Gaming Writer Ash Cole reviews Like a Dragon: Ishin! finding it to be an attention grabbing and stylish game
Available outside of Japan for the first time since its original 2014 release, Like a Dragon: Ishin! arrives worldwide with a new coat of paint and an eclectic cast of familiar faces from the long-running Yakuza series. Despite some imperfections, Ishin presents an enthralling story of the last days of Japan’s Edo period, with all the bombastic action and soulful flourish expected of a historical Yakuza spinoff.
Ishin’s story takes place in 1867, following real-life historical figure Sakamoto Ryoma’s journey to find his father’s killer and clear his name. His quest finds him joining the Shinsengumi, the elite police force of the era, under the guise of wandering samurai Saito Hajime. Ishin’s story is compelling from start to finish, full of great character moments and exciting twists. The original Ishin marked a turning point for developer Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio as a much more focused story than its messier predecessor, Yakuza 5 (2012), so it is great to see the plot intact.
This historical epic is largely told through liveply and well-animated cutscenes, with characters using the voices and likenesses of popular Yakuza characters. Most players with even a tangential awareness of the series will recognise this game’s hero as the stoic Kazuma Kiryu, and Shinsengumi officer Okita Soji as franchise mainstay Goro Majima. This remake recasts many roles to utilise characters from more recent games in the series, including Yakuza 0 (2015)’s popular trio of lieutenants. Not every substitution is a winner, though. Characters like Yakuza 5’s Shigeki Baba have been ousted in favour of newer, more recognisable faces, yet totally forgettable examples like Yu Morinaga remain.
Ishin has plenty of stories to tell away from the critical path, in typical Yakuza fashion. Substories are in abundance and tell a variety of hilarious, bizarre and touching tales. When roaming the streets of Kyo (the game’s fictional recreation of 19th Century Kyoto), Ryoma can go from sniffing out a mochi thief, to finding a cherry blossom tree to lay to rest a family’s beloved dog, without missing a beat. Ishin inherits the main series’ ability to artfully toe the line between dead serious and goofy, a quality that also serves it well in gameplay.
Primarily, Ishin’s gameplay revolves around its combat, wherein Ryoma swaps between four fighting styles on the fly. The most typical is Swordsman, a powerful and deliberate stance that rewards patient defence in one-on-one battles. The Gunman style, in which Ryoma trades his samurai steel for rounds of lead, is a little more situational, best suited for landing pot-shots on distant foes. I used this style the least, although blasting particularly deplorable enemies point-blank is highly satisfying. Wild Dancer style enables dual wielding of both weapons in an agile frenzy, trading raw power for speed. Finally, Brawler style discards armaments and allows the player to take on opponents with fisticuffs. Brawler cannot block blades or bullets, so players will rely on well-timed parries to flex on their foes. Style switching is very context-dependent compared to RGG Studios’ prior outing Lost Judgment, in which stances flow into one another seamlessly to extend flashy combos. I personally prefer the latter, although Ishin’s combat is still rewarding in its strategic challenge.
Combat is augmented by Trooper Cards, a plethora of equipable perks that impart beneficial effects, ranging from stat boosts to anime-esque superpowers like energy blasts or time-stopping. These abilities up the ante and keep combat fresh throughout the game’s 30 to 50-hour run-time, and serve as almost necessary perks for completing the game’s challenging dungeons, which can be explored to earn experience and materials to upgrade equipment.
Again, Ishin provides impressive variety in gameplay off the main path, in the form of myriad minigames. Karaoke returns, with a reimagining of meme-worthy hit ‘Baka Mitai’ in a traditional style befitting the game’s setting. Other activities include noodle-cooking, Buyo dancing, and betting on chicken races (yes, you read that correctly). There is an extensive ‘sub-game’ called Another Life, in which Ryoma must run a farm and go fishing to engage in Cooking Mama (2006)-like food preparation, then sell these resources on to pay off a debt. It’s a very engaging process that even I, who has never enjoyed life simulators like Stardew Valley (2016), found myself returning to frequently.
An oft-overlooked aspect of RGG Studio’s works is the soundtrack, and Ishin is among their best. Effortlessly mixing traditional Japanese instruments with hard rock (and in one instance, trap) music makes every battle, minigame and cutscene come alive. Whilst most tracks are directly carried over from the original release, this version provides even more blood-pumping remixes of fan favourites from the mainline games that newcomers will love, and veterans will love even more.
In terms of performance, Ishin runs at a mostly consistent 60 frames per second on PlayStation 5, albeit with some mild stutter and visual quirks when transitioning from cutscene to gameplay, and vice versa. RGG Studio has not quite mastered Unreal Engine on their first outing with it, which begs the question of why they opted to use it rather than their proprietary Dragon Engine, which has yet to show its age.
The Yakuza franchise has a unique talent for cramming as much content as possible into an overworld small enough to easily traverse on foot. Kyo is a well-realised setting also, alive with sounds of chatter and street music, and roaming couriers sprinting around. However, it doesn’t quite match up with the iconic Kamurocho, nor Ijincho, the sprawling city featured in other recent titles. Maybe it’s the excess of empty streets between districts, or the lack of fast travel points, but there is certainly something about Kyo that doesn’t quite hit the mark.
Like a Dragon: Ishin! more than delivers as a highly anticipated localisation, and as one of SEGA’s all-time greats. Minor nitpicks hold the game back ever-so-slightly, but its tense narrative, high-quality side content, surprisingly strategic combat and stylish presentation make it an experience to hold the player’s attention for a long time, and one that I highly recommend.
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