For this Yakuza fan, one small disappointing aspect of 2022 was not having a brand new Yakuza game to sink my teeth into. So going into this year, I was circling my 2023 calendar for not just one but two Yakuza games releasing this year, which kicks off with this month’s Like a Dragon: Ishin! for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S. Unlike past games, Like a Dragon: Ishin! is completely separate from the narrative of the mainline series (even more than the Judgment games) and is a standalone spinoff title that takes place almost 200 years in the past in RGG Studios’ historical retelling of Japan’s Bakumatsu era (1853–1867), which ended the almost 300-year reign of the Edo period.
No Longer An Exclusive in Japan
Like a Dragon Ishin! may have a different setting than the Yakuza or Like a Dragon franchise, but one aspect of the game that will be familiar to fans is the characters themselves. The historical figures you play as and run into will share the faces of support and antagonist characters from all eight modern-day games, ranging from the early games to the most recent one, Yakuza: Like a Dragon. While this is the first game in the series’ recent western rebranding of the series now known as “Like a Dragon” going forward, Ishin seems to be a brand new experience for most western fans of the series, “Ishin!” is a title that the series’ most hardcore fans will recognize because the game has already been out when it first launched in Japan almost 9 years ago and has been stuck in that region ever since. The spinoff game was initially released exclusively in Japan as a PS4 launch title in 2014, and since then it has been stuck in the region and hasn’t officially been released in the west.
After putting almost 100 hours into Like a Dragon Ishin!, I’m happy to report that I enjoyed it and its revolutionary 1860s settings. It’s not one of my favourites in the series, as the pre-launch version of the game on Xbox Series S has some noticeable bugs in both gameplay and cinematic cutscenes that brought down my experience a bit, but it’s still a good time. Speaking of gameplay, I do feel Like a Dragon Ishin! is a step backward from what came before in the most recent Dragon Engine games. RGG Studios developed this spinoff in Unreal Engine 4, making the experience feel like I was literally back in the past both narratively (as far as the time setting) and in terms of gameplay that felt similar to the older games. RGG Studios makes great strides in its 2023 aesthetic approach to the remake by making Ishin! feel more similar to a Dragon Engine game, but actually playing it is a different story as it plays more like the older games, which had me down at times. Overall, RGG Studios delivers a solid package with a fantastic narrative and gameplay for which the series is known. Still, this time around there is a much greater focus on katana and gunplay than in the previous brawler games.
A Homecoming That Goes Horribly Wrong
The year is 1866, and you are placed in the shoes of an early-20s Sakamoto Ryoma (the counterpart of former longtime Yakuza protagonist Kiryu Kazuma) who returns home to Tosa (the older name for Japan’s Kochi Prefecture) after finishing his sword training in Edo, the historical city name of what we would later know as Tokyo. After returning and exploring a little of his hometown, Ryoma is quickly arrested after getting into a fight against a Joshi, a high-ranking samurai who was in the way of a mother getting her sick child to a doctor. Afterward, he is imprisoned and set to be executed before his father figure and Tosa’s government minister, Yoshida Toya (the counterpart of Kiryu’s mentor and adoptive father, Shintaro Kazama) shows up to rescue his wayward son.
The rescue is all part of Yoshida’s plan to overthrow Tosa’s social class system alongside Ryoma with his sword skills and our protagonist’s sworn brother, Takechi Hanpeita (the counterpart of Keiji Shibusawa from Yakuza 0), who has formed the Tosa Loyalist Party to garner members for their cause. Before the day they make their move, all three meet at Kōchi Castle to officially lay out their plans before a masked assassin appears using an unrecognizable sword style and kills Yoshida. Takechi quickly chases after the murderer, holding his father figure close to him Ryoma hears his dying words before the castle guards happen upon them, and like in past Yakuza games, they quickly pin a murder on our hero.
Unique to the series, in Like a Dragon Isshin!, Ryoma doesn’t take the fall and fights his way through a castle of guards using four fighting styles at his disposal, which leads to a boss fight with the masked assassin and his eventual escape. Afterward, Ryoma escapes while carrying Takechi—who was cut up badly by the masked killer—to the outskirts of Tosa. Before they are cornered, Ryoma hides Takechi in a nearby temple and jumps off the cliff to the body of water below.
The story picks up one year later, in 1867, the final year of the Bakumatsu era, Like a Dragon Ishin‘s protagonist has tracked down the masked killer’s location to Japan’s current capital city, Heian-Kyo, or simply Kyo, as it’s known in the game; Kyoto’s historical name. It’s here that Ryoma’s journey for revenge and the truth truly begins.
Join The Shinesengumi To Seize The Truth
Ryoma is a now-disgraced Tosa ronin known under the alias Saito Hajime, forgoing his real name. Since his time in Tosa, he has memorized the sword style of the masked assassin and learned its name: the Tennen Rishin-Ryu. Saito learns from an informant he meets in the early chapters of Like a Dragon Ishin! that the sword style in question is used by six captains in the Shinsengumi. In Japanese history and pop culture, this is a well-known special police force made up of Ronin, samurai without a master. This news motivates Saito to make the only move he can make at this point, joining the Shinsengumi. It’s here that the player finds out the truth behind his father figure’s death and who the puppet master is behind the hit, which leads to a personal confrontation and determines the very future of Japan itself.
Like most games in the franchise, Like a Dragon Ishin!showcases a truly stellar and compelling narrative that’s complemented by the character’s performances from the game’s Japanese actors. Specifically, Ryoma and Takechi actors Takaya Kuroda and Hideo Nakano bring it to another level with the depth they bring to their historic Like a Dragon Ishin! counterparts. I’d also like to commend RGG Studios for experimenting with historical source material in a novel way by combining Sakamoto Ryoma and Saito Hajime into a single person while still maintaining the sense that Sakamoto Ryoma’s name has an impact on the story, as it does in Japanese history. Overall, Like a Dragon Ishin‘s story feels both educational for those like me who have limited knowledge of Japanese history and feels very much like a love letter to the Yakuza franchise by featuring at least one character from every mainline Yakuza game in a narrative that respects your time with them.
Select From Four Fighting Styles
While my time with the narrative of Like a Dragon Ishin! was a definite high, one thing that was a slightly negative experience for me was the gameplay. Instead of developing the remake in RGG Studio’s internal Dragon Engine, the developer decided to make the jump back to Unreal Engine 4 for the Kiwamiremake. This resulted in gameplay that felt similar to my Yakuza 3 and 4 playthroughs in terms of combat awkwardness. The actual feel of fighting enemies is slower, more basic, and not fluid enough in combos, unlike the more recent Dragon Engine games. The developer thankfully makes up for this by putting an emphasis on swords and guns in combat, as it feels more exciting to cut or gun down enemies; heat actions haven’t gone anywhere either.
In Like a Dragon Ishin!, players can choose between up to four fighting styles and can switch between them in real-time during combat. Those styles include Brawler (fight with your bare fists), Swordsman (cut down your enemies with your trusty katana), Gunman (take out enemies from a long distance), and Wild Dancer (an adaptable style that focuses on dodging while using your sword and gun at the same time). In my build, I focused on switching between Swordsman and Wild Dancer because they dealt the most damage and were honestly the most fun to use in gameplay. Brawler is completely useless because it takes so long to defeat a normal enemy with the low damage you deal. Meanwhile, the Gunman style deals good damage but can only be used in bursts when enemies are either down or too far away; using guns in close combat is pointless, so I advise switching to another style.
While an action brawler, Like a Dragon Ishin! does have a level progression RPG system with each time you level up Ryoma/Saito level earning you a single gray spirit orb. You can use the said orb to unlock new skills in any of your style grids; which made me feel like I was back in Yakuza 0. You can also earn orbs the more you use a certain style, but these come in an actual colour exclusive to a single skill grid—Brawler (red), Swordsman (blue), Gunman (yellow), and Wild Dancer (green)—which can be used to switch out grey orbs to get them back to unlock skills on other skill grids. Some skills will be locked until you learn them from a specific style master, which can be found in Kyo’s districts, including your home base of Fushimi, the bustling Rakunai, and the desolate Rakugai. Other RPG elements include equipment, which will give a definite edge in battle as it will increase some of your major stats both on offence and defence. You’ll need to constantly upgrade your equipment, such as swords, guns, and armour, with money and materials found in the city at the JRPG-style blacksmith shop.
Like a Dragon Ishin’s Trooper Cards Come in Clutch
One of the special gameplay features exclusive to Like a Dragon Ishin! is trooper cards—special abilities you can get with all the Final Fantasy energy you can get after you join the Shinsengumi and become the captain of the third division. You can use abilities based on your third division squad members, which when equipped can grant you abilities in battle like raising attack and defence, raising your heat, healing yourself, pulling off a limit break-like attack to do massive damage to surrounding enemies, and more. You can equip up to three abilities per style, for a maximum of 12 equipable abilities, which can be repeated in each style.
This is easily my other favourite part of Like a Dragon Ishin! as Trooper Cards give you a health boost and are cool to see in action as they give the game an actual layer of strategy as you wait for the progress bar of your trooper card ability to fill up. My only Trooper Card complaint is that most of the time these abilities activate on their own (even though at rare moments you can activate them on your own), not giving me the time to plan the right moment to use it which is a very odd choice to not include in the options.
As soon as troopers were unlocked for me, like in other games in the series, I immediately went to Bob Utsunomiya at the inn to unlock the Elite General Trooper Card Bundle. Doing this doesn’t just unlock bonus equipment, but the Elite Trooper pack comes with a set of rare troopers. These cards come with some unique abilities based on characters from the series’ past, including the ability to summon animals like a goddamn tiger to tear your enemies to shreds. As an addition to the game, the Kiwami version of Like a Dragon Ishin! adds six celebrity trooper cards, including former AEW/IWGP world champion Kenny Omega, actor, Rahul Kohli (iZombie, Midnight Mass), Vtuber Nyatasha Nyanners, game composer/YouTuber Alex Moukala, Twitch streamer Cohh Carnage, and cosplayer Vampy Bit Me. RGG doesn’t just include celebrities for the sake of it, but these trooper cards came in handy during my playthrough as Omega’s one-winged angel and Kohli’s Kamehameha-style fire blast attacks came in handy during some of the game’s tough multi-enemy fights.
Similar to the most recent games in the Yakuza/Like a Dragon series, Ishin! is truly a beautiful game during cutscenes, but that quality does carry over when you jump into in-engine voiced cutscenes, which have been adapted like the Dragon Engine games. I reviewed Like a Dragon Ishin! on Xbox Series S, so my playthrough was locked at 30 frames per second, but there may be a graphic mode option on the more powerful consoles this spinoff entry is coming to. A criticism I have is that at least my pre-launch version of Like a Dragon Ishin! was riddled with bugs, including a black screen popping up during cutscenes with the audio still going and subtitles on the screen, plus characters randomly twitching and moments of items on the ground randomly turning into huge beams of light when they are only supposed to sparkle on the floor. Either way, this has been the most accessible this specific game has ever been in the last nine years thanks to actually localizing the game for the non-Japanese audience.
Ghost of Tsushima Made This Release Possible
For years, there have been fan campaigns for Sega to bring Like a Dragon Ishin! over to the west, but to no avail. Since the release of Yakuza 0 in the west, the Yakuza series has only grown in popularity, and recent Japanese historical setting games like Ghost of Tsushima appear to have pushed Sega to reconsider its approach to Like a Dragon Ishin! Back in 2021, I covered that the Yakuza series producer (at the time), Daisuke Santo, who stated in an interview that he’d like Ishin! to be released in the west but added that they wouldn’t be simply porting the 2014 game but remaking it entirely under the Kiwami banner. A little over a year and a half later, RGG Studios announced the remake at TGS, with a western release confirmed later during a State of Play presentation, which made me excited to play it—comparing both versions, Like a Dragon Ishin! Kiwami is a faithful remake that switches out faces and performances of some of the most recent characters from the franchise, which honestly fits so well.
Like most games in the series, Like a Dragon Ishin! has a lot of side content that distracted me from the main campaign but was well worth it because the side stories are as ridiculous as you’d expect from these games. As well, in the later chapters, you run into this game’s Haruka counterpart, who is about to be kicked out of her house after being orphaned following both of her parents’ deaths. You get to help her by living with her and earning enough to pay off her debt. At her house, you can farm vegetables and sell them to local vendors, cook, relax in the bath, and raise the game’s six dogs and cats, which you will find in your exploration of Kyo.
A Breath of Side Content as Always
Furthermore, in the early chapters of Like a Dragon Ishin!, a local Shinto priest introduces you to Virtue, the game’s separate good deed currency system. Getting virtue is very easy, as you can earn a little by simply defeating enemies or get a lot by bonding with people/shops or completing a set of tasks in your diligence records, like talking to people, running through the streets, eating at restaurants, fishing, and so much more. Once you redeem them at your local shrine, the players earn some cool bonuses, including enhanced sprinting and inventory space, earning new fishing rods, getting more out of farming, and upgrading Haruka’s house. This gives players a chance to change up the look of the home, scarecrow, and dog house/cat bed every once in a while.
Like a Dragon Ishin! is literally a game of the past, as mini-games from previous games obviously don’t translate too well given the time period, so RGG Studio created new mini-games and past versions of other ones as well. Some of the newer ones include log chopping, fan dancing, and cannonball destroyers. Some returning mini-games include shogi, mahjong, chicken racing, and karaoke, but as a singing bar in front of an actual audience. To be honest, I really popped off when I saw the ‘Baka Mitai’ song (you know which one, been meme-ed to death) was an option, which was pretty unpredictable as it definitely felt out of place in the time period but was probably included for the fanfare, I don’t hate the inclusion.
Like a Dragon, Ishin! showcases a fantastically told narrative in a revolutionary 1860s setting that at times feels like a love letter to the mainline games while trying to be its own standalone story. Having a personal history with the series is not required to understand what’s going on, as it only adds to the overall experience as you are introduced to recognizable fan favourites that pop up in unfamiliar roles in this educational historical setting.
[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.]