I had been under the impression that bringing a gun to a knife fight was strictly the Chicago way, but apparently it was the way of the samurai too – at least if the mix of gunslinging and sword-swinging in Like a Dragon: Ishin! is any indication. This 2023 remake of a 2014 Yakuza series spin-off that was previously only available to Japanese audiences transposes the tried and tested street fighting formula from modern Tokyo onto the final days of Japan’s Edo period, replacing the weaponised traffic cones and potted plants with katanas and primitive pistols. It suffers somewhat as far as its substories and side activities go, with both not quite up to the standard set by subsequent releases, but a card-augmented combat system keeps the fighting fresh and the crime story plot is packed with more delicious pulp than a Nashi pear. Like a Dragon: Ishin! might not be on the cutting edge of the katana blade, but it rarely strays onto the dull side either.

It appears you can take the Yakuza story out of the streets of modern Tokyo, but you can’t take the modern gangsters out of the Yakuza story. The events of Like a Dragon: Ishin! may take place in 1860s Kyoto and feature characters loosely based on real historical figures, but most of the roles in its main cast are filled with a host of recognisable faces from other Yakuza games. Thus its protagonist Sakamoto Ryoma, a disgraced ronin out to avenge the murder of his adoptive father, is clearly just series stalwart, Kazuma Kiryu, right down to his permanent scowl and unwavering sense of justice. I must admit that even as a longtime fan it initially got a little confusing when Kazuma Kiryu playing Sakamoto Ryoma went undercover as Saito Hajime in order to infiltrate the Shinsengumi police force. Still, my fondness for him helped me buy into his plight almost immediately, and although Ishin’s story beats are similar to those featured in several other Yakuza games, setting its figurative (and literal) backstabbing against the backdrop of a potential Japanese civil war made the stakes feel higher than those surrounding the typical turf battles.

Like a Dragon: Ishin! might not be on the cutting edge of the katana blade, but it rarely strays onto the dull side either.

Unlike recent releases from developer Ryu Ga Gotoku that feature English voice casts like Yakuza: Like a Dragon and Lost Judgment, Ishin can only be played with the original Japanese audio with subtitles. That may be considered a negative to some, but personally I like experiencing these stories with dialogue delivered in the characters’ native tongue, and it seems even more appropriate in this case given that Ishin takes place at a time when Japan was still largely sheltered from Western influences. That said, even with the translated subtitles turned on, there are a great deal of period-specific references to regions, religions, and regiments that I found to be almost impenetrable early on. Constantly pausing dialogue in Ishin’s opening hours in order to consult the in-game glossary (along with Google) to help fill in the gaps did upset the rhythm of the storytelling somewhat, but over the course of my 30-hour playtime I learned to distinguish a goshi from a joshi, and ultimately came away feeling more enlightened about a crucial period in Japanese history that I previously knew very little about.

I was less inspired by the environment itself, however. 19th century Kyoto’s woodland surroundings certainly make for a nice change of scenery from the bustling urban jungle of present day Tokyo, and much like Kamurocho it’s arguably best experienced at night, trading neon-soaked streets littered with drunken locals for lantern-lit lanes littered with… well, also plenty of drunken locals. (It turns out sake has been making Japanese people feel jolly for well over a thousand years.) However, while Ishin’s small slice of Japan’s original capital city is not without its standout sections, such as the bustling marketplace lining the canals in the Fushimi district, there are also far too many bland back streets that make navigating your way around a bit less appealing. I found myself far more reliant on the trip-skipping palanquin service in Ishin than I ever made use of the taxi services in other Yakuza adventures.

Katanarama

As with any other Yakuza game, the rustic riverside streets aren’t just meant for sightseeing, but also fight-spreeing, and Like a Dragon: Ishin! introduces a blend of blades and bullets that makes its combat feel refreshingly distinct from other entries in the series for the most part. Ryoma has four different fighting stances that you can switch between on the fly, allowing you to go from the smash and bash of the barehanded Brawler technique to the slash and dash of the Swordsman style with a tap of the D-pad. They vary in usefulness, though, and I found the pistol-only Gunman style to be particularly inconsistent in its implementation. It either made life too easy by allowing me to fill hallways of sword-swinging enemies with unlimited rounds of hot lead before they could get close enough to strike back, or its fickle auto-targeting would frustratingly force me to shoot at foes in the distance rather than the warrior in front of me threatening to clean out my ears with a sharpened spear.

I found the Wild Dancer style proved to be by far the most fun and reliable combat stance in Like a Dragon: Ishin!, and thus its skill tree is the one I invested in most heavily. Wild Dancer finds Ryoma at his most fleet-footed, composed of a combination of fast sword-slashes and a spinning blast of gunfire that’s excellent for crowd control, along with a twirling evade move that can be chained together to pinball him out of harm’s way and into a position of power. The fact that its faster attacks came at the cost of it dealing slightly less damage overall made it less effective against the more brutish bosses, but at that point I’d just smoothly switch to the deliberate and powerful Swordsman technique and indulge in a more steadily-paced samurai showdown.

While I may have relied on only two of the four fighting stances available to me for the vast majority of the adventure, they still provided enough variety to entertain. That’s particularly when used in tandem with Ishin’s unique Trooper card system, which effectively allows for custom support loadouts for each of Ryoma’s fighting styles. I enjoyed experimenting with different decks of cards, from the more passive Troopers that provide boosts to your attack power and health, to far more outlandish assault cards like a chicken that lays egg-shaped proximity mines and even your own personal attack bear. There are hundreds of these Trooper cards to uncover in Ishin and each card can be leveled up in combat, fused with other cards, or even promoted to unlock more powerful abilities, bringing a welcome amount of depth and strategy – and a splash of welcome silliness – to what initially seems like a fairly straightforward action game on the surface.

Better Homes and Gaidens

Ishin gives Ryoma plenty of opportunities to keep his sword sheathed, and one of the more substantial side activities sees him become the caretaker to a small farm in order to support a local orphan named Haruka. It’s a pretty involved process – you must carefully arrange your vegetable crops to maximise your return on each harvest, invest in additions such as chicken coops and scarecrows to further increase the farm’s output, and then meet meal delivery requests by completing simple Cooking Mama-style mini-games in order to turn a profit. I’ll be honest, farming simulation is really not for me, and if I ever make a stop in Stardew Valley it will be merely to ask for directions to the nearest highway so I can hightail it out of there. Still, this farm is an entirely optional undertaking and it certainly provides a more chilled out change of pace to take a sharp blade to radishes instead of ronins, if that’s the sort of thing you’re after.

Considering I enter each Yakuza adventure with a cocked fist rather than a green thumb, I was far more invested in the 40 different dungeon crawling missions offered at the Shinsengumi barracks. These provide an opportunity for farming of a decidedly more violent variety, running blade-first through bandit hideouts in order to scavenge precious materials required to forge more powerful weapons at the blacksmith, as well as level up your trooper cards to be fighting fit ahead of the next story mission. The reused cave backdrop does start to feel somewhat samey, but the layouts, door switches, and trap and enemy placements are shuffled up consistently enough to make each gauntlet run feel distinct. Even after completing Ishin’s main story, I’ve returned to the barracks to mop up the remaining Shinsengumi dispatches that I missed on my way through because I find them so satisfying to complete.

Elsewhere a lot of the series’ side activity staples are present and accounted for, with various types of gambling including poker and chicken racing, karaoke, and dance mini-games just a few of the distractions to indulge in. There are some fun ye olde Yakuza spins on modern mini-games to be found, too – instead of smacking baseballs in a batting cage you get to slice cannon balls in half with a well-timed swing of your sword, for example – but the bulk of these archaic amusements just can’t compete with the more dazzling diversions to be found in the contemporary settings of other Yakuza and Judgment games. Trading Club Sega arcades and go kart races for fishing and woodchopping feels a bit like forgoing a fun night on the town for a sleepy weekend away at your grandparents’ place – it’s still enjoyable and not without its charms, but it doesn’t exactly get your heartrate up.

Rarely does any task in Ishin go entirely unrewarded, no matter how innocuous it may seem. 

The substories that can be stumbled upon are similarly lacking in any real surprises. In most Yakuza games you can’t make your way from A to B without taking an unexpected detour into WTF territory, but Ishin’s substories are mostly more conservative by comparison. There are some rare offbeat exceptions, and I was certainly amused when an errand to buy perfume for a young lady suddenly swerved into a frenetic chase sequence with a lustful salesman hot on my tail like a horny Pepé Le Pew, but for the most part these interactions with locals are pretty subdued compared to the more outrageous scenarios experienced elsewhere in the series. That said, although helping an old lady to find her way home is pretty uneventful (though certainly noble), it’s still worth doing since Ishin’s Virtue system rewards you for almost every interaction you have – whether it’s a substory, shopping at a store, or feeding a stray dog. The Virtue points you earn can be spent on everything from upgrading Ryoma’s sprinting stamina to expanding Haruka’s farm, so rarely does any task in Ishin go entirely unrewarded, no matter how innocuous it may seem.

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Author: Tristan Ogilvie