Originally released by SEGA’s own Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio in 2014, Like a Dragon: Ishin was one of the many Yakuza spin-offs that never reached the West. Known to fans as one of the few titles locked behind the language barrier, just like the lesser-known Kurohyō: Ryū ga Gotoku Shinshō (Black Panther: Like a Dragon New Chapter) games, the action-adventure game came as a surprise to most overseas fans looking at the constant feed of reveals.
Unlike other titles in the series, Like a Dragon: Ishin! sets itself apart. As a spin-off reimagining the Yakuza franchise, the game takes many of the likenesses and personalities of its popular characters and puts them in a standalone story set in the 1800s where, aptly, the Meiji Restoration (or if you know your Japanese history, the Meiji Ishin) took place.
Hardly straying away from the dull side of things, Like a Dragon: Ishin! offers both series newcomers and series fans cutting-edge brawler combat and a drama-filled storyline full of twists and turns.
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▍ Blades of Vengeance
The beginning of Like a Dragon: Ishin! introduced us to Sakamoto Ryoma, a swordsman returning from training in his homeland of Tosa. Quickly reuniting with his father figure Toyo Yoshida and oath brother Takechi Hanpeita, Ryoma is swept into a secret ploy that aims to abolish the strict class system in his home domain.
One night, while discussing the plans to storm the local castle, a masked killer assaults the three and murders Toyo. Framed as the murderer of Toyo, a high-class official of Tosa, Ryoma is forced to flee the realm, not before swearing on his life that he will set things right.
Having fled to the capital city of Kyo, Ryoma discovers that the masked assailant’s peculiar sword style is called “Tennen-Rishin-Ryu”. After a run-in with the Shinsengumi, Ryoma learns of the fact that practitioners of the Tennen Rishin all come from the Shinsengumi. Going under the alias of Saito Hajime, Ryoma joins the ranks of the Shogunate police force to get closer to the man who killed Toyo.
▍ All the Warriors Comes with a Meji Twist
While taking names from historical figures for a majority of its cast, Like a Dragon: Ishin! tells a “what if” story of the Meiji Restoration with a heaping of highfalutin action and drama fans are most familiar with. From series protagonist and eternally scowl-faced Kazuma Kiryu taking the role of Sakamoto Ryoma to Goro Majima still, hell-bent on hunting his rival here as Okita Soji, allies and enemies from past games are (almost) all here.
Where the original release mainly focused on deriving character likeliness from the then most recent series titles such as Yakuza 4 and 5, Like a Dragon: Ishin! takes it up a notch by recasting 13 characters to have their counterparts changed, having the appearance and voice of a different character from the mainline games.
Though it’s not necessary to play the older games, some prior experience with the franchise’s signature characters that the Ishin cast shares face with certainly has its novelty. Familiar lines uttered by the characters would definitely make you smile.
Like a Dragon: Ishin! also serves as a viable jumping-off point for series newcomers to some extent, as the game has no real ties to the overarching plots of the mainline Yakuza titles due to its spinoff nature. While the character references may fly overhead, the story that unfolds in Ishin can be very much taken as dramatic fiction, loosely based on the Meiji Restoration period.
If you happen to be lost with the countless names and untranslatable terminologies being thrown around in the dialogue of Like a Dragon: Ishin!, the developers also added a handy glossary and character chart to put players up to speed, keeping wiki diving to a minimum.
▍ Style Switching Combat Returns
Much like the other non-RPG titles, Like a Dragon: Ishin! has you bumping into street thugs in the open world that triggers real-time fights. Though the battle system remains mostly unchanged, the shift from modern-day Japan to the Meiji era brings forth a new challenge for players, with almost all enemies being armed.
Foes brandishing weapons have always been major threats in other Yakuza titles, and in Ishin, they’re everywhere. While enemies can very quickly knock our protagonist out of combos with well-placed sword swings and gunshots, Ryoma has his combat styles to equalize the playing field.
Similar to subsequent titles such as Yakuza 0 and Kiwami 1, Like a Dragon: Ishin! adopts the multi-combat style switching mechanic. Trading in most of his traditional moves with swords and pistols, Ryoma gains access to a wider array of moves foreign. Instead of switching through the usual four, Ryoma has the choices of Brawler, Swordsman, Gunman, and Wild Dancer.
Brawler style in Ishin, while being the most familiar method of engagement, feels underwhelming in its Meiji-era form, as the game doesn’t give you many methods to increase its damage output. While the other styles can tangibly improve their offensive capabilities simply by upgrading the corresponding weapons, the Brawler style has no such upgrade path. The style also has the added uniqueness of being the only style capable of pulling off parrying throws, at the cost of not being able to block any weapon hits. Infamous moves like the Tiger Drop counter are still present, as the trainer for the move, Komaki makes a return as well.
Out of the three new styles, Swordsman is the most simple of them all, with the combat capabilities and functions being comparable to Saejima’s combat style in 4 & 5 of charged attacks that have super-armor properties to them. Finishers, aka Heat moves, performed while in the style also all do a very nice chunk of damage for the most part. It’s also important to note then, that the super-armor properties on your charge is only available when Ryoma has at least one level of Heat.
The style does have its fair share of downsides, mostly in how the game’s tougher enemies can power through your charged attack, making the point of super-armor moot in certain situations.
Gunman style allows players to completely back off from threats while blasting foes away with Ryoma’s trusty revolver. While the “downside” to the weapon is supposed to be its low damage per hit, the sheer notion that the gun requires no reloading and fires like a full-auto machinegun makes the style laughably overpowered for situations where the opponents have no long-range options.
Additionally, Gunman style also has the added option of being able to fire special ammo if you do any of Ryoma’s strong attack strings. The game offers bullet types including Enhanced, Acid, Thunder, Flame, and Poison rounds that all do about what you’d expect. However due to how expensive these rounds are to craft (and you can’t just buy all of them!), checking out how many of each ammo you have will be important if you intend to focus on this style.
Having a high-tuned long-range option can often lead to a slippery slope of no-brain button mashing combat (see Devil May Cry 2), so its implementation in Ishin feels like a mixed bag, with the option to just start gunning down your enemies feeling a little too effective at times.
The Wild Dancer style, while giving Ryoma the ability to evade and cancel his moves at the cost of not being able to block at all, has an evident downside of requiring heavy investment to do damage comparable to the other styles. The style generally has lower base damage and dependency on two different pieces of equipment to buff its attack power. All this being said, the pros outweigh the cons, as late-game bosses (especially on harder difficulties) use an array of attacks that make short work of Ryoma even with upgraded gears and stats.
For example, the boss fight against Okita has him pounce towards you after an audio queue that causes a fairly large AOE effect that knocks Ryoma down on the floor while dealing massive damage. The shockwave is unblockable, and a dodge sway isn’t going to give you enough breathing space. In situations like these, Wild Dancer’s ability to quickly pivot with invincibility frames more than makes up for the lower damage you get out of slashing at him.
All in all, the different styles offer a different pace to the usual hand-to-hand combat fans have become accustomed to. While they don’t seem to share the same polish all around, the blueprints of the style-switching mechanics that would be later carried forward to Yakuza 0 and onward can be seen in Ishin.
▍ Building the Crew, One Card at a Time
Like a Dragon: Ishin!, on top of the four diverse styles, adds another layer of complexity to the formula with the Trooper Card system. Thematically, as Ryoma joins the ranks of the Shinsengumi Taskforce under the pseudonym of Saito Hajime, Captain of the 3rd Unit, it’s only natural that he is given troops to work for him. This is where things get slightly more nuanced, where throughout his time in the city, Ryoma can, by chance, recruit the curs he kicks to the curb.
Upon defeat, these thugs will join the ranks of the Shinsengumi, where they become cards that can be slotted in the inventory screen as support during combat. Card effects vary greatly from supplementary like healing or regenerating heat, while the higher rarity cards completely dip into magical powers such as rapidly firing ki blasts, shooting force lightning, or outright time-stop abilities.
If the whole cadre of familiar faces in the main cast wasn’t enough for you, these Trooper Cards also have their fair share of members showing up from the previous games. While often looking ridiculous when performed, trooper cards and their abilities are a welcome addition to the formula that adds strategy and ways to even out the odds for the more formidable fights. Just don’t forget to set the skill activation to manual!
▍ How to Train Like a Dragon
Regarding upgrade materials, equipment customization takes a more prevalent role in Like a Dragon: Ishin!, as the game now has two weapons: the sword and the pistol, integrated into three of the four fighting styles Ryoma has in his arsenal. Due to how the combat styles are now tied to these two weapons, upgrading your armaments becomes paramount to defeating stronger foes.
Though Ryoma can certainly grind away picking fights with local ne’er-do-wells to gain skill points, Ishin also features venues such as the combat arena, battle dungeons, and the scarecrow arena for you to train Ryoma while giving out the much-needed materials required to smith weapons and armor.
The aforementioned Virtue currency also plays a large part in the grinding process. This currency can be found practically everywhere in Like a Dragon: Ishin! from side quests, shopping, playing mini-games, feeding a stray cat, or things as plain as sprinting for long enough. As a currency, Virtue is similar to the Completion Points found in the other titles, as they are needed to upgrade Ryoma’s sprinting speed and inventory slots. Outside of this, Virtue plays a larger role in the Second Life game mode where you can spend points to improve Haruka’s house for better cooking and farming.
Though Like a Dragon Ishin is not an RPG per se, the upgrading systems and gear crafting elements make the game far heavier on the grinding factor more so than other titles. Between racking up the necessary cash and materials to craft at the blacksmith, leveling up said smithy to the required level, finding stronger trooper cards, collecting Virtue… Ishin has plenty of different places to sink your time in, even excluding the plethora of side quests and minigames.
▍ Side Quests Make Your Revengeful Journey Fun
Thorough out his vengeful journey to find the culprit of his father figure’s murder, Ryoma will most inevitably bump into side missions. These side quests, alongside the cornucopia of mini-games found around town, serve to provide the more humorous side of the game fans have found to love.
One can expect a substantial part of the experience from the Yakuza titles is the extensive musings and dialogues found throughout the game’s story and side quests. You can practically tell how much the localization team had a kick out of translating these jokes and somehow managed to stick the landing with the humor.
Side stories can be found everywhere in the city, with most of them being virtually unavoidable to a blind player. Whenever Ryoma runs into these troubled citizens, they will make themselves heard by forcing a cutscene interaction with him, all Pokémon trainer style. Though players are offered the choice to back out from these requests, the sheer frequency in which Ryoma encounters these side quests can get tiresome. To the game’s credit, not all side quests are like this, with some being initiated only when you talk to an NPC instead of the quest coming to you.
From helping a child cope with his friend moving away to running around the streets chasing after a thief who stole Ryoma’s clothes, side quests throughout the game run the gamut of emotions, with each providing stories from all walks of life. These quests do reward players with materials and valuable items necessary to upgrade combat prowess, alongside Virtue, the new form of currency.
▍ Entertainment and Mini-games in Kyo
Like a Dragon: Ishin! is a game inexplicably filled with stuff. While the game lacks some modern-day entertainment such as a 1-to-1 emulation of Space Harrier or an obligatory game of Boxcelios, the 1800s has its fair share of pass times to keep you entertained in the down times of the main quest. Alongside mainstays such as Hanafuda, mahjong, shogi, and other gambling activities, Chicken racing derby, Buyo dancing, and courtesan games in Gion are added newly to the remake.
Some minigames found in the modern-day Yakuza titles get their mileage by putting a 19th century ye olde spin to them, with cannonball-slicing games that play identically to the batting centers of Kamurocho. Despite being invented a century later, Karaoke also gets its twist as well, with original tracks you can sing your heart out to. Heck, you can even sing Bakamitai, remixed with traditional Japanese instruments and a soulful shakuhachi flute solo to top it all off.
Haruka Sawamura shows up as just Haruka this time, where fate has supposedly destined her to be orphaned once again. This time she’s in trouble with a hefty debt left by her parents that Ryoma agrees to pay for on the condition that he gets to use the place as a second home. Called “Another Life” by the game, here Ryoma can sink time, money, and a whole lot of Virtue to improve the house’s farm and help pay off his newly adopted daughter’s debt by way of farming and selling crops and food items.
While sharing a premise similar to Animal Crossing (albeit direr), Haruka’s debt collectors seemed to have forgotten to set a due date of any kind for her payment, making the process a most pleasant time for players to unwind from the sword-clanging fighting in the city. Ryoma can also take up cooking, should he have the materials, making it so you can grow and make healing items without spending a dime.
What’s more, Ryoma can adopt stray animals and bring them over to the house, where they repay him by occasionally picking up upgrade materials.
While the game is chock-full of mini-games, you’d find yourself coming back to the house more often than any other minigame due to its simplicity and peaceful farming and cooking that contrasts most starkly with the more unforgiving activities in the city. There’s always fun to be had to send Haruka off to the market to sell a whole tuna while hearing Ryoma elatedly shout “Yoshi!” after harvesting exactly sixteen tomatoes.
▍Living Up to its Name as Like a Dragon Ishin Kiwami
While my PC was not exactly hitting up all the criteria listed in the Steam store page “Recommended” system requirements (and yes, it was the GPU), Like a Dragon: Ishin! ran at a stable 60 FPS excluding some situational hitches in frames when performing certain Heat moves and firing off too many particle effects in a crowded environment. Even though the original Ishin was tuned to the PS3 and PS4, the remake pulls its weight, with cutscenes looking as good as current-gen mainline games at times.
The streets of Kyo are kept compact, assumedly owing to the original game launch on the PlayStation 3, making for a game that’s not exactly the most demanding Unreal Engine game to run on PC. While the studio has confirmed the return of Dragon Engine for its next two games (Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name and Like a Dragon 8), RGG Studios’ foray into the engine could be a solid candidate for their future releases.
The wear and tear of the game show the most in how the game is structurally rebuilt in Unreal Engine 4 rather than RGG studio’s own Dragon Engine. Locations like Fushimi and the Rakugai district for example require no loading screen, though, on the other hand, most interior spaces and other tangential locations cut to a loading screen in between areas. While the Dragon Engine had its problems in the way of performance, these technical hitches carbon date Ishin as a title that was released before Yakuza 0.
While the game calls itself “Like a Dragon Ishin Kiwami” in Japan, the term comes off as a misnomer to the Japanese audience. This comes from how the game teeters closer to remaster than a remake, adding substantially less to the original than the other remakes with the “Kiwami” (Ultimate) name.
▍ A Long Awaited Spinoff Remake
While the different toss-up of names thrown around in the plot may be boggling at first, the story Like a Dragon: Ishin tells, is one series fans will be familiar with its pulpy human drama story, just with the backdrop of 19th century Japan.
Though the game understandably shows its slightly dated gameplay in comparison to later installments in terms of gameplay and structure, Like a Dragon: Ishin! is a worthwhile romp that clocks in at around 48 hours, offering players a different flavor of combat with the same amount of heart and laughter one expects from the series.
Whether you’re simply craving for the good ol’ Yakuza brawler experience, or if you just can’t get over yourself for missing out on a 9-year-old spinoff that was previously only available in Japanese, Like a Dragon: Ishin gets a recommend from me.
*This review was played and reviewed on Windows via the Steam Release of the game in its 1.02 version. Like a Dragon: Ishin! is also available on PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, and Xbox One.
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Like a Dragon: Ishin! Review – Wacky Unhinged Action in the Bakumatsu Period
Like a Dragon: Ishin! is a worthwhile romp that sets itself apart from the franchise, offering players a different flavor of combat with the same amount of heart and laughter one expects from the series.
Operating System: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, and Xbox One, Steam
Application Category: Game