The year is 1867, and a lone warrior wielding a katana wanders a dusty Japanese town packed with merchants, bandits, and the odd pet. The warrior, a grim-faced Shinsengumi soldier named Ryouma Sakamoto encounters a group villagers dancing, and after a brief kerfuffle… joins them.
This is the kind of scene that fans have come to expect from the Yakuza series, which was recently renamed Like a Dragon to fit the Japanese series. The key difference is that it’s set in the Bakumatsu Period rather than under the neon lights of Kamurocho, trading suits for kimons and automatic weapons for katanas (though the hero, who is Kazuma Kiryu in all but name, has a revolver). But despite the samurai setting, it remains very much the same in spirit.
That means a decent amount of the game is spent wandering through alleys, playing various mini-games, and generally looking for trouble. There are no Club Sega arcades in 19th century Japan — or in modern Japan for that matter, what with Sega’s recent departure from the arcade business — but you can play shogi and poker. In the course of my 40 minutes or so with Ishin, I visited a geisha, tried my hand at fishing, and spotted a chicken racing game (though that last one was sadly locked out).
Much of this takes place in daylight, which is a big reason for the shift to Unreal Engine 4 for this entry — (Like a Dragon 8 and Like a Dragon Gaiden will both continue to utilize the older Dragon Engine). When the sun goes down, the Shinsengumi turn their attention to more serious matters, such as a figure known as “Izu the Butcher” — a fighter capable of dispatching two captains with a brief flash of his blade. Yakuza has always been a violent series, and Ishin continues that tradition among crimson-coated katanas and gouts of blood.
Like a Dragon: Ishin! finally gets a western release
Series fans will recall that Ishin! is a remake of the 2014 game of the same name, which helped launch the series on PS4 almost a decade ago. That game never made it to North America, mostly because RGG Studio didn’t think Americans would really get the nuances of the Bakumatsu period. Turns out that Americans like katanas just fine though, as evidenced by the recent flood of samurai-themed games ranging from Ghost of Tsushima to Sekiro (and more).
Notably, it’s one of the favorite stories of RGG Studio boss Masayoshi Yokoyama, who ranks it alongside fan-favorites Yakuza 0 and Yakuza: Like a Dragon as among his best. Yokoyama, it should be said, is a major fan of period dramas — maybe even more than crime stories. In that respect, it’s fitting that Ishin! should be the game that kicks off this new era for the series.
As for the game itself, Like a Dragon: Ishin! doesn’t seem appreciably different from its Dragon Engine counterparts, aside from maybe being a bit smoother. That can be either a relief or a disappointment depending on your perspective on Like a Dragon’s current tech. Personally, I think the narrative sequences look amazing as always; the combat, maybe less so. It’s not as if it’s bad, but I do find it a bit stiff.
For those who aren’t aware, Like a Dragon: Ishin utilizes the brawler-style combat found in previous entries, meaning your main goal is to try and build up combos by slashing, punching, or shooting foes. Of the four styles on hand — sword and gun, sword, gun, and fists — I found I had the easiest time building combos with the speedy sword and gun. Because this is a Yakuza game, Ryoma also has access to a multitude of special attacks, meaning you can basically wipe out foes with a Kamehameha energy attack.
Like a Dragon’s greatest strength
But as always its charm is most apparent in its frequently bizarre sense of humor, which meshes surprisingly well with its more serious elements. Like a Dragon is one of those games that can move seamlessly from high comedy to high drama without ever coming off as awkward or inconsistent. One moment Ryouma will be racing chickens, the next he’ll be staring down Izu the Butcher ahead of a tense boss fight. It’s a big part of what has made the series so endearing over the past 20 years.
For RGG Studio, Like a Dragon: Ishin! marks a little bit of a turning point, as this will be the series’ first major release in the post-Nagoshi era. If there are any conclusions to draw from this remake of a 2014 side-story, it’s that the series is now sufficiently popular to warrant a full remake of a formerly obscure spin-off. Regardless of how it ultimately turns out, it’s a sign of things to come for the series.
Like a Dragon: Ishin! will be released on February 23, 2021 on PS5, PC, and Xbox Series X/S.
Kat Bailey is a Senior News Editor at IGN as well as co-host of Nintendo Voice Chat. Have a tip? Send her a DM at @the_katbot.
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Author: Kat Bailey