Action JRPG Review

Like a Dragon: Ishin – Review

Originally published on PlayStation 3 and 4 in 2014 in Japan, Like a Dragon: Ishin is a spin-off of the famous Yakuza series of Action RPGs. Now in 2023, it’s been remade in Unreal Engine 4 and released worldwide.

While Yakuza fans will recognize much in Like a Dragon: Ishin, it’s a very different setting and serves as a standalone title.

End of an Era

Like a Dragon: Ishin is set as the Edo period of Japan is coming to a close. Isolated for centuries, foreign weapons are beginning to enter the country and anti-foreign sentiment is high with some extremist groups appearing.

Not everyone is happy with the internal state of affairs either. While it’s worse in some regions than others, the class system is often seen as more important than anything. Insult someone high-ranked enough? It won’t end well. We see this early on when a sick young girl doesn’t bow for an upper-class samurai and he orders her mother’s death.

While perhaps not as turbulent as the Sengoku period, this is a time of significant change in Japan. Like a Dragon: Ishin represents this well by showing political motives for many of the actions in the story, weaving in interests from loyalists, those who desire change, and even foreigners both good and bad.

This is an incredibly interesting setting, but I believe some aspects won’t be fully grasped by those unfamiliar with Japanese history or even those who are more familiar with the English terms. It often uses Japanese terms such as joshi, shishi, bakufu, and more. An in-game glossary helps with some of these, but others are notably absent. I didn’t find it harmed the overall story, but some of the minor details may be lost along the way.

On the topic of the setting, places are based on real locations. While I can’t comment on the accuracy compared to 1800s Japan, it certainly builds a great atmosphere. It was also interesting to briefly see Kiyomizu Temple a couple of times, as I’ve visited it in person.

Like a Dragon: Ishin - Ryoma and Oryo

The Life of Ryoma Sakamoto

These are certainly interesting times and along with them come those that rise to meet them. Like a Dragon: Ishin stars Ryoma Sakamoto. While the story of Like a Dragon: Ishin is fictional, Ryoma Sakamoto was a real samurai, and many of his recorded traits are seen in his fictional counterpart here.

In Like a Dragon: Ishin, Ryoma is an orphan taken in by the Magistrate. Sent off to Edo to improve his swordsmanship, he returns to his hometown to find plots that have been developing while he was away. His sworn brother has been raising a group to fight against the status quo, secretly backed by their adoptive father who is in charge of enforcing it.

Things don’t go well. Before this plot even takes off, the Magistrate is assassinated by a masked man. This is where Ryoma’s quest begins – his main motivation throughout Like a Dragon: Ishin is to find out who killed his father figure and why.

Investigating a single assassination leads Ryoma to events that influence all of Japan. Meeting and coming up against everyone from the regular townspeople to those who control much of the country, it’s full of political movement, intrigue, conflicting paths, friendship, hints of romance, and drama.

The setting of Like a Dragon: Ishin is a great one, but I wasn’t as much a fan of the main plot. Interesting characters spiced it up and some moments were quite amusing like a pub crawl that influenced politics between regions or a naked fight in a public bathhouse, but it never really grabbed me. The romance subplot felt underdeveloped, some moments made me question Ryoma’s intelligence, and I didn’t find the ending satisfying. That said, while the main plot didn’t satisfy me, something else kept me coming back.

Silliness and Substories

Despite a serious plot, Yakuza games are packed with a variety of side content, much of it quite silly. Running around the city will often have you run into people who need help, whether it’s a sumo wrestler who needs food to compete, listening to a woman who talks too much and being quizzed on what she said, or other less serious topics. There is more than one time where he’ll find some injustice that needs fighting too, and that may even come from something like playing house with some bored kids.

That’s not to say they’re all less than serious though. Ryoma has little touching moments, like helping a young boy whose best friend is moving away or keeping an old man company whose son passed away. He’s very much someone who wants to help people.

The city is full of substories. Many of them really bring the world to life and add a lot to the experience, though some don’t have much payoff, giving just a few lines after a lot of effort. Ryoma builds bonds with people through some of these substories, but it doesn’t always feel like there’s much of a bond. This is a somewhat mixed area since it has some of the best things about Like a Dragon: Ishin, along with some fairly mediocre moments.

Like a Dragon: Ishin - Buyo Dancing

Minigames and More

Another thing that brings the world of Like a Dragon: Ishin to life is the many minigames. There are two very notable ones, along with many more simple ones to play.

Another Life is a life and farming simulator. Ryoma takes on the debt of a young girl named Haruka by buying her house (yet for some reason still decides to live at a local inn). Here you can grow crops, sell them, and upgrade the house, while she looks after it for you. Through quests, you can even adopt several cats and dogs. As you grow closer to Haruka, you even get a number of cutscenes that could be viewed as more romantic than the ones with the actual romantic lead, making her feel awkwardly a little like a daughter/wife.

While not as addictive as the business management minigame in Yakuza: Like a Dragon, it was satisfying to unlock new crops, earn money, get the cutscenes, and pay off the house. It was quite useful to get some of the more effective healing items via cooking in the house too.

The other notable minigame is more straightforward. There are several short ‘dungeons’ to clear, where you can receive rewards such as money and crafting materials for weapons and armor. Exploring them and defeating enemies within let you progress here.

Aside from that, you can find rhythm games with karaoke and traditional dance, an (easily exploitable) chicken racing betting game, along with other gambling, and more. Between substories and minigames, there’s always something to do in the city, and I’d encourage players to take their time, not just rush from story checkpoint to checkpoint.

Like a Dragon: Ishin - Combat

Sword and Gun

As is common for the series, Like a Dragon: Ishin often has you engage in action combat full of action and spectacle. Whether as part of a dramatic plot-fuelled duel or one of the many times someone on the street decides they don’t like the look of your face, Ryoma will need to bring the beatdown on a variety of enemies.

Fitting the era, Ryoma uses not only his fists but a sword and gun. With the option of four fighting styles, you can switch between them easily, and each individually levels up, unlocking new abilities. While players may have a favorite style, different ones will be suited to different types of fights at times, and there’s even the occasional one where you can’t use a certain weapon.

You can choose to fight as a brawler, a swordsman, a gunner, or a ‘wild dancer’, which is a mix of swordsman and gunner with a focus on dodging.

The ability to change between them kept things interesting. I found myself dodging around as a wild dancer, changing to a swordsman to block stronger enemies and carefully move around to attack their openings, then retreating as a gunner to shoot from a safer distance with ammo that inflicts special effects. I didn’t use brawler much, but throwing enemies about on occasion was fun too.

As you fight, heat builds up (as long as you don’t have the ‘Tranquil Towel’ equipped), which lets you perform special moves if you can maneuver enemies into the right situation. These are over-the-top actions, sometimes accompanied by a QTE. One thing I liked here was how failing can actually create an opening for the enemy to harm you instead, so it’s a risk to pull off a big move.

Like a Dragon: Ishin - Kamehameha

In addition to heat moves, after a certain point, you can unlock trooper cards which let you use some even less realistic moves. From one that looks like the Kamehameha from Dragon Ball to absorbing health from enemies, it’s a little more out there than the stylish heat moves. These can be set per fighting style, which I found helpful. As one example, I had health regenerating constantly in Gunman style, so I could back off, regenerate, but still fight. These are a new addition to the remake.

I do have to note that the camera angles sometimes were a problem. I had to quickly get used to turning things around when I couldn’t easily see someone right behind me or much going on at all if I was too close to a wall. It wasn’t too bad but it occasionally caused some issues.

While the combat is certainly fun, one criticism I have is that a certain ability of ‘Wild Dancer’ essentially breaks the difficulty. After unlocking an unlimited combo, I overpowered most bosses so much that they spent most of their time on the floor or being knocked back down onto it.

On a more positive note, I really appreciate how they’ve handled unlocking abilities. Using a style gives you orbs to put into an ability grid, but there are also general orbs that can be used instead that are gained by leveling up. Even though I spent more time with one style, it helped me keep the others somewhat up to level.

Models and Muscles

Like a Dragon: Ishin’s environments look great, but the models particularly stand out. Not only for how they use the character appearances from other Yakuza titles but in just how high-quality they are. They often show this through close-ups of the faces – I’ve heard certain fans very vocally appreciate it for all the scenes where the muscular men of Like a Dragon: Ishin appear near-nude too.

The voice acting is brilliant, which isn’t surprising as some big-name talent is on board. It not only involves a lot of talent who worked on other Yakuza titles, but even a character that appears a couple of times is played by Aya Hirano (notable for Haruhi Suzumiya, Konata Izumi, and many more roles from popular anime). There is no English dub though – it’s Japanese audio only.

Verdict

Like a Dragon: Ishin has some great characters, an immersive world, and a lot to love. The main plot may not stand out, but the smaller stories of the characters that inhabit the world do. With combat being a highlight, and tons to do, the few issues don’t stop me from recommending this. Just be sure to take it in slowly and experience the world.

LIKE A DRAGON: ISHIN IS RECOMMENDED

Platforms: PC (Steam), PlayStation 4|5, XBox

If you enjoy Yakuza games, perhaps you’d like to take a look at the spin-off series, Judgment or the title from the main series Yakuza: Like a Dragon.

Many thanks goes to SEGA for a PC review code for this title.

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