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Like a Dragon: Ishin! Review

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By my count, this is now the eleventh Yakuza game to be released on Xbox. Not bad for a series that was absent from Xbox until early 2020. 

With Like a Dragon: Ishin!, Western gamers are getting a spin-off title for the first time. It is also the first time the series is referred to as Like a Dragon in the West, and this will be the moniker to adopt going forward. Despite this name change though, it is fundamentally still a Yakuza game, for better and worse.

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You wouldn’t know that from first glance though, as we’re not in Kamurocho anymore, Dorothy. We have travelled back in time to 1860’s Japan to a time of samurais and power struggles of a whole different type from the norm in the mainline Like a Dragon titles. Gone are the bright lights of the Millennium Tower or the collectible phone cards to be replaced by a feudal Japanese setting in Kyo, now known as Kyoto but back then it was the capital city of Japan.

All your favourite Like a Dragon characters still make an appearance however. Ishin has gone for the novel technique of taking these character likenesses and applying them to real-world figures from that time period. That means that whilst Kazuma Kiryu’s likeness is used once again, he is in fact playing real-life samurai Sakamoto Ryōma. For all intents and purposes, everything else is Kiryu though; personality and Takaya Kuroda doing the voice acting remains the same.

It is worth noting that Like a Dragon: Ishin! forgoes the English dubbing that has become commonplace for the series. It is Japanese all the way, partly due to Ishin being a remake of a previously Japanese only title.

When it first released back in 2014, the likes of Yakuza 0, Yakuza 6, Judgment and Yakuza: Like a Dragon did not yet exist. But with all these additional titles, there are more characters to – for lack of another term – port over into Ishin. It means welcome returns to many fan favourites that have only appeared in the one mainline title to date.

It also means reliving plenty of familiar plot points. The chain of events in Ishin are set about by Ryōma’s adoptive father, Yoshida Tōyō, being killed by an unknown assassin. This echoes the events of Yakuza Kiwami and instantly sets the tone for Ishin feeling very familiar, perhaps too much at times.

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The only information Ryōma has to catch his father’s killer is that they used a particular style of fighting known as Tennen Rishin. Now under the alias of Saitō Hajime, he travels to Kyo to try and become part of the Shinsengumi. These are a controversial police force that seem to border on organised crime at times. Almost Yakuza-esque in their stance you could say.

Many members of the Shinsengumi will be instantly familiar to Like a Dragon veterans and feature a range of allies and adversaries. But don’t necessarily expect them to have the same affiliation in Ishin.

The plot of Ishin is a safe entry to the franchise that does feel familiar even to those that have maybe dabbled in only a couple of entries. Things stay fairly personal for Ryōma in the initial stages, but it isn’t long before the story blows up and becomes far more political.

But if you are one of those that is familiar with the story beats of a Like a Dragon game, you will also be aware the plot is only one tiny aspect of the overall title. And Ishin is certainly no exception.

Whereas previous other Like a Dragon titles have drip-fed many of the various side activities to you over the course of your time with a game, Ishin is opened up to you fairly early by comparison. As soon as you arrive in Kyo you are pretty much free to explore the entire city and drink it all in. And as normal, the virtual tourism comes into action pretty quickly as the world around you feels very alive.

Perhaps we’ve been spoiled in more recent Like a Dragon/Judgment games with seamless transition in and out of shops and fights, but Like a Dragon: Ishin! does feel like a step back in that respect. Even the map itself – whilst feeling considerably large for a Like a Dragon map – can sometimes be split into different sections and require small loading screens.

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Major side activities such as Another Life – a farming simulator, Like a Dragon style – and the much-publicised Trooper cards don’t unlock until chapters four and five respectively, but there is plenty to do in the meantime. The Japanese parlour games all return depending on which side of the fence you are with them, alongside karaoke, dancing, woodchopping, chicken racing, fishing, cooking and even a minigame involving using your sword to carve cannonballs; essentially the batting cages from mainline titles. Sadly, no SEGA arcades can be found in 1860’s Japan, but there are some things that even RGG Studio would consider too far fetched.

In amongst these are hundreds of other systems all working in the background that make the Like a Dragon games such good value for money. You can form bonds with most shopkeepers and various NPCs throughout. harking back to Yakuza 0 and Judgment, along with a new type of currency called Virtue. Virtue is rewarded for almost everything in Ishin, from eating to completing one of the 72 new substories and acts like Completion Points from previous titles. It allows you to upgrade non-fighting abilities of Ryōma, level up your farm for Another Life, improve relationships in each district, unlock different interiors and so much more.

All of this should be familiar to returning players, but there is likely one area that will be completely new: the combat. There are no bicycles here to wipe out your enemies with. Instead, Ryōma is armed with a pistol, a samurai sword and four fighting styles: Brawler, Swordsman, Gunman and Wild Dancer. Brawler is your traditional hand-to-hand combat that will feel most familiar but is perhaps the weakest in Ishin. Swordsman and Gunman are self-explanatory in terms of the main weapon for those styles and Wild Dancer is a mixture of both weapons. It is the most fluid style of the four but offers nothing in the way of defence aside from dodging.

Learning these new styles makes Ishin substantially harder than other Like a Dragon titles, at least at first. But once you figure out the best fighting style for the right moment, it will all slot into place. But levelling up your equipment is absolutely essential to survive.

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Whilst many of the components of Like a Dragon: Ishin! will immediately feel familiar, that is no bad thing. An adage that franchise fans will repeat is that there is no bad Like a Dragon game, and Ishin continues that trend. Kyo provides another gorgeous location to explore, and the vast difference in fighting styles will take a while to get used to. But the basic Like a Dragon framework is still present and this does very little to change that.

As a result, Like a Dragon: Ishin! is straight down the middle in terms of those ‘best’ Like a Dragon instalments. But as the more common adage goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Explore the Bakumatsu era in Like a Dragon: Ishin! on the Xbox Store

Richard Dobson
Richard Dobson
Avid gamer since the days of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Grew up with the PS1 and PS2 but changed allegiances in 2007 with the release of Halo 3.
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