Review – Like a Dragon: Ishin!
To us, die-hard Yakuza/Like a Dragon fans, Ishin was like Mother 3. It was the coveted, Japan-only exclusive that sounded too good to be true, and too Japanese to ever be released in the West. I even went the distance of importing a copy of the original PS4 release of the game in order to play it, with the help of a guide and some translating apps. I was dead sure Ishin would never be released in the West, because rarely did a Japanese publisher listen to fan demand in the West. Perhaps I was paying too much attention on Nintendo’s past behavior without remembering the classic “Sega Does What Nintendon’t” catchphrase. Sega indeed did what Nintendidn’t. They remastered, localized and released Ishin in the West, under the brand new name Like a Dragon: Ishin!.
For the uninitiated, Like a Dragon: Ishin! a non-canonical spinoff, using characters from the franchise to act like real-life characters in one of Japan’s most interesting and turbulent eras, the Bakumatsu period. Japan is slowly opening up to the foreign world and ships are arriving to a previously isolated country with new technologies and objects. However, political turmoil is widespread, with the constant tension between loyalists to the Emperor (who are also skeptical of foreign influence), those loyal to the shogun, and those willing to embrace the 19th century equivalent to globalization. In the midst of all this mess, people are also tired of dealing with a very traditionalist hierarchy system present in Japan, where joshi (superiors) can basically wreak havoc on goshi (the lower class) for the sake of it. Glorious Nippon is a gigantic time bomb ready to explode.
We play as Kiry… wait, someone called Sakamoto Ryoma. Sure, it’s the character model, voice actor, and personality from our favorite protagonist that never smiles, but it’s a completely different person. He’s a lower-class samurai thrown into the middle of political turmoil, treason, betrayal, death, karaoke, you know how it goes. Every single character in the game is portrayed by a well-known Yakuza/Like a Dragon character, giving Ishin a quasi-pantomime aesthetic. It’s cheesy as all hell, but that’s why we love this stupid franchise in the first place, right?
The issue lies with the fact that, sadly, if you’re well-versed in the franchise, you can see the plot twists coming from a mile away, namely because the developers didn’t try to subvert expectations when it came to the roles portrayed by the franchise’s characters. Villains in Ishin are basically portrayed by villains from other Yakuza games, and the same applies to heroes and allies. The only exception lies in antiheroes and rivals, who were given a slightly bigger level of nuance and character development. With all said and done, Ishin‘s story is still good, despite the massively predictable plot twists.
Bear in mind that, despite the confusing pre-release marketing buzz, Like a Dragon: Ishin! is NOT a remake. Despite the big fat Unreal Engine logo upon booting it up, this is a revamped remaster of the 2014 title, meaning we’re back to the same gameplay style and presentation seen from Yakuza 3 up until Kiwami. The same “freaking gorgeous for PS3, pretty good for PS4, somewhat dated for current-gen” presentation, with slightly jankier animations outside of cutscenes, but with some extra makeup in order to look better than its predecessors. Don’t expect for Like a Dragon: Ishin to make your jaw drop. It’s still pretty, though.
It not running on the CPU-demanding Dragon Engine is advantageous in one regard, though. The less realistic animations allow for less realistic, but faster combat styles at your disposal.
Kiryu Ryoma has four combat styles at his disposal. The bare knuckle stance is your standard Yakuza fare, being the one with the best parrying mechanics. The swordsman stance gives you a katana, which starts off limited and clunky, but becomes a breeze once you drop experiences points into its pool. The gunman stance is slow and not very precise, but you get to use a freaking gun to defeat enemies from afar.
Finally, there’s a fighting style that gives you both a katana and a gun, which I like to call the “drunken ballerina of death” stance. In it,
Kiryu Ryoma can quickly slash enemies with massive combos while evading their attacks with ease, all while being able to unleash a barrage of bullets at the end of a slashing streak. It makes no freaking sense, it completely breaks the game, but damn, is it fun. It might actually be my favorite fighting style in any Yakuza game ever. More than Majima’s slugger stance in Yakuza 0, more than Yagami’s lunatic kung fu in Lost Judgment. It’s ridiculous, and that’s why I love it.
Even though Ishin‘s story is serious and violent, fear not, this game still retains the sheer amount of dumb sidequests and goofy side activities one would expect from a Yakuza game. Even karaoke makes a comeback, even though karaoke itself wouldn’t be invented until a hundred years later. In its place, you have access to a singing bar, with a live band giving you the backing music for your cheesy lyrics. And yes, “Baka Mitai” is present, bad English and all. Does it make sense? Nope. Did I care? Also nope. Wouldn’t have been Yakuza without these dumb moments of glory.
I’m not going to say Ishin is perfect, though. Besides the fact it’s still an older Yakuza at heart, I’ve noticed a few technical issues while playing it on PC, a first for me. Even though it mostly runs at a silky smooth 60fps, the game is prone to facing some framerate freezes. Not slowdowns or anything, but some annoying hiccups, when the game just freezes for a frame or two, especially during the franchise’s traditional Heat Action moments. Besides this, I’ve noticed a handful of sound mixing issues, with the voice acting quality of some characters being much less polished than others. It almost felt as if one VA had been given a crappy cellphone mic to record his stuff, while others have had access to a professional studio. No complaints about the voice acting itself, though. Still top notch, and so is the music.
Sure, a full-fledged remake of Like a Dragon: Ishin! would have been the better deal, but finally being able to play a localized version of this ludicrous Yakuza spinoff is still great. Even though it’s a bit dated for those used to the Dragon Engine, the controls are still excellent, the sheer amount of content is staggering, and the combat styles at your disposal are some of the best the franchise has ever seen. This is what we’ve been asking for years, and Sega delivered. I can’t complain that much.
This is essentially a slight visual revamp on an older Yakuza/Like a Dragon game. Looks good for what it is, but when you’re already used to Dragon Engine titles, this one leaves a bit else to be desired.
Like a Dragon: Ishin! might actually have the best combat system in the entire series, even though the game itself features slightly dated physics. It’s also hampered by the occasional technical hurdle, despite the excellent framerate.
The high-quality voice acting and soundtrack you would expect from one of RGG Studio’s games, with just the very occasional sound mixing hiccup.
Fun Factor: 8.5
The story might be predictable, but it’s still great. The combat is excellent. There’s a lot to see and do. Like a Dragon: Ishin! is ridiculous, but it’s great fanservice, one fans have been clamoring for years.
Final Verdict: 8.5
Like a Dragon: Ishin! is available now on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X and PCs.
Reviewed on Intel i7-12700H, 16GB RAM, RTX 3060 6GB.
A copy of Like a Dragon: Ishin! was provided by the publisher.