Like a Dragon: Ishin! Review
The Yakuza series is a sprawling saga that continues to evolve and develop. Not only has the mainline release added a new protagonist and turn-based combat, but spin-off games have also changed the formula to give new experiences to fans. Judgment puts you on the other side of the law as you step into the shoes of a detective whereas Dead Souls sees you fend off a zombie invasion in Kamurocho. Previously a Japanese exclusive, Ishin! finally makes its way across the pond after 9 years, but will this Edo period epic resonate with a western audience?
Set in the Bakumatsu era, the game follows the lone swordsman, Ryoma. As the country is in a state of political unrest, chaos begins to spill onto the streets. One act of violence sees Ryoma’s mentor assassinated before your very eyes. In order to protect others, you take the fall and leave the city but vow to avenge your master. With only the knowledge of the killer’s unique martial arts style at hand, you must infiltrate the Shinsengumi to discover which Tennen Rishin expert is the perpetrator. The cast comprises iconic characters from the series, and while a little jarring at first, it adds a level of familiarity with the game. Seeing a familiar face enter the scene is a joy and allows Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio to use much-loved characters in new ways.
A Tale of Two Halves
Like a Dragon: Ishin! maintains a balance of stoicism, melodrama, and zany, comedy hijinks. While the main narrative includes intense sequences to tell a passionate story, the side stories often offer bizarre segments which counter the dramatic tale. The missions lack variety in terms of their objective and you will spend a lot of your time running to scattered markers across the map. However, the game also includes several addictive mini-games and activities which make you want to sink into life in 1860s Japan. The quality of these is fantastic and you’ll find yourself looking for these distractions while on your quest for vengeance.
The iconic neon-drenched streets have gone and in their place are the quieter alleys of Kyo. The world itself suffers from its natural tones which give the environment a bland aesthetic compared to its modern-day counterpart. Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio does manage to capture the time period with its use of open market stalls and authentic architecture, however, the lack of diversity between areas is evident.
A Blast From the Past
The DNA of PS3-era Yakuza games is apparent. Ishin! includes the patterned brawler-based system where you can block, evade and strike in wonderfully violent ways. You can swap styles on the fly with a tap of the D-pad which gives you the freedom to tackle foes however you like. The Swordsman allows you to wield a katana and deliver powerful strikes whereas the Gunman lets you shoot from afar. In addition to these, you can also use the Brawler, where you use your bare fists and items in the environment to pummel enemies. The final combat style, and my personal favorite, is the Wild Dancer. This flamboyant technique combines the sword and a firearm with high-speed evasion. You can easily spin out of oncoming strikes and counter with a flashy combo. The range of ways to eradicate enemies makes encounters a fun and diverse experience.
In addition to the vast skill tree for each combat style, you can also visit dojos to further develop your fighting prowess. You can enhance your weaponry at blacksmiths and equip armor to improve your defensive capabilities. This allows you to personalize Ryoma to the character type you want. The number of options available is impressive and builds on previous entries in the franchise.
A House of Cards
In the original iteration, the Trooper Cards were limited to the dungeons. While you can still plow through these to receive resources, you can now use the cards at any point in your adventure. The overhaul of the system helps the game to distinguish itself further from its peers. You can equip several cards that give you a temporary boost and these level up with repeat use. These offer fun and distinct moves which can alter your approach to combat. Some give defensive boosts while others can unleash a bizarre and ferocious attack. From fireballs to thunder strikes, the Trooper Cards add variety and an additional layer of strategy when in battle. As each must recharge after use, timing is vital so you must consider when and who to use these on. The system is a highlight of the game and improves on the brawler foundation of its predecessors.
As well as new sub-stories and a bunch of new mini-games, Like a Dragon: Ishin! has also had a visual makeover. The cutscenes in particular are wonderfully rendered with fantastic cinematography akin to films from Japan. Performances are strong and help build further engagement with the narrative. Unfortunately, the NPCs you meet on the streets and the general gameplay sequences lack the polish and sheen that we see in newer releases from Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio. While the game can still compete with modern titles, its creaks and cracks do begin to surface.
A Solid Strike
Like a Dragon: Ishin! is a lost classic that has finally made its way to a global market. Fans of the franchise will be ecstatic to experience an Edo-period drama that features icons of the Yakuza series. Even though it is set in the 1860s, the foundation of the series is evident with each step. It’s a familiar experience that feels similar to its PS3 counterparts rather than the modern releases. The world lacks the hustle and bustle of Kamurocho and the mini-games are not as diverse. However, the card-based combat system and four fighting styles make battles a thrill. While the game may not do enough to alter the perception of those who don’t enjoy titles from the franchise, fans of the series are in for a treat with this samurai-focused epic.