It's finally here! It's been almost a decade since Ryu ga Gotoku Ishin! released exclusively in Japan on PS3 and PS4, with Western fans begging for a localisation effort all the while. But back then, the Yak--, er, Like a Dragon series was nowhere near as popular as it is now, and so here we are with SEGA greenlighting a worldwide launch for Like a Dragon: Ishin!.
This PS5 and PS4 re-release has been officially billed as a remake, but that descriptor is a bit of a stretch. In reality, this is more of an Unreal Engine reskin. The 2014 bones of the original Ishin are still here and they're virtually unchanged; all of the gameplay structure is more or less identical, while cutscenes are beat-for-beat. But it does look better than ever thanks to the visual overhaul, with some enhanced lighting in particular adding welcome depth to the capital city of Kyo.
And yes, before we move on, we'd better explain that Ishin takes place in 1800s Japan, a time when the British Empire was raising an eyebrow at the island nation, and firearms were well on their way to replacing traditional Japanese weaponry. Calling it a volatile period in Japan's history is perhaps an understatement, as both political and societal unrest threatened to erupt in bloody civil war — something that would have the Western world rubbing its hands together.
With all of this potential turmoil at the heart of Ishin's overarching plot, you step into the sandals of Ryoma Sakamoto, the adopted son of an influential lord, a low-ranking samurai, and a skilled swordsman. In real-world history, Sakamoto was a hugely influential figure in bringing about the 'Meiji Restoration' of Japan — essentially a reworking of the country's political direction. Sakamoto's historical trials form the basis of Ishin's story, although the game's narrative is, unsurprisingly, heavily romanticised.
The plot is peppered with familiar faces from throughout what we know as the Yakuza franchise. Ryoma himself has the face and voice of series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, while prominent supporting characters such as Soji Okita and Shinpachi Nagakura borrow the looks and vocal cords of Goro Majima and Taiga Saejima, respectively. The list goes on and on, which makes Ishin something of an all-star spinoff. If you know the adventures of Kiryu and co., you'll absolutely love the fan service that's on offer here, as Yakuza heroes and villains alike pop up as historical figures.
In fact, this remake has more familiar faces than ever before. Because of how many Yakuza titles released between the original Ishin and this revival, developer RGG Studio saw fit to add in a whole bunch of new brackets from more recent games — redubbing entire characters in the process. Again, it's a truly all-star cast.
It probably goes without saying that Ishin's story is really, really good. It's got all of your usual Like a Dragon themes — honour, betrayal, brotherhood — but it's bolstered by samurai cinema sensibilities. There are loads of life-or-death swordfights, and the tension is so well worked. Indeed, the game's opening hours see Ryoma join the infamous Shinsengumi — a violent group of supposed peacekeepers. He's there looking for revenge, and, unable to share his true identity at the risk of his plans being exposed, he's forced to play along with his new allies and their campaign of bloodshed across the city.
It's gripping stuff at its best, and in true Yakuza fashion, the storytelling hits some dizzying highs towards the end. It also helps that the localisation is fantastic across the board — something that we've come to expect of the series at this point. Be it during intense standoffs or comedic side quests, the writing is superb — and that's especially important when there's no English dub.
In between chunks of cinematic story, you're free to wander around Kyo, getting into scraps with ruffians, seeking side activities, and generally just soaking up the 1800s atmosphere. By today's standards, Kyo is a fairly small and rather bland sandbox, but its compact design provides the illusion of it being a densely populated place. It's not a bad setting, but it is a bit basic in how it's stitched together, and without the glitz and glam of modern day Tokyo to keep things visually interesting, you might soon grow tired of traversing the same sandy streets for hours on end.
Naturally, the city is home to all kinds of distractions, like a bar where you can get up on stage and sing, underground chicken racing, and, of course, a robust gambling den. It's safe to say that Ishin isn't lacking in stuff to do; it can be a massive time sink if you're looking to master every activity, and overall, it's up there with some of the most content-rich Yakuza titles.
Having said that, a large chunk of what's on offer can easily be considered filler. For example, you can form bonds with NPCs dotted around the map by interacting with them whenever you happen to be passing by. But outside of some potentially humorous dialogue, these interactions are vapid — just the pure busy work of delivering certain items over and over again. Not every optional quest can have its own storyline and combat encounters — we get that — but filing these tasks under 'substories' is disingenuous.
Fortunately, the title actually does a great job of giving you other gameplay goals — or more specifically, you'll be pushed to try and master its surprisingly nuanced combat system. Ishin's full-action battles aren't quite as immediately satisfying as Yakuza's weighty brawls, but they are more tactical. Swapping between four distinct fighting styles — much like Kiryu and Majima can in Yakuza 0 — it's all about picking the right tools for the job.
Ryoma comes equipped with his trusty blade and a revolver, meaning that he can be deadly from any range — and this is a blessing when you're constantly being harassed by thugs, bandits, and other warriors who just want to prove their worth. Each fighting style has its own level and skill board, allowing you to develop Ryoma's abilities to suit your needs. It's an addictive process, and it's only made more enticing through the game's RPG elements, like steadily collecting the materials for new swords and armour.
It gets to a point where you'll be forging some borderline broken equipment — but that's all part of the fun. Ishin's combat system encourages you to bend things in your favour, providing plenty of opportunities to boost Ryoma's capabilities to near superhuman levels — and that's fair game when your enemies can be so stubborn. Indeed, with boss battles in particular, Ishin promotes patience; watching your opponent's movements and striking when there's an advantage to be pressed. Finally seeing through a foe's attacks feels great, and then unleashing hell feels even better.
Some over-the-top sword acrobatics aside, Ishin's skirmishes are somewhat grounded — but any sense of realism gets blown aside with the introduction of Trooper Cards. Ryoma's position in the Shinsengumi means he's free to recruit a division of capable fighters... In the form of cards. These collectables boost Ryoma's stats and act as cooldown-based super moves in combat. They wouldn't feel out of place in the absurd turn-based battles of Yakuza: Like a Dragon, but here, in a mostly grounded 19th Century Japan, they're a jarring addition.
The cards are fun to use, though, and collecting them is an addictive pastime in itself. But if you think they're a step too far, you don't have to equip your Troopers. Based on our experience, it's perfectly possible to progress without ever touching them; they're best thought of as a kind of madcap extension to an already layered system. That said, some bosses do have ridiculous super moves of their own — although they're used so infrequently that it never feels like you need to directly compete on that front.
The wait has been worth it: Like a Dragon: Ishin! is another great instalment in RGG Studio's series. An often gripping story is made even better by the game's historical leanings, while a rewardingly intricate combat system gives the gameplay an addictive hook. Add all of those typically barmy Yakuza side activities into the mix, along with some delightful references to past games, and you've got the makings of a fan favourite.