The Like a Dragon series (formerly the Yakuza series) is in a bit of a strange place at the moment – it’s simultaneously looking both forward and backward. The latest mainline game boldy switched out the longtime protagonist and combat system, but developer Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio has since created multiple opportunities for itself to backtrack on those big moves, and keep tinkering away at a formula that is now almost 20 years old. Like A Dragon: Ishin! is one of them.
A remake of a 2014 spinoff from the mainline Yakuza series, Ishin! is one of two series entries that reimagines the stories of real historical figures from Japan’s past. Yakuza series characters essentially serve as actors, playing roles in these stories that suit their established demeanours. Having never been translated for English-speaking territories until now, the end product feels like uncovering a lost window into the past – not just in its centuries-old historical setting and subject matter, but to a different time in the history of the series itself.
It certainly feels like a Yakuza game from 10 years ago (Ishin! was originally released between Yakuza 5 and Yakuza 0), especially if your mind has a reference for how the recent Yakuza 7: Like A Dragon and spin-off Lost Judgement look and feel. As a result, Ishin! doesn’t feel as stylish or sophisticated in how it presents its story and action by comparison.
This isn’t the kind of remake that reexamines its own past. It’s a strict, faithful, like-for-like recreation of a game only one console generation old (said as someone who fumbled through the Japanese version of Ishin!). It might as well be classified as a remaster, despite being reconstructed in a different engine. Taking the broader context into account, Like A Dragon: Ishin! is the studio’s first attempt at creating a game in a new engine: Unreal Engine 4, as opposed to its in-house Dragon Engine. Perhaps Ishin! is an exercise in stepping back and securing fundamentals once more, before hopefully leaping further forward next time.
Despite its moderately old-fashioned nature (and a few technical quirks), Like A Dragon: Ishin! still manages to leave a strong impression simply because of the inherent heart and soul of the series, which still shines through brightly. The mix of serious, high-stakes melodrama – a plot filled with double-crosses, macho characters, and highly political themes – completely draws you in. Meanwhile, the substories and mini-games are all either surreal, goofy as hell, or just exceedingly heartfelt and sentimental – and rip you right out. But the bizarre and obviously intentional juxtaposition is, and continues to be, strangely and irresistibly charming (once you get past the shock of the initial whiplash). The historical setting of Ishin doesn’t change that.
It’s incredibly nice to see old faces from the mainline series again in Ishin!. Characters both alive and dead in the series canon return in brand new roles that reimagine their stories in new situations. It’s an alternate universe where bromances are rekindled again for the first time, and past rivals instantly hit it off as allies. Ishin! was already originally a remix of Yakuza in itself, in a way.
Yakuza series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu takes on the role of Sakamoto Ryōma in Ishin, who finds himself taking the fall for the death of his mentor (which should familiar), and takes on a new identity in order to track down the true killer. Stoic and honourable as ever, he finds himself navigating a very tumultuous time in Japanese history, where the country is wrestling with its traditionalist, isolationist, and xenophobic identity. Stoic and honourable as ever, Ryōma barely threads the needle as he tries to play both sides, in an effort to attain his own personal goals and unravel a much, much larger conspiracy.
Ryōma, of course, also finds himself getting caught up in the most ridiculous of situations and hobbies along the way – dancing, singing, gambling, and befriending all manner of quirky characters outside the main plot, indulging their bizarre requests and conundrums. For all its shortcomings, it’s these aspects, swallowed as one enormous, lumpy pill, that makes the series what it is: incredible. An exceedingly sharp and entertaining English localisation helps that pill go down very well, too.
Like A Dragon: Ishin! returns to the real-time combat of the series, with Ryōma able to utilise four different fighting styles: Brawler, Swordsman, Gunslinger, and Wild Dancer – the latter a dual-wield combination of sword and gunplay. But with the focus of the combat system so scattered across three completely different kinds of weapons (with various degrees of lethality), it can feel like a strange system, especially given the RPG-like damage and weapon crafting system that it’s integrated with, on top of a card-based support system of that provides passive and active bonuses.
Fighting can feel inconsistent and unsatisfying for long stretches as a result. Unarmed brawling never feels like the best option to use, given its low damage output, compared to guns and bladed weapons. In addition, the unarmed repertoire certainly isn’t as robust as it is in the mainline series – it’s light on its range of context-specific ‘Heat’ special abilities that usually make it so exciting, and the game environments don’t provide nearly enough opportunities for environmental weaponry, or the general chaos of a street brawl.
The Swordsman and Wild Dancer styles are the real stars (relying solely on a gun in a martial arts game is as uninteresting as it sounds), but even they have their foibles. Constantly having to acquire or craft new and better swords to keep up with enemies that grow increasingly hardier, (on top of earning and spending experience points to improve your base damage in any one particular fighting style) can really douse your momentum in the game. This is especially true in the game’s early chapters, where it can feel like you’re merely scratching your way to victory. Things get far more enjoyable (and logical) once you reach a certain power level, but the system is unnecessary and tiresome busywork in a game that’s full of far more entertaining busywork.
Aside from self-improvement, Ishin!, like a few of the other modern Yakuza games, puts an emphasis on pressing Ryōma’s relationship with the town of Kyo and its people in many of the optional substories and mini-games. The embodiment of Kiryu in Ryōma once again proves himself to be the most virtuous guy in the world to children, the elderly, and animals, as well as a savant at karaoke, buyo dancing, and being an udon chef.
One of the more substantial mini-games is a farming simulation called ‘Another Life’, which realises the father-daughter relationship between Yakuza’s Kiryu and the orphan Haruka in a situation where they tend to a country house together. Growing vegetables, cooking meals, improving the home, and generally living self-sustainably is the overall arc here, and though it’s more of a passive obligation, it certainly fulfils a nice fantasy where the two characters can simply enjoy life together (as opposed to the endless turmoil of the main series). I just think it’s neat.
For all the game’s foibles, that largely stem from a slightly dated version of the series recipe, as well as some ideas that perhaps never really quite worked, Like A Dragon: Ishin! Is still an enjoyable Yakuza game brimming with stories and activities, and it still has a firm grip on the sense of drama and comedy that fuel its enduring soul. That soul is unique, charming, and special, and transcends setting, time, and rough edges alike.
Four stars: ★★★★
Like A Dragon: Ishin!
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One
Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio
Release Date: 22 February 2023
The PS5 version of Like A Dragon: Ishin! was provided and played for the purposes of this review. GamesHub has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content. GamesHub may earn a small percentage of commission for products purchased via affiliate links.