Original review (Fri 17th Feb, 2023): It’s been something of a golden era for fans of all things Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio of late, with the developer digging back into the history of its long-running Yakuza series to present us with a bunch of fantastic remasters and updated collections that have made the franchise slicker and more accessible than it’s ever been. We’ve also been gifted with the fantastic Yakuza: Like a Dragon and introduced to the hard-boiled detective Takayuki Yagami through the equally impressive Judgment series.
It has, in short, been an absolute feast for fans of this particular brand of video game entertainment, and the good times haven’t stopped rolling just yet as we’re now being treated to this remaster of Like A Dragon: Ishin! This game first appeared on PS3 and PS4 back in 2014 but, unfortunately, it never released outside of Japan, so this is the first time many of us get to experience this slice of Yakuza by way of the Bakumatsu era.
It's pretty crazy to think that as recently as 2014, RGG Studios was still holding back on releasing these games in the west, such was the general lack of interest in them over here, and it’s a testament to the hard work put into the likes of the Kiwami remakes and the impressive quality of more recent entries in the series that we’re now seeing them getting the love they’ve always deserved from audiences worldwide.
Happily, Like A Dragon: Ishin! continues this super positive recent trend, this is a slick remaster of a nine year old epic that brings the graphics bang up to date whilst tinkering with the combat to make it feel that little bit fresher. And combat really is the main draw here, this is an action-heavy spin-off that sees series stalwart Kazuma Kiryu recast as the real life historical figure Sakamoto Ryoma, as he goes on the revenge warpath to find the killer of his beloved father figure. What starts off as a single-minded attempt to get bloody revenge soon expands into a grand political opera with various sides playing off each other with Ryoma situated right in the middle of it all.
Of course, as grand as it all is, this is still a Yakuza joint, so besides the heartfelt speeches and rousing pre-battle cutscenes you know you’re in for a whole bunch of beating foolish goons around city streets here, putting combos together in order to activate your heat gauge and finishing off foes by smashing them into walls, throwing them off bridges or just good old-fashioned stomping on their heads.
With regards to this action, Like A Dragon: Ishin! serves up a surprisingly deep combat system that sees you jump around four different styles of fighting with the push of a button. Ryoma can choose to play the swordsman, gunslinger, bare-fisted brawler or a Wild Dancer equipped with both a sword and a pistol. All of these styles are fun to roll with and each features an extensive skill tree of unlockable finishers and combo extenders to give you plenty of options in how you choose to dish out punishment. For us, sticking with the swordfighter style did seem to work best for the most part, and in some of the tougher boss showdowns it’s really the only option as you’ll need to use your block to really stand any chance. However, pulling out your gun to do some long range damage or switching to brawler in order to lift someone up and fire them through the air still definitely has its place, especially during some of the larger running street battles that you’ll be involved in.
A new addition to the combat for this remaster is a trooper card system which allows you to recruit fighters who then appear as cards in your collection. Each fighter has their own unique skills and these can be upgraded as you use them in battle. Activated card skills appear in your HUD and can be used manually, you'll need to wait out a timer between each use, or set to activate automatically when they're ready. Some of these card-based skills prove to be super-useful during tough battles too, with our favourite being an electricity blast that fires off between multiple enemies for a group takedown. There are loads of cards to collect, you can use duplicates to boost cards you already own and taking the time to combine complimentary card powers really does make a huge difference to your chances of success.
We really enjoyed Yakuza: Like A Dragon’s switch to turn-based combat in 2020, and we weren’t particularly sure we wanted to return to the type of brawling seen in older titles in the series, but the level of depth and choice in styles here, alongside that new card system, makes for compelling action that just feels great to get stuck into. It also does a nice job of making you feel like you're actually developing and getting better as you go along, as you add new moves to your skillset and get used to side-stepping around foes or making proper use of blocks and dodges to slash your way through thugs with panache. Yes, you can hammer the buttons and get by for the most part, but there's also plenty to learn here for those who like to cut a swathe through their enemies without taking a hit.
Away from the fighting and Like A Dragon: Ishin! serves up an impressively epic story full of drama, tension and some great big boss showdowns, and it’s a story that benefits greatly from its 1860s setting, especially now that this remaster’s graphical update makes the dusty towns, villages and forest paths you’ll venture through look even better. There’s absolutely tons of detail packed in here, we especially love how the atmosphere of towns changes between day and night, from bustling markets full of loud vendors selling their wares to streets full of drunken revellers and people carrying lanterns to light the way in dark alleys. It’s all very evocative of a certain time and place and makes for a really nice change from the usual modern setting.
Having said that, and as much as this remaster does look fantastic for the most part, especially in its glorious cutscenes, there are a handful of times when you can absolutely still tell you’re playing a nine year old game. Certain streets and NPC faces don’t have quite as much work applied to them as others, the camera will occasionally misbehave during battles conducted in tight areas and the general layout of the world map definitely falls short of more recent efforts. It’s all more constrained and compact and feels like a game from one or two generations ago in this regard.
That’s not to say there isn’t plenty to do when you’re not engaged in the main campaign, however. In time-honoured Yakuza fashion, Like A Dragon: Ishin! is packed full of suitably wacky substories and lots of minigames and collectibles to get stuck into. Want to go fishing, play poker, do a little chicken racing, sake drinking or karaoke? It’s all here and, as usual, it makes for plenty of fun diversion time from the sweeping epic story at the core of proceedings. You can even partake in a bit of a farm-sim deal here called Another Life, which sees you take control of a farm and work alongside a young girl to make a success of her plot of land, taking part in cooking minigames with your produce and adopting a bunch of pets to hang out with.
In the end, what you’ve got here is another super solid entry in the Yakuza franchise that serves up a highly compelling narrative wrapped up in plenty of raucous action, silly side missions and activities to get stuck into. We love the setting of this one, it really does add a lot to the atmosphere and it’s just a fun time engaging in the all of the Japanese history on display when so much effort has evidently been put into recreating it. Beyond the handful of rough edges we mentioned, this new remaster does look and sound fantastic for the most part, its combat has absolutely stood the test of time and fans of the franchise will 100% have a blast. It’s taken its sweet time getting here, but Like A Dragon: Ishin! is another banger from Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio.
Like A Dragon: Ishin finally arrives in the west via a slick remaster that polishes up the visuals whilst also adding some fresh new combat mechanics to boot. This is another super solid entry in the long-running Yakuza franchise, it's perhaps a little more action-focused than usual, a little more on the serious and grounded side in terms of its story, but it also remembers to pack in plenty of the sort of madcap Yakuza substories and side activities that we all know and love. There's an excellent combat system to get stuck into here alongside an epic main campaign storyline that benefits greatly from the game's fascinating historical setting. This one comes highly recommended.