After almost 9 years, Like a Dragon: Ishin! Finally got an English release and a remaster on top! We played through it and tested if it is a worthy successor of the legend!
*Tested on PlayStation 5*
Fulfiller of Dreams
Who would've thought that in the year 2023, we'd get a remaster and full translation of Like a Dragon: Ishin!? Well, recent comments by former RGG Studio head and series creator Toshihiro Nagoshi about the success of Sucker Punch Production's Ghost of Tsushima were probably the first hint that this was coming.
And what better title to bridge the console generation gap before the next big mainline entry, than the game that did it all the way back in 2014? I played through the original Like a Dragon: Ishin back then in Japanese shortly after its release, it was nice to come back to it and even understand the entire story this time around.
But I feel like I'll have to give a disclaimer here. Like a Dragon: Ishin is not a full remake like the Yakuza Kiwami titles. It's more of a port, which made the switch to a new engine with a few added features but it is still the game from 2014. Just prettier, with some more content and English localization. So you could call it Like A Dragon: Ishin Remastered + or something.
I say that to temper expectations a little because Like a Dragon: Ishin does not operate on the same level of smooth quality as the recent Judgement titles and Yakuza: Like a Dragon. Does that mean it is bad? Not at all. Like a Dragon: Ishin! has always been one of the better games of the series. A series that is full of outstanding titles.
Progenitor of the Legend
Like A Dragon: Ishin is a great remaster. Unlike the two Kiwami titles, the game mostly received a visual overhaul and some minor tweaks to combat, and some other systems.
To be completely honest, I'm still very torn on recommending Like a Dragon: Ishin! to newcomers to the franchise. Or if you are a fan of the newer titles. While you'll be familiar with some of the faces, the game is still full of the old-school Yakuza jank. Something that I personally appreciate these days, especially now that the games are all so polished.
But another big thing, that will probably not land for many people is the nostalgia Ishin banks on. It's a feature to see all these faces recast for a new story that is full of references to the series (especially Yakuza 1-5) greatest moments, like renditions of some classic themes in a style.
Tonally it's also a little different from the current games. Believe it or not, the Like a Dragon series used to be a little less over the top and bonkers. But Yakuza 5 and Ishin also signalized the turning point of that tone.
But we also have to address the elephant in the room. Newer fans of the series have been asking, “But is it as good as Yakuza 0?”. And I understand the bias of your first love. So I feel the need to establish how to figure out the ‘goodness' of a Like a Dragon/Yakuza game beforehand.
First comes the realization that the stories of these games usually follow the same formula. Once you've played a few of them, you'll understand. So instead, we rate a Yakuza/Like a Dragon game by the amount of stuff it has in it and how good it is. And we'll get into what that stuff is and how good it is in a bit, but let me say now that it's excellent.
But we should talk about the story for a big. As it and the setting are what sets Like a Dragon: Ishin apart from most other games and also its own series.
The story of Ishin is set in 1860s Japan and centres around the historical figure Sakamoto Ryoma. A samurai who would play part in the Meiji Restoration, which would eventually lead to the re-establishment of the emperor to power and Japan opening its borders to the world.
While the story is kind of about the events leading up to and into the Meiji Restoration. It's not really based on true events, even if the general strokes are largely inspired by it. The game also features prominently Kyo, the former capital of Japan which is now Kyoto. And the Shinsengumi, the notorious samurai police force and its prominent members.
This sounds like a lot at first, because it is and it is also one of the reasons why the game was never localized in the first place. Ghost of Tsushima is easy to understand, as Mongolians running wild and killing everyone is easy to get behind, but Japanese feudalism transitioning into an oligarchy with a bunch of moving parts and complicated politics seeped in cultural expectations? Eh.
Luckily, the broad strokes of the story are easy to understand but if you don't have any knowledge of Japanese history and culture, some of this will be a little off-putting, which is also part of the charm. The glossary option is nice to explain certain terms and locations but doesn't really explain some of the more out-there elements of the story.
We're here for the drama, though! And you're lucky! Like a Dragon: Ishin! is on par with some of the best stories in the series. It's a nice, overly complicated murder mystery full of political intrigue, betrayal, and colorful characters.
Colorful characters that are played by characters of the series! At least, that's the impression you get. While series mainstays Goro Majima and Kazuma Kiryu are still everything you expect them to be, they also play the roles of Soji Okita and Ryoma Sakamoto.
Ishin's greatest strength, more than any other game of the series, is its cast of characters. Pulling from all games of the series, including the new ones, and casting them in different roles.
And something we don't talk about enough in relation to this series is the voice acting. While many games include many amazing performances, there is nothing that comes close to the performances in the Like a Dragon series. That, paired with the intense cinematics the game sometimes throws your way really sets this series apart. And even Ishin, despite being 9 years old, still proves that.
Other than that, I don't want to spoil anything here. But the story has some nice sudden left turns that'll keep you on your toes and the sidequests are, as always, delightful. By either being incredibly ridiculous and insane, heartwrenching and sweet, or somewhere in between. So if you played one of these games before, you know what to expect.
Just that the sidequests sadly don't have any voice acting.
I Receive You (And Slash You)
Before I go on an extended rant here, let me clarify one thing. Ishin's combat is the best version of Yakuza's old combat system. If we talk combat these games, we generally speak of the older titles before Yakuza 6 or the newer ones.
Ishin mixes things up by instead of featuring multiple characters like Yakuza 5, it featured 4 different fighting styles. You either get to fight brawler style, which is Kiryu's iconic move set, the Swordsman Style which is a katana, the Gunsman Style which lets you use a gun, and the Wild Dancer, which lets you use both.
Brawler and Wild Dancer are mostly for larger crowds. Brawler focuses on using objects and brute strength, while Wild Dancer is highly mobile and can mow through large crowds fairly quickly.
Swordsman is very straightforward, as you need to parry, dodge and slash your way through enemies and it's really good in one on one encounters. And then there's Gunsman Style which lets you use the gun. A gun with special ammunition that can be turned into a secret weapon of mass destruction.
But if you've played one of the older titles of the series, you'll be right at home. The highlight is the boss fights and special encounters, which all have their own pace and feel to them. And thanks to the setting, they really stick out, even compared to the rest of the series. Even if having to bare-knuckle fistfight two tigers remains the highlight of the franchise.
It is also the last time the franchise tried to lean heavier into its RPG mechanics until Yakuza: Like a Dragon. Your gear matters, a lot, and there is an entire side game around dungeon crawling for materials that let you upgrade and personalize all kinds of weapons and equipment.
And the selection of weapons here is great because all the swords, guns, and other stuff get bonuses unique for them as well as additional bonuses you can unlock and find throughout the game world.
The only criticism I can throw at the game is a lack of enemy variety in the late stages. As novel as enemies with different sword stances and weapons are because you will fight all these types a lot by going from A to B it wears thin towards the end. But combat, luckily always encourages you to mess around with it so fighting just for fighting sake is always fun.
One of the little, but really cool things about Like a Dragon: Ishin! is the virtue system. Virtue is a currency you receive from doing various challenges, side activities, missions, and basically everything you do in the game.
You get to exchange them for non-combat-related upgrades, useful items, and the ‘Another Life' activity. And since you get these points for pretty much anything, it weirdly encourages you to roleplay as a virtuous samurai roaming the streets of Kyo.
Everything is worth doing, be it making a stop to drink tea with an old lady. Play with the children or offer some words of encouragement to a struggling author. Even your main way to heal up is eating out at the various (hopefully) historically accurate restaurants. And wherever you go, there will be someone in your path that needs help or something from you.
One of the big features of Ishin is the expensive ‘Another Life'. Sounds really grand and sweeping but it actually is just a little farming sim. Through the course of the story, you find yourself paying off the debts of your adopted charge Haruka (Yes, she's in this game as well).
Most of the Virtue you'll gain can and should be spent on the little farm you're given free rein over. Here you'll plant veggies and fruits, cook them in a neat little minigame and sell them off. After putting some time into it, you can turn it into a money-printing machine. You'll need that money to upgrade your equipment and popping in every now and then is pretty effortless.
Shinsengumi in the Streets, Samurai in the Izakaya
Now the Minigame collection of this game is either super disappointing or really refreshing, depending on your approach to things. Technically all of the minigames are all straight-up lifted from Yakuza 5, just with a new coat of paint.
You have series staples like Karaoke, Gambling, Mahjong, and Shogi. But some more out there minigames like traditional Japanese dancing, betting on chicken races, or making noodles.
These come of course with the usual amount of challenges and little minigames attached to them, so if you've played these games before you know exactly what to expect.
The super big feature of Ishin is that after progressing the story, you'll take charge of your own division within the Shinsengumi. It is less complex than it sounds though, you can recruit people into your squads and get special abilities that have use in combat. They also contribute to your health and some of your stats.
The main attraction is a bunch of dungeons that are just glorified combat tunnels with various objectives and new enemies attached to them. Don't try to do all of them at once, you will eventually lose your sanity. But they are a great source of both money and crafting materials, so it's not like they aren't worth doing.
And there are many more little things and challenges to keep you busy. The Like a Dragon/Yakuza games have always been heaven for completionists. So if we rate it by the amount of stuff it has in it, Like a Dragon: Ishin is about on the same scale as Yakuza 0 when it comes to content. Here is to hope that Like a Dragon 8 will be another mega game on the scale of Yakuza 5.
8.5/10 It Just Works
There is just something about this series that works. You can point out little elements that are fun on their own but they always come together as some of the most enjoyable games on the market today.
Like a Dragon: Ishin! is the 2023 remaster of a 2014 title. By today's standards, it might be a little dated in some aspects and the visuals don't quite match the more janky aspects of its presentation. But that doesn't bother me at all. And we've reached a point where I'm already nostalgic about the older games and would definitely pay good money for a Yakuza 5 remake.
But what sets Ishin apart is its setting and presentation. Having a Like a Dragon set in a historical setting and still pulling it off with such confidence, just shows how great RGG Studios' formula is that even a game from 9 years ago with a little polish can still feel as fresh and novel despite being part of a legacy franchise.
So if you play Like a Dragon: Ishin! you get exactly what's on the box. A Like a Dragon/Yakuza title set in the Japan of a bygone age. If you're already a fan, you know exactly what to expect and it's a good title to play as we wait for the next two entries in the series.
If you're new to the franchise, however, I don't know if Ishin will make the best first impression. On its own, its story is enjoyable with charming characters and amazing performances. It's just that I can't really say how much of this will land for someone who doesn't know these characters and iconic moments.
But if you've always wanted to play one of these titles, this is probably also an easy one to check out, as its story doesn't rely at all on the rest of the franchise. It's just the references that I'm a little unsure of. But I think, generally these moments will still hit, thanks to Ishin's flawless presentation.
And since it finally worked, let's pressure RGG Studios to make a full-fledged, Kiwami Remake of Like a Dragon: Kenzan! next! Because that's that other cool samurai game they made all the way back in 2008 as a sort of tech demo for what the team could achieve on the PlayStation 3. Make it happen! Please! It's also a really good game but sadly didn't age as gracefully as Ishin.
Like a Dragon: Ishin! is available on February 21 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S and PC.