Political dramas set in historical time periods may not interest many, especially gamers, but they do intrigue me. Unfortunately this might mean that many games like Ryu ga Gotoku Ishin! might not be imported to Western players due to lack of demand. This PlayStation 4 launch title was released back in 2014 exclusively in Japan, and after nearly a decade, Sega and RGG Studio have finally decided to bring it over to the West as a remake titled Like a Dragon: Ishin! This spinoff Yakuza title focuses on the story of real life samurai Sakamota Ryoma set in 1860s Japan during the Bakumatsu era of political turmoil.
If you have played any other Yakuza game before, you’ll notice the protagonists of Ishin! looking suspiciously similar to the main characters from the other games. Well, that’s because the iconic characters from the mainline Yakuza games do indeed play the part of these real-life historical figures, almost as if it’s a dramatized live-action play. You got Kazuma Kiryu playing the role of Sakamoto Ryoma and Goro Majima playing the role of Okita Soji. Soji is even referenced as the “Mad Dog” here much like Majima is in the mainline entries. Though characters from Like a Dragon: Ishin! don’t map one to one with those of the other Yakuza games, they retain most of the same personalities and characteristics. For example, Kiryu and Ryoma are both stoic and abide by the idea of honor and justice. Given that Ishin! is a spinoff game from the Yakuza series and how well the Yakuza characters slip into their historical roles, I can see the merit behind this interesting design choice.
Despite being a spinoff title, Ishin! tells an endearing yet bleak story of justice, betrayal, honor, and friendship that has important historical relevance. Ryoma embarks on a mission of revenge to seek out the man who killed his father only to find himself wrapped up in a political revolution. He takes on the persona of Saito Hajime after being framed for the murder he didn’t commit, and is on a quest to join the Shinsengumi to lead him one step closer to the real culprit. For those unfamiliar, the Shinsengumi was a special police force put together by the military government during the Bakumatsu period, famous for the Ikedaya incident of 1864. Despite some historical inaccuracies, such as Sakamoto Ryoma and Saito Hajime not being the same person in real life, I found it fascinating to learn about an important part of Japanese history through the gaming medium.
Like a Dragon: Ishin! tells a powerful narrative brought to life by a cast of endearing voice actors and well presented cutscenes. Unfortunately the game only features Japanese subbed dialogue, but the localization work is excellently executed. It’s probably better to experience the game in the native tongue anyway, as it does take place in Japan during a historically important period. Sorry, dubbed fans. Story beats are well paced and highly dramatized, and will have you invested in the journey of Sakamoto Ryoma until the end. Ryoma’s quest is a long one, well over 40 hours if you take your time and partake in side quests and whatnot. Heck, I was already invested in solving the crime of someone getting their mochi eaten during a side mission.
This is a role playing game, and playing the role of Ryoma, you’ll be doing a lot of fighting. Combat in Like a Dragon: Ishin! occurs in real time, as opposed to 2020’s Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s turn-based system. New weapons and armor can be crafted and equipped after you fulfill the requirements at the blacksmith. Ryoma’s clothes can be changed as you expand your fashion wardrobe, so dress to your heart’s content. The four different combat styles from the original game remain the same, and are easily accessible via the directional pad on the controller. Switching between brawler, swordsman, gunman, and wild dancer is effortless and streamlined thanks to the remake’s inclusion of HUD elements that display which stance you are in.
The brawler is most akin to what you would get from traditional Yakuza games: a bare fists fighting style that allows you to swing people around or pick up environmental objects to chuck at enemies. The swordsman is pretty self explanatory as you pick up your katana to engage in sword only combat. The same goes for gunsman, which somewhat trivializes certain fights as you can just run away and shoot from afar. The most badass and visceral of the styles is none other than the wild dancer, which has you gunslinging in one hand and waving a katana in the other.
Every stance comes with its own progression skill tree that you unlock nodes in via soul orbs, which you obtain by leveling up a particular style. RGG Studio has done a great job balancing the four aforementioned styles, as each boasts its own benefits in combat, and switching between them frequently is essential to come out victorious during difficult battles. I found myself wanting to use the wild dancer style, even if it wasn’t the best choice, as I couldn’t get enough of how graceful and fluid Ryoma’s moves looked during combat. Slicing and dicing with one hand whilst shooting with the other allowed for some beautiful combos to be formed and I just couldn’t get enough of it.
The two biggest things holding Ishin! back are its janky camera angles and lack of a lock-on system during battle. You’ll often find yourself in tight hallways or corners during combat with the camera working against you. How can I aim my sword or gun at my opponent if I can’t see half the screen and I can’t lock on? As such, you’re forced to run around the arena looking for a position where you can actually see the enemy and the direction you want to attack in, often wasting time and letting frustration set in. Some of it is alleviated through the added accessibility options, but the root issues remain nonetheless.
Mini-games are a signature trademark of any Yakuza experience, and it’s no different here with Ishin! As you journey across Kyo, the old capital of Japan, make sure to take a breather from the action and talk to the citizens or passersby, as you just might find yourself partaking in another colorful mini-game. These never take themselves too seriously and neither should you. Just let loose and have some fun. Although many of these are taken from older Yakuza titles, they are charming nonetheless and include: karaoke (duh), chicken race betting, sake drinking, fishing, gambling, playing mahjong, traditional Japanese dancing, and even learning how to make udon noodles! The one that I particularly enjoyed was slicing cannonballs with my katana, which almost felt like baseball given the rhythmic timing required to play.
Like a Dragon: Ishin! is the only Yakuza title to use Unreal Engine 4 to render its graphics, as opposed to using the proprietary Dragon Engine, which was used for RGG Studios’ recent titles such as Yakuza: Like a Dragon and the Judgment series. The reasoning behind this was that the Dragon Engine is built specifically to excel at displaying nightlife such as the bustling neon streets of Kamurocho, whereas Ishin! has many daytime scenes. In fact, the original 2014 Ishin! didn’t use the Dragon Engine either, but rather an older in-house engine. While you can clearly see the uptick in visual fidelity of this remake compared to the original, the game’s age still shows. Many facial animations and assets are reused and many outdated design choices remain, making it a bit of a stretch to call this game a full-on remake.
At the end of the day, what really matters is that this experience is finally making its way to the West, and additions and improvements to the overall gameplay system are what really counts. Expect new substories that dive into more learning about the Bakumatsu era of Japanese history, along with new songs to sing at the karaoke bar, such as series favorite “Baka Mitai.” If only they could bring over “24-hour Cinderella” and have Okita sing it like Majima did in Yakuza. Oh, and a full fledged photo mode with editing functionalities is implemented as well, for those artsy players.
Perhaps the greatest inclusion is the Trooper Card system, which brings more versatility and flavor into combat. Four cards can be equipped to each of the four battle styles, resulting in a total of 16. They can be activated and leveled up in combat to allow for some funny wackiness and give you a slight advantage, whether that be shooting fireballs out of your palms or summoning a cute shiba inu puppy to distract your enemies. The over the top ridiculousness that RGG Studio is known for in their Yakuza games truly shines here and I’m all for it. It’s also quite cool that cameos of real life wrestler Kenny Omega and actor Rahul Kohli appear as Elite General Trooper Cards that can be obtained in game. There’s going to be a total of 6 cameo Trooper Cards, including the aforementioned two, that will be available as free DLC after the game launches.
There’s a lot of content in Like a Dragon: Ishin! that I haven’t even touched upon, such as the “Another Life” game mode where you take up more slice-of-life activities to help out a young girl in debt. I could sit here and talk endlessly if I were to cover everything there is in this game, but you really just need to experience it for yourself to understand. The way RGG Studio seamlessly integrates all the different gameplay elements is just extraordinary. I could go from planting cabbages and plowing my fields in one second to beating up outlaws and changing Japanese history in the next. Ignore the fact that it’s a Yakuza spinoff because this game is just as competent and solid as any of the mainline titles. Even though it’s an exaggeration to call this a full on remake of the 2014 original, Like a Dragon: Ishin! is well worth the attention of any newcomer, existing fan, or just someone looking to learn a little more about Japanese history.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.