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Like A Dragon: Ishin! is the Yakuza games’ Red Dead — and a great place to start

Ishin!’s historical setting doesn’t diminish the franchise’s drama or silliness

Ryoma Sakamoto aims a pistol in a screenshot from Like A Dragon: Ishin! Image: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio/Sega

Sega’s Yakuza series, now known as Like A Dragon in the West, is beloved for its serious, stone-faced drama and brutal street brawls as it is for the silly antics of its stars, Kiryu Kazuma, Goro Majima, and Ichiban Kasuga. None of that is changing for the next game in the franchise, Like A Dragon: Ishin!, despite the game’s historical 19th century setting. If anything, Like A Dragon: Ishin! is an opportunity for the franchise to be a little sillier and more serious.

But let’s back up. What is Like A Dragon: Ishin? It’s the remake of a Yakuza spinoff that was originally released only in Japan in 2014 for PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4. It’s a stand-alone entry; neither a sequel nor direct prequel to the mainline Like A Dragon/Yakuza games, so if you’re intimidated by the sheer volume of Sega’s beat-’em-up adventure franchise, it’s a good jumping-in point. (Though fans of Yakuza 0 and Yakuza: Like A Dragon will recognize some familiar faces here.)

The story of Like A Dragon: Ishin! centers on Sakamoto Ryoma — he just happens to look a lot like Yakuza protagonist Kiryu Kazuma — who embarks on a mission to uncover a mysterious assailant after his father figure and mentor, Yoshida Toyo, is murdered. The only thing Ryoma knows about the masked attacker is his swordfighting style, known as Tennen Rishin. Seeking answers, Ryoma travels from his backwater town Tosa to Japan’s capital city of Kyo where he joins the Shinsengumi, a special police force, under an alias.

I recently played an early chapter of Like A Dragon: Ishin! on Xbox Series X — it’s also coming to PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox One in February — and found it just as engrossing, melodramatic, and comical as any Yakuza game to date. In some cases, the historical Bakumatsu period setting only made some elements of the Ishin! even funnier.

Chapter 3 of Like A Dragon: Ishin!, “Mibu Wolves,” sees Ryoma settling in the Fushimi district of Kyo. It’s a bustling, metropolitan town full of vendors, restaurants, bars, and brothels, as well as outlaws and lowlifes roaming the streets just looking for a fight. There are also minigames — gambling, chicken racing, even a proto-karaoke bar — and diversions like bathhouses and dojos where Ryoma can train in a variety of fighting styles.

Ryoma Sakamoto slashes a street thug named Hara with his katana, while holding a pistol in his other hand, on the streets of Kyo in Like A Dragon: Ishin! Image: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio/Sega

Fighting styles in Ishin! feel more distinct from previous games, where Kiryu could switch between a variety of brawling methods. Ryoma’s incorporate weapons across four styles:

  • Swordsman, a stance focused on powerful strikes with a katana
  • Gunman, which lets Ryoma attack at long range with pistols
  • Wild Dancer, a “flashy” stance that combines firearms and katana
  • Brawler, bare fists combined with environmental weapons

You can educate yourself on all of those styles in dojos throughout Fushimi. There’s also a blacksmith in town who will forge, intensify, and imbue weapons, given the right materials. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of swords, spears, pistols, cannons, bits of armor, and other items to unlock and upgrade throughout the game.

Like Yakuza games of the era when Ishin! was first released, street toughs will regularly challenge Ryoma to fights, but they’re relatively easy to put down. Ryoma faces a true challenger in his audition for the Shinsengumi, when he comes face to face with a capable swordsmen like Nagakura Shinpachi, the force’s second division captain (who just happens to be trained in the Tennen Rishin style). He also comes face to face with — but does not directly fight — a man named Okita Soji, Ishin!’s Goro Majima lookalike.

It’s in these moments, and in conversation with Shinsengumi deputy chief Hijikata Toshizo, where the drama of Like A Dragon: Ishin! is at its most compelling. The machismo is off the charts as Ryoma, Soji, and Shinpachi feel out each other’s combat prowess, bloodthirstiness, and true motivations. A later scene, where the deputy chief pits Ryoma and the mysterious “Man in White” in a battle to the death, ratchets up the drama further — with some excellent dialogue and an English-language localization that adds dimension to Ishin!’s characters.

Ryoma Sakamoto passionately sings “I’m in love, still in love, still in love with you” in a karaoke minigame from Like A Dragon: Ishin! Image: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio/Sega

The silly stuff on display in this chapter is great too. This includes:

  • A scene where Ryoma visits a bathhouse and is visited by a clothes thief. Ryoma then has to chase the perverted purloiner through the streets of Fushimi wearing nothing but a loin cloth, leading the local cops to try to nab him for indecency.
  • A group of protesters who rally behind a dance, one so infectious that Ryoma shouts “Stop dancing at me!” only to succumb himself to the trend. It’s very cute.
  • A waiting-in-line-for-good-sushi minigame. Where you just… wait in line. And then the vendor sells out.
  • A karaoke performance (with flute solo) from Ryoma, singing the classic Yakuza tune “Baka Mitai,” during which a stoic audience member is so entranced he seems to develop a crush on our hero and sobs uncontrollably.
  • Ryoma learning to buyo dance — a fan dance, traditionally performed by women — that shows, like Kiryu, he’s cool tapping into his feminine side

Ishin! also includes fishing, wood chopping, mahjong, shoji, poker, and dozens of substories, just like previous games in Sega’s seemingly unstoppable franchise. All of which adds up to a very fun, quite varied experience, just like Yakuza games of the modern era. It’s just of a different time.

Like A Dragon: Ishin! will be released on consoles and PC on Feb. 21. A digital deluxe edition will grant early access to the game on Feb. 17.

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