Like a Dragon: Ishin! Review – A Journey to the Past

Like a Dragon: Ishin! Review – A Journey to the Past

The tangled history of Yakuza global releases over the last twenty years has, until now, left two console titles completely out in the cold. The first, Kenzan!, was the first title that Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio made for the PlayStation 3, and given the rough technical reception to Yakuza 3, it makes some sense that we never saw it outside Japan.

The second, Ishin!, was the final game the studio made on PlayStation 3, as well as the last game to use their proprietary “Kiwami” Engine. This was the foundation upon which the remake of the first title, Yakuza Kiwami, was made, as well as the fan-favorite Yakuza 0. From here, the Dragon Engine was used for 6, 7, Kiwami 2, and the Judgment titles, which have for the most part been very well-received.

This particular remake, now retitled Like a Dragon: Ishin!, is finally coming to us having been rebuilt in Unreal Engine 4. This is the studio’s first time using a third-party engine that we publicly know of, and despite how much I enjoyed Ishin!, I was reminded of this very frequently throughout my thirty-five hours with the game.

This title (translated as “Restoration!” from Japanese) is a spin-off from the main series taking place nearly two hundred years in the past. Japan is suffering under an oppressive caste system, and many powerful people have ideas on how to best flip the table on the Shogunate.

Ryoma Sakamoto, our hero, returns to his hometown of Tosa after training in Edo for a year, and quickly ends up in hot water when he defends a pregnant woman from a higher-class samurai preparing to kill her over perceived disrespect. As a result, he lands in jail and is sentenced to execution, but is sprung out by his adoptive father Toyo.

Ishin! begins in the small town of Tosa.

Toyo and his son Takechi are the leaders of a Loyalist Party seeking to eventually depose the shogun and restore Japanese rule to the Emperor, and now that Ryoma has returned, he is given his own position of leadership in the party. He and his brother arrange for a clandestine meeting with their father, who holds a seat in the city’s government.

When they arrive, Toyo is about to explain his grand plan for the next day’s revolution to Ryoma, but a masked assassin appears and murders him in front of Ryoma before attempting to flee. Ryoma tells his brother to run away and gives chase, but is unable to subdue the masked man and is charged with the crime of assassinating the city magistrate due to there being no other potential culprit present. Ryoma declares his innocence and leaps into the nearby river to escape, saying that he will only return once he has found his father’s murderer.

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It’s the same kind of mystery that forms the basis for most of the stories of the other Yakuza titles, translated into a tense political uprising that weaves in and out of this tale in the middle of the nineteenth century. The other way the developers make this title feel at home is by giving most of the cast familiar faces, pulling actors right out of the main titles.

This presentation likely led to one of the first major knocks against Ishin!, that being the lack of an English dub after the last three localized titles were dubbed. Having played every game in the series, I am more than accustomed to experiencing Yakuza games with subtitles, but given the warm reception to the dub for Like a Dragon (one cameo in particular), it feels like a strange cost-cutting measure for a game with enough promotional budget to be announced at an official Sony event.

My best guess for why this decision was made is that the vast majority of returning Japanese actors do not yet have English equivalents, as Adachi and Joon-gi Han are the only major Like a Dragon characters to be featured here, but I’m going to put a pin in the budget issue for now.

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The majority of the game takes place in the city of Kyo, a new location for the series. Despite the change in time period, Ishin! still features many of the usual minigames – karaoke is still here, the baseball batting cage minigame has been turned into a game of deflecting cannonballs, and there’s even a new Japanese dancing game. (Yes, you can have Ryoma sing “Baka Mitai”.)

Many of the citizens can be befriended through similar mechanics to those in other entries. They’ll have some kind of recurring request for you, whether that’s to deliver items, eat at their restaurant many times, or simply visit them again and again. These are capped off by brief events that demonstrate the strength of your relationship – my personal favorite was with the Don Quijote employee, whose capstone event involves you helping customers find merchandise while he’s busy.

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Other citizens will interrupt you as you run across the city with the series’ famous Substories, which are more guided sidequests with frequently humorous premises. One of them will have you come back to a popular vendor every day to try and get his most in-demand food, another has you help a debt collector who saves people in danger of being taken advantage of by loan sharks, and so on.

These substories are placed in such a way as to totally halt you in your tracks, though, and the dialogue cutscenes that introduce them are all unskippable – but again, put this next to the budget pin.

The last major category of side content is called “Another Life”, wherein Ryoma takes over the management of a small farm to save a young girl named Haruka from the crushing debt she inherited from her parents. This minigame is lightweight and a bit of an investment in both time and resources to make work to your favor, but stopping by every so often will net you enough reward to assist in the main game.

All of these, as well as a long, long list of arbitrary milestones, contribute towards two things. Your completion percentage is just the same as in every other Yakuza game, a progress bar that demonstrates how much nonessential content you’ve seen (main story progression doesn’t count).

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It also grants you Virtue, a currency separate from money that you use to purchase upgrades for both your character and your farm. This allows you to increase your inventory size and sprinting capacity, as well as your reputation in the districts of the city and the capability of your farm. The farm itself is one of the easiest ways to farm more Virtue, but it takes a lot of time and effort before you’ll see a return on that investment.

The core narrative is, typically for a Yakuza title, a melodramatic tale full of twists and turns as Ryoma and the player get closer to solving the mysteries at hand. Ryoma gains and loses allies at the drop of a hat, though some of the connections he forms are easier to believe than others.

One of the downsides of using so many familiar faces is that not all of their connections to Kiryu translate across to Ryoma, and he’s meeting nearly all of them for the first time. There’s some wasted potential in the use of Kiryu’s sworn brother Nishikiyama as a recurring boss that Ryoma hardly knows, for example, and while most of the personalities are kept intact, the dynamics are different enough that the instances of familiarity  make certain interactions and events  a tad uncanny.

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I was also not especially impressed by the ending of Ishin!. It had all of the elements I expected – a banger of a soundtrack that syncs up to dramatic moments in epic fights, and tension cranked all the way up to the max by the time the final fight rolls around in a one-on-one grudgematch. But there’s a rather significant plot development that occurs after that final fight since this story has to wrap up entirely in one game, and it causes the non-interactive cutscene to seriously drag on with a goofy final twist.

The rest of the story carries the quality I expect out of this series, though I did have a few meta-flaws that were made more frustrating by the most massive letdown of this title. At this point, I’m gonna take down those pins, and address the big-tent frustration I had with Ishin!, because most of the rest of it falls under that.

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The Yakuza series saw two other fully-remade titles before Ishin!, of the first two games that originally released on the PlayStation 2. The first, Yakuza Kiwami, is – while still a good game – one of the weakest in the franchise, due to the decision to preserve all of the balancing issues that had been present in the original release. Combat feels immensely unfair during boss fights, as the player can easily end up stunlocked multiple times by endless combo attacks.

The second full remake, Kiwami 2, is, by contrast, a stellar highlight of the entire franchise. Rebuilding the whole game in the Dragon Engine, Kiwami 2 includes all of the quality-of-life features that had been introduced in the PlayStation 4 titles, the most relevant to this review being the Substory Finder on the map. This made it easier to find (and, if you wanted, avoid) side quests that you hadn’t yet started.

Kiwami 2 felt like a truly modern update to the original game that even included brand-new content, so I had a lot of high hopes for Ishin!, and within an hour of starting this game, I could already tell that I was going to be disappointed on that front.

Unfortunately, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio has chosen to go back to the Kiwami 1 approach, preserving the datedness of Ishin!’s original PlayStation 3 release.. Movement feels more stiff than I’m used to at this point, the environments are empty, having no physical reaction to your presence, and the experience feels like a 1080p upscale of a PlayStation 3 game. This was much more acceptable in the Yakuza Remastered Collection, which did exactly that for all three titles from the PS3 and bundled them together for $60.

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Ishin!, frustratingly, being sold for the same price all by itself, likely due to the effort that was put into building the game in the new engine. Regrettably, Unreal Engine 4 doesn’t do this title many favors, as it suffers from frequent visual glitches, particularly in the crowds of NPCs. Despite the streets feeling less populated than the more recent titles, the NPCs y would often come untethered from their environment, causing them to perform bizarre action like rapidly pinwheeling through the ground or disappearing and respawning onscreen.

None of it is particularly game-breaking, but the use of UE4 is confusing, to say the least. This title looks arguably worse than the Dragon Engine games, with the exception of the pre-rendered cutscenes. If you’ve played the last few entries in the franchise, Ishin! is inevitably going to feel like a conspicuous step backward.

Although the one element that I am thankful is unaffected is in the combat. Unlike the other action-focused titles in the series,, fisticuffs are so weak in Ishin!, to the point where their usage is  almost discouraged.Instead,you’re encouraged to use the three weapon styles on offer. For example, the semi-traditional samurai style which uses a single sword  is heavily encouraged during boss fights, as it makes it simple to defend yourself against heavy-hitting combos.

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The less-traditional styles are gunman, which lets you fire your revolver as fast as an automatic pistol to strike enemies before they enter your threat zone, and the abundantly flashy Wild Dancer stance. With a gun in one hand and sword in the other, Ryoma can deftly chain together combos and dodges – infinitely, with upgrades – but at the tradeoff of being completely unable to block, making it impractical for boss fights.

The combat in Ishin! manages to strike the same delightful tone as that of 0, the entry immediately following it. It feels fluid and not overly unfair, as any attack that comes at you can be dealt with if you can respond in time. Tearing through an enormous group of enemies with Wild Dancer and then switching to swordplay during the big boss is an exciting change of pace for a series that almost entirely focuses on hand-to-hand combat, in the same way as pulling out Majima’s bat in 0 the first time you finally get to use it.

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Like a Dragon: Ishin! is a game that both delights and frustrates me for a lot of reasons. I don’t feel like the shift to Unreal Engine 4 added anything substantial, and it seems to have come at a steep cost compared to the framework the studio normally uses. The drawbacks make this fully-remade title feel like it would have been at home two generations ago, rather than belonging next to Lost Judgment and Yakuza 7.

But when the music kicks in and the swords come out, Ishin! manages to shine anyway, putting an entirely new spin on the fights the series is known for. If this is your first Yakuza/Like a Dragon title, I think this one can still sell you on what makes this franchise so special. Veterans may have a harder time looking over the technical issues, but will still find plenty to love if they manage to look past the jank.

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