Review | Like a Dragon: Ishin!

Hold me closer, Wild Dancer.

As someone who’s first encounter with the Yakuza series of games was with Yakuza: Like a Dragon in 2020, I’ve been looking for an excuse to explore more of the beloved franchise and the upcoming release of Like A Dragon: Ishin! was the gentle nudge I needed. I know that last bit might make Yakuza loyalists shudder– good. I’ve been told by many friends and colleagues that the logical path forward would be to play Yakuza 0 or Kiwami, but I briefly played Yakuza 0 and barely an hour in I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t the right time for me to tackle the long-running series. So when it was revealed that the previously Japan only Ishin! was getting remade and released worldwide I was hoping that the series could rekindle the flame that Ichiban Kasuga and the gang sparked in me during my time with Yakuza: Like a Dragon back when the Xbox Series X launched.

Like a Dragon: Ishin! transports you to 1867, with political turmoil bubbling up around different prefectures of Japan. Loosely following the story of Sakamoto Ryoma on his journey of revenge, redemption, and what loyalty, brotherhood, and family mean during an inspired tale borrowed from the real life history of the end of the Edo period of Japan. Throughout Ryoma’s quest you’re confronted by familiar faces as series stalwarts populate plot lines and usher in a sense of familiarity all while remaining distant from their Yakuza origins. When a devastating turn of events upends Ryoma’s life, inertia sets in for the personal and historical plot to unfurl.

This reimagining of true tales with some of your favorite Yakuza characters assuming augmented versions of historical figures had me initially unsure if this game would have a chance of alienating me since I have no real attachment for fan favorites such as Kazuma Kiryu or Goro Majima. The amount of love and memes I see on a regular basis on the internet has me well aware of the adoration these characters have, but that’s not applicable to someone like me. Although after rolling credits on Like a Dragon: Ishin! I never felt like I was necessarily missing out on anything of major plot value or character development so if your experience with the Yakuza series is as limited as mine don’t let that deter you if Ishin! looks appealing.

Without delving into narrative spoilers of any kind, Like a Dragon: Ishin!‘s fourteen chapters had points early on that I didn’t feel as connected to the characters that I’d hoped I would be. The build up of events that take place in Toso and Kyo were at times slow and left me wondering if I’d be drunk with love or left with an empty glass. It was somewhere around chapter six that I felt the story started to ramp up and the pressure that was building was getting ready to blow. Although, once chapter nine rolls around and the sake starts flowing I knew Like a Dragon: Ishin! was going to get me rosy-cheeked and ready for another round.

Like a Dragon: Ishin! swiftly layers in gameplay mechanics over the epilogue and early chapters. Combat revolves around four different fighting stances: Brawler, Swordsman, Gunman, and Wild Dancer which allows for the gameplay to bend to the scenarios you find yourself wrapped up in while also allowing you to create different mix-ups and combinations. This not only adds panache to your sword pokes and potshots but helps keep the fighting sections from becoming too repetitive. Ishin! being a remake from a 2014 PlayStation 3/4 game shows it’s age in certain aspects with the combat being the most obvious. Although, the at times rigid flow that you’d not expect in more modern hack and slash games can result in aggravating interactions, especially in boss fights, I don’t think it ever impeded in my overall enjoyment of the combat.

There are a few different major combat scenarios that fluctuate throughout the game, each with their own type of approach– at least for me. Standard group brawls that have you, and sometimes an ally, taking on groups of bandits or outlaws, among other enemies. In these combat areas I’d find myself switching my stances more often and experimenting with combos. While boss encounters on the other hand, usually resulted in a duel between Ryoma and one other adversary. Specifically with the boss battles, aside from the drip of drool from my hanging jaw at some of the fight introductions I found myself being more strict and regimented in my approach with the attention to enemy patterns and use of blocking, parrying, and layering in heat moves to be paramount to victory. Whereas in the other combat scenarios you could play a little more loose and often take more chances.

Like a Dragon: Ishin! | Ryu Ga Gotoku & Sega

In addition to leveling up the skill trees for each fighting stance to unlock additional combos and heat moves– which are essentially special moves tied to a meter– at some point in the game you’ll unlock the ability to use Trooper Cards in battle. These cards can also be leveled up to gain more power and you can continue to unlock new cards through a few different means. Some of those being through specific actions taken at the barracks, which is a locale you’ll find yourself at most chapters, or by defeating roaming enemies and having them ask to join your cause. This additional drizzle of flavor on combat helped flesh out what Ryoma is able to accomplish on the battlefield and utilized wisely can help flip the odds in your favor or save you from falling to your enemy. I didn’t venture too deep into unlocking and combing new cards for different stance builds but from the light tinkering I spent with the additional fight system I felt as though it layered on another satisfying ingredient to help elevate the combat and customization.

The real star atop Like a Dragon: Ishin! and what has continued to make this prolific series as long running and beloved as it is, is the charm and world that this game and series cultivates within each installment outside of its main plot. Serious tones are littered throughout the narrative, touching upon corruption, death, political and societal upheaval but are met with mini-games and substories that inject brevity, laughter, and nonsense that can sometimes border on the fantastical but never seem to overstay their welcome or become unbearable. It could be a woman interrupting you on a side street when you’re traveling between objectives to ask for help acquiring a cucumber, or maybe you’re tending to your garden and exploring your kitchen in the Another Life simulation style section of the game. While almost all of these are optional, you’ll find yourself choosing to seek them out because you want to bask in the richness of the mundane, you want to find something that will make you chuckle or tear up, or you simply just want to uncover the bizarre hidden moments in the lives of those living in these locales. A cavalcade of variety that blends elements akin to WarioWare microgames, farming and fishing sims, and rhythm games, there’s seemingly no limit to the amount of side content to devour so no matter the level of satiation you seek, Like a Dragon: Ishin! seems to always have a plate ready to be served. Where even after I’ve spent time indulging in many of the stories and minigames living within Like a Dragon: Ishin!, I am finding myself exploring more of what’s to be seen in Bakumatsu Premium Adventure.

Like a Dragon: Ishin! | Ryu Ga Gotoku & Sega

Like a Dragon: Ishin! covers its monotony well enough with a suite of content that can continue to entertain well after you’ve rolled credits. Marred at points by tedious trekking between the same few main areas, for any low points or slow pacing you may encounter early on, the back half of Like a Dragon: Ishin! delivers impressive and at times cinematically exquisite boss battles and a narrative with emotional weight that connected in worthwhile ways. Ishin! may never have urged me to become as attached to its characters as much as Yakuza: Like a Dragon did, but what it does deliver is a slightly historic tale that deals with loss and forgiveness shrouding itself with moments of genuine delight, and generously gracing us with that Yakuza magic that the series casts every time with aplomb.

For all things Like a Dragon: Ishin! and Yakuza game related, be sure to keep it locked to Pass The Controller. For a deeper dive on all things gaming and nerd culture, listen to the Pass The Controller Podcast with new episodes weekly on your favorite podcast platform. Want to continue the conversation with us and our community? Join our official Discord server.

Like a Dragon: Ishin! launches on February 21, 2023 for Xbox One, Xbox Series X | S, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows 10, and Steam. We reviewed this game on Xbox Series X with a code provided by the publisher.

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