Like A Dragon: Ishin! Review – A Hero’s Journey is a Wild Ride

Written by Allen

April 11, 2023

So, here’s another RGG game, which is predictably Yakuza game, or at least a spin-off. And well, as I try to traverse the twists and turns of the titillating Kyoto, or Kyo, as it was called at that time, the same question came up again and again, which was what I asked myself when I was playing Judgement.

“What was I doing again?”

Much of that feeling carries through even in their earlier games, Ishin included. I spent about 30 hours stumbling through the game before deciding to move on, as I still have other games to review. Last night I took a peek into the game just to refresh my memory. That turned into another 5 hours of gameplay because that’s just the nature of Ishin. And well, I still haven’t finished the game, but I think I have more than enough hours to tell you what to expect out of this experience.

‘Like a Dragon: Ishin!’ is a remake of a much older title, ‘Yakuza: Ishin,’ which had originally released in 2014. With that in mind, I knew that while there will be unique content, some of the designs may feel a bit dated. I mean, this is a game nearly 10 years ago, and there’s no getting around that. If you can look past that, then there’s actually quite enough material here to warrant getting out of Japan. For starters, you play the role of Sakamoto Ryoma, who I personally never heard of until this game. As it turns out, this is one of the most popular historical figures in Japan. Ryoma is a pivotal figure in modernizing his home country, meaning he played a big role in turning Japan into what it is today. A bit of research on his life may enrich your experience of this game as well, which I recommend. As it is inevitable that RGG Studios would have their own spin on things to make things not only a bit more interesting for our playthrough but also to keep characters feel consistent with their personalities from previous Yakuza games. Ideally that it should really matter, but that speaks for how much the developers and writers behind this title really do care a lot about what they’re making.

So, let’s slip on those sandals and swagger around the streets as Sakamoto-san. We return from learning swordsmanship in Edo, where we try to familiarize ourselves with Tosa, the region Sakamoto Ryoma had originated from, but had not returned to for some time. And in true Yakuza fashion, it doesn’t take long to get into a fistfight. And from there, we already have an idea of what’s up ahead for us.

 

Production (3 / 5)

The title has gone through the remake treatment is shown quickly through the touch-up of the models to look more like the characters we are more familiar with today. They also went ahead and made use of new lighting effects that gave Ishin a much more vibrant look throughout. The flesh didn’t look too pale, the faces were more detailed and expressive, and the cloth looked more convincing.

Now if you’re wondering how I can possibly compare this to the older game? Well, I just went ahead and looked up a comparison on YouTube. You can see for yourself how good the new game looks.

If you compare it to other existing games though, I don’t really think it’s that impressive. It looks good and yes we can say it can stand alongside more recent releases, but the age of the engine just continues to show. The use of textures for everything around you and the lack of displacement maps, the generic and repeated use of similar objects within your field of vision, all contribute to making the character models and the world you move in feel like you’re on an intricate theatrical stage with rather good-looking props. It’s a little sad because this period of time is supposed to give us a very different vibe of what Japan was like. With everything looking generic and well, similar, it was easy to lose my sense of direction. Unless I reached a particular landmark, it was hard to get my bearings. Kyo is supposed to be a bustling cultural center, and it’s a little difficult to get a feel of that when everything looks pretty similar.

On the brighter side, they do manage to keep the place still looking alive because of all the random residents walking around and interacting with you, even if they do noticeably have less detail on them, they really do bring a lot more color to the streets of the cities, shopping districts, gambling dens and more.

Running the game on my mid-range laptop with an RTX 1660Ti, the game is running pretty smoothly, though I have to turn down settings if I plan to do other activities along with it, like streaming and recording at the same time. It was a bit annoying with how graphical options were pretty limited in this respect, so I either had a good-looking game or a mediocre one depending on how I was balancing the demands on my PC. Now, this could be issued with my own unit, but there would be times that the frame rate would drop as if something didn’t load properly because if I get to another area and force the game to load again the issue goes away. But apart from that there are also some errors in loading textures between close-up and zoomed-out. I know it’s ideally a plus but it wasn’t doing me any favors when the game decides that it’ll turn all of the effects back up to maximum once a voiced cut scene starts playing out. However, I’d like to repeat that most of these issues happen because I’m trying to do several things at the same time while playing the game. When I’m trying to play like a normal gamer though, these issues are very rare.

The audio side of this is rather pleasant. First of all, monotone Kiryuu wins out against monotone Yagami any time of the year. He just carries the energy better and has a lot more colorful characters around him to bounce off of. The vocal performance of every character in the game makes them distinct enough to be memorable, and I already have a few favorites myself. And that would be my boy Heisuke, who’s very much an all-business kind of guy and is able to keep a calm attitude whatever he’s doing.

The music is also something I can enjoy. They made the very good choice of ensuring that the combat music is not only fun to listen to but matches the atmosphere and period of Ishin. I’ve heard that many of these tracks are simply remixes of already existing ones from the franchise, only touched up to match the theme of the spin-off title. So maybe those who are already pretty familiar with other titles of Yakuza wouldn’t be so easily pleased as I am. But at the very least they’re able to contribute to making the atmosphere of whatever moment is happening in front of us.

Ishin isn’t particularly impressive when it comes to how it looks and sounds, but it does manage to keep itself interesting enough to keep me playing.

 

Mechanics (4 / 5)

If you’ve played one or two titles from RGG Studios before I don’t think you’ll need me to tell you how clunky their combat tends to be. It kind of takes from the Arkham style of combat where you have a semi-automatic lock-on system. You alternate between weak and strong attacks, as well as dodging and guarding, and parrying. We’ve all seen it before, what’s a bit different now is how you now have 4 styles to choose from within combat. And this time, there’s some real purpose to wanting to swap between them. With Brawler, you are able to interact with more items for heat actions or just plain benches, poles, or bales of rice to striking your enemies with. Swordsman has your standard swordsman fare and deals the most melee damage. You have a Gunman style where you have a revolver with the infinite ammo cheat and also deals the best-ranged damage. And finally, you have Wild Dancer, which allows you to have both melee and ranged attacks at a lesser strength, but you also gain evasive prowess and the ability to hit other enemies that are lumped close to each other. You naturally gravitate to other fighting styles that best suit the situation, as you’ll likely have a hard time winning against an army of spearmen if you’re fighting with your bare hands.

They’ve also added a new layer of elemental and status affinity to attacks, making the game a bit more anime than necessary. I never really interacted with this system in depth, but I know that lightning can stun people, and fire sort of doubles as poison damage.

The one thing that makes Ishin stick out is how you’re able to form your platoon of warriors to technically fight alongside you. The actual form they take in your gameplay would be card decks that not only affect your stats but also grant you abilities that you can activate so long as you’re in the stance that they’re assigned to. There’s a bit of nuance to take here since some will affect how other cards will perform, and others will give you bonus stats based on the cards it’s grouped up with. It’s pretty easy to follow so long as you’re willing to read a bit, and I found it wasn’t really particularly tedious since it was easy to figure out which units were better for whatever you wanted to make. I generally wanted to keep my gunner stance attacking at all times so I let its abilities make it so that enemies stay away from me as much as possible, and gave attack abilities to my swordsman, and tanking abilities to my brawler style. Wild Dancer was actually hard to define to a singular role so I just had it charge my heat gauge as quickly as possible.

Each of these styles levels up on its own so long as you’re using them, but you also have a base level that lets you fill in the blanks to either level up your favorite style or give some leeway to the ones that get behind. Personally, I’d recommend leveling them all evenly since that’s how you get hp upgrades and you’re going to need each of these styles at some point.

The other way to gain stats is by upgrading your weapons and armor. And this is probably the part I liked the least because it was hard to progress through the upgrade trees and slots of each piece of equipment. They all require loot that you may or may not know how to get, because nobody explains any of this to you. It also requires a ridiculous amount of money to get a substantial upgrade. You’d think you’d be comfy with your Mons and Ryos until it’s time to pay up the blacksmith to make the combat not take too long. I actually got through a lot of the game by just upgrading the sword. Since it’s theoretically possible to get through combat encounters without having to take any damage, might as well just get through it as quickly as possible.

Now to really gain good money is through completing quests, but the other reason you want to do quests is to gain virtue. Virtue might as well be your secondary currency in the game, where you gain Virtue points by either praying to statues and temples or just generally helping people out by completing quests. I know the way I said it almost sounds like Sakamoto Ryoma might as well be posting about it on social media for clout. But fortunately for him, it didn’t exist in this era. Though I guess it might not be so cool when your enemy’s alternative is to assassinate you, or at least attempt it.

Anyway, virtue can be used to exchange perks for your character. (Yes, I know it sounds oddly on-the-nose but stick with me) These can be as simple as having more stamina, getting new items available for sale, or improvements to other things for Sakamoto Ryoma, like the ability to gain even more virtue. The obvious upgrades to go for would be increasing your inventory space and virtue gain because you’ll certainly need a lot of it. The boost feels pretty substantial when completing side stories as they give a lot of points by themselves, and well, there’s a lot of that to go around with.

 

Content (4.5 / 5)

Time to go through the true meat and potatoes of games that many fans actually play this game for. If anything is impressive at all with the Yakuza games, it’s how it can make even the most mundane things become utterly ridiculous. And being able to walk around the streets of the city has a fun charm to it when you realize that a little surprise may be waiting at every corner. Though that might not be a pleasant one every time.

You see for the content I’d have to break it down into three categories, main story content, fun side stories, and boring side stories. The main scenario is pretty engaging on its own, I really got this sense of “Okay, let’s see where this goes.” Where I want to see how a certain arc wraps up. Admittedly, it takes a bit of a while for the action to ramp up as it requires the introduction and setup of many characters before anything meaningful really starts happening. The story, in turn, transforms from a single-minded objective to a tangled web of relationships and stories tying the colorful individuals of Ishin’s narrative together. They also have custom soundtracks for people you’ll be fighting as bosses, and the intro animation that comes along with them is pretty good at hyping you up for the upcoming showdown.

After that, there’d be side stories that are more aimed towards taking the edge off a bit on the game, as they’re the looney stories of random encounters you have with people around the city. Where it can be a one-time lesson where Ryoma pretends to be an expert with the map of the world. Or, he could be performing a song and dance that we may all be too familiar with. Or, he can just be serving ramen at a nearby stall. Some of them are just one-shot stories, some of them are repeatable, and some I wish went by faster.

These things that I wish went by faster are what I would label as “donation quests.” Where you regularly visit individuals around the city and give them something that they’re asking for. Could be vegetables, healing items, random crafting materials, or just a bit of your attention, really. You progress your relationship bar with them and when it finally fills up, you get to complete their story. You get a set amount of virtue points, and you also get some sort of quest reward most of the time, where it’s usually something reasonably valuable. One of the side stories that stood out so much to me was about the American who wanted to become a samurai. You can tell he’s from America not only because of his name but because of how his Yukata was basically the American flag. And this obvious reference to a nice action flick kinda had me hooked on completing his story, where when you do, you also get to recruit him to your Shinsengumi unit. So having the Last Samurai on my team was a pretty nice out-of-nowhere prize to get along with a fun story to play through.

This is a stark contrast to the donation quests I named earlier, where nothing really changes and you have to make a habit of visiting them while they freeload on the items you have in your already limited inventory space. It was okay when there were maybe five of them but it was getting pretty silly when I think I was trying to visit more than ten of these charity cases in one go.

The biggest surprise would have to be the part where you’re kind of playing an in-house version of Stardew Valley, where you keep a house and farm along with what seems like an adoptive daughter. It’s something that I got really engaged with especially when cooking was its own mini-game. On top of this, the Shinsengumi does have a dispatcher that allows you to enter dungeons where you’re theoretically hunting down bandits and outlaws in procedurally generated dungeons, which is probably one of your more reliable ways of gaining not only battle experience, but money as well. It’s thanks to these dungeons that you really get to hone and explore the possibilities of the combat system of this title.

Looking back at it all, I’d say that there’s a lot more interesting stuff to fight, fish, follow, and frolic about in Like A Dragon: Ishin. Just that it’s sort of peppered with some tedious side stories that I think could have been streamlined better. Main and side story content was something you’d want to make a healthy mix of, as side stories were a great way of progressing your character and resources, you’re trying to grow to make sure that you’d be reasonably strong enough for upcoming challenges. And to keep you from getting stuck inside content for too long, locked some progression behind story events.

 

Features (3 / 5)

The most boring feature of this title would be the photo mode, but there’s a lot you can make out of that. Considering it’s accessible on the pause menu, you can capture simple moments from standing in front of stores or looking for scenic areas within Kyo. Or you can pause in the middle of an intense battle and give them funny expressions to make it look silly.

Another thing you’d be able to access from the pause menu is the various trackers of achievements, be it for side stories, the main story, or second life (which is basically living like a normal dude in the city). Or, you can at the very least figure out what you’re supposed to do next to proceed with the main story. Or, if you just want to review what happened in the past, you can also visit the replay theatre at the main menu.

There’re also some accessibility features that will help you understand what’s going on in combat, or if you’d really rather not rely on the twitch reflexes, you can choose to turn certain QTE sequences off. You can also make it simplify combat in a number of ways.

Finally, there’s the post-game where you can choose to complete whatever’s left behind before you finished the main story. You can choose to complete side stories, continue raising a farm, hunt bounties, conquer the arena, or well, fish.

 

Conclusion

Like visiting an old neighborhood or maybe an arcade you haven’t been to in ages, Ishin kind of gives a similar experience. You’ll be excited and amazed by the new stuff it has, and wonder why some things haven’t been changed or updated, but all-in-all, pretty happy that a lot of it is still the same.

“Like A Dragon: Ishin!” comes with a mixed package, where there are some great and not-so-great things for you to play through. If you can handle the setup it needs and take your time getting used to the game, it can be pretty rewarding.

As a person who’s never played this game before, I’d have to say that this has one of the more interesting combat systems in the franchise, despite the rather stiff and clunky movement and that the RGG engine has for this sort of stuff. It has a lot of ideas in there that I wish more Yakuza games would have incorporated into their combat.

Also despite, my bemoaning of a side story of the tedious type that seems to have several variants all over the place, I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t a healthy amount of variety of activities to do within the title. Where how they made it part of that world and how creatively they’ve implemented them shows that RGG Studios isn’t quite ready to simply rest on its laurels any time soon. From the stories of regular people to the wilder encounters of the colorful characters you face, and the stark contrast of what zany thing you could be involved in when you’re not pursuing the edgy drama that the main story offers, there’s a huge array of experiences this game offers to anyone willing to give it a fair shake. I’d have to say that Like A Dragon: Ishin, is a complete package, and would recommend it to anyone to live in an alternate universe, where Ryoma Sakamoto’s story played out more wildly while leaving his own mark on history.

Like a Dragon!: Ishin shows that it deserves the remake treatment, scoring a 3.7 / 5

Available on the PS4/5, XB1/S, and PC.

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