clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Kazuma Kiryu, as Ryoma Sakamoto, leaps into the air with his katana in Like a Dragon: Ishin! Image: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio/Sega

Filed under:

Like a Dragon: Ishin! can’t outrun the Yakuza series’ past

One step forward, two steps back

As recently as four years ago, the prospect of a North American and European localization for Like a Dragon: Ishin! might have seemed like a pipe dream. But then, in 2019, series producer Daisuke Sato mentioned that such a project was “under consideration.” To say that this quote caused a stir among fans would be an understatement.

Here we are in 2023, and that very localization has come to fruition. The historical drama marks a return to the Yakuza series’ traditional roots, after 2020’s Yakuza: Like a Dragon (yes, the names can get confusing) implemented turn-based combat and a somewhat lacking core cast. And while the remaster of 2014’s Like a Dragon: Ishin! brings much of the franchise’s bombast to bear, in a compelling microcosm of 1860s Japan, it doesn’t avoid the narrative pitfalls the Yakuza games have long fallen into.

Ishin doesn’t stray too far from what the Yakuza series has established as its core gameplay loop: semi-open-world exploration in which you bare-knuckle brawl your way through encounters with unruly thugs on your way to a variety of story quests. Like previous entries, plot points are laden with long cutscenes that contain loads of exposition about individual character goals and motivations, often betraying a fixation on shocking reveals. It’s effectively the same kind of game that Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio has been making for upwards of 10 years, just with a different coat of paint.

Ryoma Sakamoto strides down an aisle at a ceremony between hundreds of people in Like a Dragon: Ishin! Image: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio/Sega

Similar to Yakuza 0 and Yakuza Kiwami, players have access to four different fighting styles in combat: With one, protagonist Ryoma Sakamoto relies on his fists; with another, he uses a katana; for the third; he uses a gun; and last, a gun and katana at the same time. Each style has its own unique benefits — the katana allows you to block enemy attacks and deliver more deliberate strikes, for instance, while the gun and katana crossover style is more focused on dodging and attacking enemies in quick succession. Although the brawler style does allow you to unlock the legendary Tiger Drop ability, I spent most of my time whirling away from opponents and delivering quick strokes of the sword, oftentimes punctuated by quick shots from the revolver. It reminded me of what I loved about combat in the Yakuza series, and how much I genuinely missed just duking it out in real-time fights against a pack of common thugs.

Leveling up is a fairly simple affair. You earn most of your experience from random encounters with roving thugs that trawl through Kyoto — the designated locale for this 19th-century spinoff. Performing better according to Ishin’s rating system, which grades you on your overall offense and defense, nets you more experience and yen. You can also unlock spheres to spend in each fighting style’s respective tree, unlocking more hit points, new abilities, and flashier finishing moves. It’s a fairly straightforward progression system for anyone who has played an action-RPG before, forcing you to spend less time in the menus and more time in Ishin’s vibrant world.

Ryoma Sakamoto locks katanas with an enemy in Like a Dragon: Ishin! Image: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio/Sega

Like most of the Yakuza series, Ishin revels in the concept of virtual tourism. But instead of a fictional riff on Kabukicho, players are sent back to experience an interpretation of Kyoto during the late Edo period. The map is divided up into three segments: a main commercial center (with stores like Don Quijote, which very much did not exist back then, but is a signature establishment in the Yakuza series nonetheless); the red-light district, where you can play minigames with a courtesan, for one; and the player hub, which happens to be the headquarters of the Shinsengumi. The environments are gorgeously rendered, with unpaved roads punctuated by maple trees and streams that run through the city. It is a proverbial historical playground for the player, as you interact with locals, who ask you to chop wood, race chickens instead of toy cars, or engage in the timeless activity of mahjong.

The soundtrack is a delightful blend of the harsh electronic tracks from previous Yakuza games and traditional Japanese instruments. Like a Dragon: Ishin’s arrangements of “For Your Sake” and “Receive You” are probably some of the strongest songs in the series, with the incorporation of taiko drums and the shamisen elevating already incredible tracks. They straddle that line between familiarity and novelty wonderfully, reflecting Ishin’s unique spot in the franchise’s history.

Familiar faces abound in this entry: Ryuji Goda, Goro Majima, Yoshitake Mine, and Tianyou Zhao all show up in roles big and small. What’s more, despite their fame from the Yakuza series (now called “Like a Dragon” in the West, as well as in Japan) they serve as stand-ins for actual historical figures, like Okita Soji, Hijikata Toshizo, and Nagakura Shinpachi, to name a few. Ishin is basically a greatest hits of the series’ characters, through the lens of historical fiction. And the localization does a wonderful job of balancing their gruffness, earnestness, and reticence.

Ryoma Sakamoto uses the brawling fighting style against an enemy in Like a Dragon: Ishin! Image: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio/Sega

Kazuma Kiryu takes center stage as the protagonist of the period piece; rather, his face and voice are used as stand-ins for protagonist Ryoma Sakamoto, a notable historical figure that was a samurai, Japanese nationalist, and advocate for industrialization. The game begins with Ryoma returning to his hometown of Tosa, only for him to become embroiled in conflict when his surrogate father figure is murdered by a mysterious, unnamed culprit. Effectively framed for said murder, Ryoma flees to Kyoto under a new name — Saito Hajime, another historical figure and samurai — where he joins the Shinsengumi police force in an attempt to track down the culprit he believes to be among their ranks.

Like past entries in the Yakuza series, the game is full of narrative twists and turns, many of which can be confusing for even the most die-hard fans. This is largely thanks to Ishin characters’ propensity to never be who they say they are. And while it is a genuinely gripping narrative for a vast majority of the game, the ending veers from being a very loose interpretation of historical events and figures straight into Japanese nationalist propaganda. The game never reconciles with any of its assertions concerning Japanese isolationism, the increasingly abundant interpretations of Ryoma Sakamoto as a political and historical figure, or the role the Shinsengumi served. It only reaffirms it all with the very bizarre footnote, which can only be described as head-scratching. For the sake of the review, there won’t be any story spoilers, but the ending is worth examining on its own terms down the road.

Series regulars Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, as historical figures, stand beside each other in front of a fire at night in Like a Dragon: Ishin! Image: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio/Sega

Simmering beneath it all, there’s that signature level of absurdity the series has more or less become known for in the West. It mainly comes to the surface in sub-stories where Ryoma haphazardly runs into a white foreigner obsessed with samurai culture, or encounters a cult blocking off a section of a street with its strange, erratic dancing. The series’ pervasive minigames also make their return; but instead of playing baseball, you can play a buyo-inspired rhythm game, or even plant vegetables and cook meals at your private home after you’ve basically adopted Ishin’s feudalistic version of Haruka — the young, orphaned girl Kiryu adopted in the first Yakuza game. The minigames and side activities are more or less the same song and dance, but given a new veneer. It’s serviceable, and a sometimes welcome break from the story.

For all of its strengths, Like a Dragon: Ishin is still weighed down by its cartoonish undercurrent and abrasive ending. On a mechanical and systemic level, it’s a fun jaunt, with familiar faces and more fan service than anyone could possibly ask for, in a vivid historical world. But narratively, it’s a reminder of how quickly the stories in these games can go south. And by the time the credits rolled, I remembered why I’ve had difficulty keeping up with the series over the last few entries. Ishin may be a remake of a 2014 title, but those problems have persisted throughout the interim, and each time it tries to address social issues — current or historical — it takes one step forward, two steps back. The more things change, the more they stay the same, especially in the world of Yakuza.

Like a Dragon: Ishin! will be released on Feb. 21 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Sega. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.