Like a Dragon: Ishin! is a spinoff of the wonderfully specific Yakuza series. For those unfamiliar with this franchise, Yakuza (now known as Like a Dragon) games are third-person action-brawlers with as heavy an emphasis on story as there is on absurd side content.
Ishin! was originally released as a Japanese-only launch title for the PS4 way back in 2014. Available worldwide for the first time and partially remade for the PS5, Like a Dragon: Ishin! takes the over-the-top combat and wacky characters the Yakuza series is known for to Edo Period Japan.
A brief note for those wondering: you’re not playing as Kiryu’s ancestors nor are there any time-travel shenanigans involved. The best way to think about it is a period drama where the cast is made up of characters from across the Yakuza series.
You play as Sakamoto Ryoma, a samurai who has returned home to the rural town of Tosa after training for a year in Edo. Before long, he is caught up in the local politics between representatives of the current regime and those loyal to the Emperor of Japan. After briefly reuniting with his adoptive father and sworn brother, Sakamoto travels to Kyo to investigate a militia group that utilises the mysterious Tennen Rishi sword fighting style.
The majority of Like a Dragon: Ishin! is spent in 19th Century Kyo, which is an absolute delight to explore. Everything is rendered in painstaking detail, from the interiors of the various bars, shops, and dojos, to the weapons and clothes that adorn the various people you’ll meet. During the day children run around playing, shopkeepers hawk their goods and fisherfolk try their luck in the nearby rivers. At night, paper lanterns glow warmly as people stumble out of bars and bandits leer out of alleyways, looking for a mark.
I would often spend hours simply wandering around Kyo, doing a bit of fishing, grabbing a bite to eat, getting into a few scrapes, and then perhaps a spot of Buyo dancing. Along the way, I would meet townspeople whom you can form bonds with, from a clueless American man with aspirations to become a samurai, to a kind old lady who needs me to go the shops for her.
As always with this series, the sub-stories (side quests) are a real highlight. Whether it’s a man who needs help translating letters written in a rural dialect, a team of arrogant couriers just begging to be put in their place, a ‘sexy madame’ with a peculiar fascination with vegetables, or a brothel staffed by sumo wrestlers, you never quite know what to expect.
There is also a whole other section of the game called “Another Life” which sees Sakamoto take up residence on a farm. This is essentially a farming-sim lite, where you can plant vegetables, fulfill merchant orders, cook food, decorate and upgrade your farm, rescue cats and dogs and have them live with you, and more. It’s simple, but engrossing enough to justify its existence and is a great way to break up the endless fighting.
Speaking of fighting; aside from assisting Kyo’s citizenry and tending to your farm, you’ll also spend a lot of your time slicing and shooting people. The combat system will be familiar to anyone whose played this series before, however, there is an interesting focus on weapons this time around. Sakamoto has four fighting styles: swordsman, brawler, gunman, and wild dancer, which allows you to wield a pistol in one hand and a katana in the other.
Swordsman and wild dancer saw the most use in my playthrough, with the former used against single targets and the latter for taking on groups of enemies in a whirlwind of death. Brawler I found to be next to useless, with the low damage from Sakamoto’s fists making it feel like I was hitting enemies with clumps of wet paper. Gunman has slightly more utility, however quickly becomes untenable when your target closes the distance.
The combat is fine, there’s a lot of versatility for those who want it, but also nothing stopping you if you prefer one style over the others. It works as a shake-up for existing fans of the series and isn’t too overwhelming for newcomers. Just don’t go in expecting Sekiro and you’ll have fun.
As the original game is from 2014 there are a lot of missing quality-of-life changes that more recent games have added. This leads to certain interactions both in the world and in the menus feeling a little sluggish or needlessly complicated. Certainly nothing as bad as say, the Yakuza 3 remaster, but enough to be occasionally frustrating.
The Yakuza series has always done such a wonderful job of toeing the line between complete and utter absurdity and (vaguely) grounded, action-packed narratives. Ishin! is no different. As Sakamoto, you’ll become embroiled in local politics as you go undercover in an infamous militia gang. The narrative puts you right in the middle of big historical moments as well as zeroing in on the familial bonds of Sakamoto and company.
Ultimately nonsense does win out, but an over-the-top, convoluted ending with villains who only appear in the last ten minutes of the game is more or less par for the course. It’s the characters that leave a lasting impression, with their endearing melodrama feeling as much like an American soap opera as it does an Anime.
Like a Dragon: Ishin! is a worthwhile entry in the series for veterans and newcomers alike. The change of pace offered by the time period is a welcome one indeed, especially when the series is in a bit of a transitional phase at the moment. If you’ve played even a single Yakuza game you’ll know more or less what to expect here, and for those who are tossing up whether to make this their first game in the series, the disconnect from the modern-day games makes it a good choice. The experience may be brought down by UI issues and a convoluted narrative but at the end of the day Ishin! is still well worth checking out.
Like a Dragon: Ishin! was reviewed on PS5 using a code provided by the publisher.