Even though it’s been close to 10 years since the Yakuza series’ spin-off, Ishin, first launched on PS3/PS4 as a Japanese exclusive, it’s still a welcome surprise for developer Ryu Ga Gotoku to, at long last, release a localized Like a Dragon: Ishin! remake/remaster in the States and beyond. If you aren’t already in the know, the “Like a Dragon,” or “Yakuza” in Japanese, series has gripped many hearts over the years. From its early days as a Japanese-exclusive, and near-instant acclaim, to its localization beyond Japan, many gamers have found their niche within the series’ over-the-top melodrama, street fight brawler, swordplay, and gunplay gameplay, and silly, little substories, all meshed into one Yakuza mosaic.
Save for fine touches on graphics, an advanced Trooper card system, and lighting and textures elevated to modern Yakuza standards, 2023’s Like a Dragon: Ishin! and 2014’s Ryū ga Gotoku Ishin! are so clearly cut from the same cloth, thus making it more of a remaster than a remake. So, what else is new? How does Like a Dragon: Ishin! Perform on current-gen consoles? Does it tower above other recently released games of the same genre, or does the remake fall short? How’s the gameplay? Well, today’s Like a Dragon: Ishin! review should put all your concerns to rest, finally helping you determine whether buying Like a Dragon: Ishin! is worth it.
Travel Way Back in Time
Yes, you got that right. Like a Dragon: Ishin!, unlike previous Yakuza installments, takes us back in time to mid-1800s Japan. If you’re a history junkie, you’ll know it’s around the time when Japan would slowly transition from independence to influences from Western culture. Specifically, the Tokugawa shogunate rulership would soon crumble under the Meiji Restoration.
If you look closely enough, you’ll find actual historical events referenced within Like a Dragon: Ishin! Even the characters are loosely based on actual people, like the main character, Sakamoto Ryoma, whom you’ll remember as the Yakuza series legend Kazuma Kiryu.
Without getting into too much detail, Ryoma starts off as a member of the Tosa Loyalist Party, fighting for Japan’s more egalitarian society. But, rather suddenly, his adopted father gets murdered in cold blood. So you embark on a vengeance quest that leads him into a melodramatic journey intertwined with political struggles for power, widespread violence, and, of course, personal drama.
I loved the moment when Ryoma forged two identities. The first, under the alias Saito Hajime (also a historical figure) by day, acting as part of a police force restoring social order to Kyo, and as himself, by night, undermining social justice on his quest to find his adopted father’s killer. At some point, his cover gets almost blown, but he narrowly escapes, all the while interacting with familiar characters from the Yakuza series, repurposed to play intricate roles at Japan’s pivotal time in history.
Learn a Thing or Two
I won’t lie. I did pause the game in the first few chapters, flipping through the pages of the internet to piece certain phases together. Despite the fact that “Like a Dragon: Ishin!” is ultimately historical fiction, the in-game glossary does help things to some extent, all while helping me learn a thing or two about a crucial period in Japanese history that I frankly knew close-to-nothing about.
Kyoto vs Kyo
Yakuza is mostly modern. It’s why “Like a Dragon: Ishin!” spikes my interest to some extent. By mostly modern, I mean the Yakuza is often Kyoto-based, where neon city lights soak up the streets, versus Ishin! where lantern-lit lanes take over. It’s old for a new age, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The lighting and texture definitely appeal to the eye. Rather than a wholesome display of the city, Kyo sticks to slices of it with more intricate spaces to explore. Sometimes, these spaces satisfy the craving for what Japan’s Bakumatsu period of the Edo era would look like. Facial close-ups reveal the smallest of expressions that marry well with the emotional moments between characters.
You’ll revel in bustling marketplaces and rustic riverside towns. But, you’ll also run into bland-looking streets I didn’t quite enjoy navigating. By Yakuza standards, Kyo doesn’t appeal much. Thankfully, the story exceeds expectations, making it less of a frustrating thing you constantly notice.
The Samurai Way
Four main mechanics flourish here. Each allows switching between them on the fly; it all depends on which one you prefer the most. Firstly, you have the smash barehanded brawler popularized across Yakuza games. It just never gets old, does it? Or, you could go the slashing swordplay route. FPS lovers can have their go at Yakuza’s pistol-only gunplay. So, you have the advantage of ranged unlimited rounds of gunfire on sword-swinging opponents. And then, there’s the one beloved mechanic making waves on the socials: the wild dancer style.
Wild dancing is superb for crowd control. It’s pretty much fast-paced slashing and lightning-fast gunfire while spinning around for maximum impact on any enemies nearby. It’s pretty cool, too, because the spin doesn’t pinpoint you in a single spot, instead wheeling you out of harm’s way where you’re free to regroup and adopt either of the other three techniques.
Oh, Like a Dragon: Ishin! raises the stakes higher with a trooper card system that was previously restricted to Shinsengumi side missions but is now free to use throughout the game. So, ideally, the card system amplifies either one of Ryoma’s fighting systems by experimenting with a variety of decks of cards. You could boost your health, attack, or even summon grenade-laying chickens and personal attack bears. With hundreds of cards to unlock, each free to combine or upgrade, players, enjoy access to depth and strategy while unleashing hellfire on Ryoma’s worst enemies.
All Work and No Play…
Like a Dragon: Ishin! and Yakuza understands the “all work and no play” saying so well, they constantly rop you into the weirdest and quirkiest sub-stories. Here’s a small section of Kyo City, dense with the silliest minigames and, sometimes, impactful distractions worth hours of gameplay.
For instance, you may run into a farming simulator to help out an orphan called Haruka. It’s pretty involving, with objectives like planting crops, nurturing chickens, putting up scarecrows, and completing cooking games to maximize profit. If you’re not into this Stardew Valley kind of play, do not worry, as there are a ton more minigames to opt for.
From dungeon crawler missions to poker, karaoke, dancing, kart races, and chicken racing, everything and anything is possible here. The only caveat is Like a Dragon: Ishin! faces the modern Yakuza games as its competitor, with certainly much more fun things to do in today’s age. Still, it’s a welcome addition to an otherwise serious game that perfectly balances fun and games every step of the way.
It’s hard to explain how playing “Like a Dragon: Ishin!“ feels incredibly satisfying. Unless you’ve played other installments within the Yakuza franchise, perhaps this new title would be a great starting point to find out what all the fuss is about. There won’t be anything you’d miss, given that it’s a standalone story with no ties to its counterpart entries within the franchise, except for familiar faces and techniques.
But, therein also lies the issue with Like a Dragon: Ishin! Compared to later additions to the franchise, it falls a little short on the environment’s detail, surprising twists and turns with the substories, and the overall look and feel of the game. The gunplay could use a little more love too. However, the story remains a top-notch narrative to experience unraveling, and the trooper card system is a complete and thrilling mechanic that adds depth and strategy to the game. Should you buy this game? Sure. But is it a necessary purchase to make? Certainly not.
Like a Dragon: Ishin! Review (PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, & PC)
A Throw Back in Time to 19th Century Japan
If you’re feeling a certain need to experience 19th-century Japan through historical action and fiction, nonetheless, Like a Dragon: Ishin! is a great place to start. The characters here are actual people from a crucial period in Japan’s history when the Tokugawa shogunate rulership crumbled under the Meiji Restoration. It’s also a chance to finally play the remake of the original PS3/PS4 Japanese-exclusive Ryū ga Gotoku Ishin! Spin-off game. Save for fine touches to the graphics, gameplay, and environment. All else remains the same. The story is as gripping as ever, and the usual weird and quirky substories make their way to this Yakuza remake too.
The only caveat is that some may prefer the recent Yakuza’s modern takes on Kyoto versus 1860s Japan, especially when it comes to the hours spent running errands for the locals. But, for the history buffs out there, I’d certainly recommend giving “Like a Dragon: Ishin!” a try. Grab your copy of Like a Dragon: Ishin!, out now on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC platforms.