza games never felt afraid to take you off the beaten path for what felt like hours on end, Like a Dragon: Ishin! feels a little too safe. Many side missions feel like fetch quests, and while the occasional side quests develops into a unique set piece, these are few and far between. Acquiring Virtue points as a result is always a nice touch as it helps develop Ryoma’s abilities, but rarely feels as entertaining as it could have been in a more modern setting.
It’s also worth noting here that regardless of what Like a Dragon: Ishin! is doing or where it’s taking you, it looks great. Given this serves as a remake more so than a remaster, textures look polished and environments crisp, not to mention the detailed character models and smooth performance. While feudal Japan isn’t necessarily as flashy and busy as modern day Japan, it’s still worth exploring for the consistent amount of detail tucked away around each corner.
Like a Dragon: Ishin! feels familiar in all the right ways. Its combat is satisfying and narrative ultimately serviceable. While wonky gunplay mechanics can interfere at times, it never takes away from the otherwise dense and versatile combat system, between its various fighting stances and expansive skill trees. The feudal Japan setting looks fantastic in it’s own right, even if it lacks the flash and charm that the modern day setting is known for. While additional activities are fun and robust, side missions can feel a little inconsistent. Overall, Like a Dragon: Ishin! might feel like a remake for Japanese audiences, but serves as a wonderful addition to an otherwise solid franchise that continues to grow and develop.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: Satisfying combat and variety; Engaging narrative; Expansive skill trees and progression
Lowlights: Wonky gunplay; Side missions can feel a little inconsistent
Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, Sega
Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, Windows PC
Review conducted on PlayStation 5 with a pre-release code provided by the publisher.