It’s as ancient as Like a Dragon: Ishin’s backdrop, but there was a time when Yakuza fans had to fight tooth and nail like Kazuma Kiryu for Yakuza games. Back when Yakuza Ishin released as a Japanese exclusive launch title for the PS4 in 2014, PlayStation’s third-party evangelist Gio Corsi was hard at work “building the list”. This initiative saw Sony stump up the cash to assist with the release of several fan requested games, of which Yakuza 5 was one. SEGA, seemingly disinterested in the series after a spate of dismal sales, had all but given up. And then something extraordinary happened: the franchise blew up.
That brings us all the way to the present day, where almost a decade later, Ishin is getting a modern remake and a release overseas. It’s not the first historical Yakuza, of course – Ryu ga Gotoku Kenzan precedes it on the PS3 – but its storyline stands alone, and cutely functions as a kind of period drama featuring familiar faces from across the spectrum of the franchise’s catalogue. That means fan favourites like the aforementioned Kiryu, Majima, and Akiyama are all present – but they’re pantomiming as real people from the Bakumatsu period, with the plot loosely retelling the tales of two real-world samurais, Sakamoto Ryōma and Saitō Hajime.
Famed developer Ryu ga Gotoku Studio strikes a smart balance here: it’s really engaging seeing so many recognisable faces repurposed in new roles, but the fanservice aspect doesn’t appear to detract from the historically influenced drama on display. We were lucky enough to play a good chunk of plot from the third chapter, which effectively sees Ryōma – masquerading as Hajime – infiltrate the Shinsengumi, a clan famed for the Tennen Rishin style of combat that took his father’s life. As you’d expect from a Yakuza title, each cutscene is bursting with testosterone and furrowed brows, and there’s clearly more than enough setup here for the studio to lean into its trademark twists.
Of course, if you’re familiar with the Japanese original, then you’ll already know what’s in store, because this very much appears to blur the lines between remaster and remake. While the game has been completely rebuilt in Unreal Engine, we cross referenced a YouTube video of the chapter we played, and the cutscenes were identical. However, running at 60 frames-per-second on modern hardware, this doesn’t feel like an experience that’s almost a decade old; it’s not going to rival any first-party Sony titles in the budget department, but it’s a handsome enough outing, with distinct art direction and silky smooth performance.
Many of the modern Yakuza bells-and-whistles are present and accounted for, like the seamless transitions between exploration and combat, which is buoyed by four styles like in Yakuza 0. We spent most of our demo utilising the standard samurai stance, which naturally sees you using a sword, but the tried-and-trusted brawler combat from previous games is also an option. The two remaining types include a long-range pistol type and a fusion of firearms and melee, which we couldn’t wrap our head around. Based on our demo, we were disappointed with the Heat move finishers, as there seemed to be a real lack of variety – although browsing the skill tree, it seems like that aspect may evolve with more play.
In fact, if we have one concern right now it’s that Like a Dragon: Ishin, given its origins, does appear to be grounded in a more dated style of Yakuza gameplay. Yes, there are the contemporary modcons as discussed above, but in being faithful to the 2014 original, we couldn’t shake the sense that we’d not only “been there, done that”, but also that the series has moved on. Don’t get us wrong, it’s refreshing to return to the traditional beat-‘em-up loop after the previous title’s dalliance with turn-based skirmishes, but something about the action feels stuck in the past – and not just because of the late Edo backdrop.
Either way, there’s plenty to see and do. Minigames, a series selling point, abound each historical street corner, with franchise faithfuls like karaoke reworked to fit the time period. For us, the button matching rhythm gameplay is getting pretty stale, but it’s always amusing watching the bizarre cutscenes unfold while you try to tap your DualSense’s buttons in time to the music. Chicken Races also feature, complete with obsessive attention to detail, like form guides for each cock which you can study to inform your bets. Fishing, gambling, and even traditional Japanese dancing round out the list.
Our demo ended before the introduction of Ishin’s most interesting feature, however: Second Life. In the original game, you were able to plant and cultivate crops as part of a Harvest Moon-esque mode, which we’re wilfully informed is part of this remake. We did see references to the foray’s Friendship system, which sees you build up relationships with NPC characters, so we assume Haruka’s Trust is part of this version; in the original, you were able to unlock additional cinematics by befriending Kiryu’s adopted daughter, here fulfilling a similar role as she struggles to pay off the debt of her home.
One other aspect we didn’t get to see is the expanded Trooper Card system. This was, as we understand it, part of the original game but limited to a mode outside of the core campaign. However, the re-release will seemingly add it to the story as well, allowing you to turn the tides of battle by playing specific cards with unique combat abilities and buffs. While we can’t comment on the system directly without testing it, we did find the core battles a bit bland in our demo, as alluded to above, so we can see how layering light deck building systems on top could add a little spice we felt was lacking.
The reality, though, is that you already probably know whether you want this game. A lot of time has passed since Yakuza Ishin first released, but the appetite for games inspired by historical Japan hasn’t waned – just look at the success of Ghost of Tsushima recently. The thing that’s drawing us to Like a Dragon: Ishin at this point is the series’ very unique blend of serious and silly; much like its immediate peers, this game recklessly zig-zags from dense political drama to outright tomfoolery. Seeing all of that in period garb only heightens the ridiculousness of it all.
It’s a Yakuza game through and through, there’s no question about that – but with Kamurocho yet to even be erected in this canon, it at least has a different flavour to its notoriously samey peers.
Publishers, in an attempt to impress press, will often attempt to set the scene for their preview sessions by kitting out themed locations with ambient lighting and large displays. In the case of Ishin, however, SEGA sent us to the unexpected destination of Berlin, Germany. While still several thousand kilometres away from Japan, the Samurai Museum proved an impressive venue filled with the personal collection of a weeaboo who decided to take his fandom far beyond a mere Crunchyroll subscription.
Here we met a strapping individual supposedly adopted into the same school as Ishin’s protagonist. While we were sceptical of Ōtsuka Ryūnosuke’s background, there’s no doubt he knew his samurai history, and it was interesting learning about the various combat styles used at the time – and how they’d been adapted into the game.
We should stress, all expenses were kindly covered by SEGA – except the very nice bowl of porridge we purchased from the airport on the way home. We don’t know if samurais ate porridge, but we figured it was worth mentioning all the same.