Over three years ago, my friends (including MobileSyrup gaming editor Brad Shankar) and I visited Japan for the first time. Over the duration of nine days, we travelled to the busy izakayas in Tokyo, the spiritual streets of Kyoto and the vibrant Blade Runner-esque, neon-light-filled Osaka.
I was left awestruck by the country, and as soon as I returned to Canada, I was eager to go back to Japan. My trip left a lasting imprint on me and reaffirmed my desire to teach English there, with my ideal location being Kyoto.
However, the world changed shortly after returning home (can you believe that the COVID-19 pandemic started three years ago?), and so did the trajectory of my life. Suddenly, travelling to Japan seemed lightyears away and the itch to experience even a little bit more of the country grew stronger.
Then, I discovered Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio’s Yakuza 0.
What I thought would be a welcome distraction quickly became one of my favourite games of all-time. Though the gameplay is a simple 3D beat-em-up, I loved how it balanced wacky humour with deeply serious and emotional moments. It also cleverly combined the setting of Japan’s fascinating bubble economy with its gameplay, using huge stacks of cash to upgrade your move-set.
What added to my Yakuza 0 Japan trip simulation was the insane amount of mini-games that you can play, from disco dancing and karaoke to classic arcade games and billiards. At a time when I felt that big open-world games were starting to become more tiresome to play, having a smaller but vastly dense sandbox area was refreshing.
After my Yakuza 0 playthrough, I was hooked, finishing Kiwami and Kiwami 2 in quick succession, along with going back to revisit the minigames. Though I ended up taking a break from the series, I felt drawn back after seeing the announcement for Like a Dragon: Ishin!
Like a Dragon: Ishin! is a remastered version of the Japan exclusive of the same name, handled similarly to the Kiwami games, including graphical improvements and added content. It’s considered a spin-off, featuring the same characters from previous Yakuza titles (this time including beloved characters from Yakuza 0) but with different backstories and personalities.
Even though we’ve gotten more Edo-based samurai games recently, such as Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and Ghost of Tsushima, Like a Dragon: Ishin! was more enticing because of the distinct charm that Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio adds to its games.
That said, Ishin! excels in its narrative and gameplay, though with a few shortcomings.
The undercover samurai in modern-day Kyoto
The story involves Ryoma Sakamoto (resemblance based on Yakuza hero Kiryu Kazama), a lone samurai coming back to his hometown Tosa after his sword training in Edo. In a span of a few hours, Ryoma becomes embroiled in a political civil war conflict between the Bakufu, the current authoritarian military government, and the Loyalist Party, a group dedicated to the Emperor with plans to overthrow the government. After a series of events, Ryoma ostracizes himself from Tosa to pursue his own investigation in the city of Kyo (modern-day Kyoto) with an undercover name.
This leads to an interesting dynamic in the story, as his sworn brother is the leader of the Loyalist Party while he becomes a high-ranking captain in Bakufu’s elite samurai army, the Shinsengumi. Without going into spoilers, I found the story to be quite interesting, especially compared to the more crime-focused Yakuza counterpart.
However, while you get more out of the game if you played the past Yakuza titles, it also spoils a bit of the plot because some characters follow the same fate. This was quite apparent at the start of the game with Ryoma’s reasoning for leaving Tosa in the first place. Thankfully, the predictability does fade after you get into the real meat of the story, and despite this issue, the inclusion of the Yakuza 0 characters was fantastic, especially in regards to the boss fights.
Ryoma Sakamoto’s bizarre adventures
For a Yakuza/Like a Dragon title, sub-stories are just as important as the story, and Ishin! has some great ones.
From helping out a good-hearted loan shark to aiding a person who’s being ignored for talking literally all day, these side-quests provide lots of humour to keep players engrossed in Kyo.
There is also a lot to do in the city, and at times, it feels overwhelming when you’re trying to progress through the main story. Whether it’s the dozens of people that you can befriend or the countless mini-games, it can be a detriment because your progression is constantly interrupted (though you’re free to just ignore it).
On top of all this is ‘Another Life,’ a farming simulator where Ryoma can grow produce, cook food, own pets and sell various goods. It doesn’t help that despite the great narrative, Ishin!‘s pacing can be quite slow at times. If you’re trying to breeze past the story, you may find that there’s a lack of action set-pieces, especially if you’re a newer fan who started off with Yakuza 0.
Saying all of that, the advice that I have for playing this game will sound bizarre. If you have the time (which, as an adult, feels shorter as you get older), my recommendation would be to play the game at your own pace and not speed through the story. Complete the sub-stories you want, develop the farming business you desire and embrace Kyo’s wackiness and chaos without any constraints. You’ll get a more enhanced experience that way.
The art of the sword… and revolver
Like most of the Yakuza games before the switch to a traditional RPG system, Like a Dragon: Ishin! is a 3D beat-em-up where you use different battle styles to defeat multiple enemies.
There are four combat styles to choose between:
- Brawler — the traditional battle style from previous Yakuza games where you fight with your fists or can pick up nearby objects to smack the living hell out of enemies
- Swordsman — use your katana for highly damaging strikes at the cost of range and mobility
- Gunman — prioritize a revolver to shoot enemies from afar with ease
- Wild Dancer — uses both swords and revolvers to perform chaotic combos
Wild Dancer is especially devastating, as you can perform combos to a single enemy or use a spinning gun attack to blow away multiple people at once.
However, a new addition to the combat with this remaster are the Trooper Cards, which act like special moves that you can manually control or perform automatically. In the original game, you can only use Trooper Cards in the dungeon-crawler minigame, but now, they’re usable in regular gameplay.
It’s a bit similar to the deck system in Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories, where specific cards can perform combat moves, buffs, or healing. You can also assign three cards to each battle system, meaning you can have a deck of 12 catered to a specific play style. The Trooper Cards are great to use and add a bit more strategy to boss battles, specifically. However, it’s, thankfully, not complex compared to an RPG system, so you won’t constantly be shifting cards around for specific battles once you have a comfortable loadout.
Reliving Kyo through emotional connections
If Yakuza 0 was used to recreate my trip to Tokyo and Osaka, Like a Dragon Ishin! was my way of experiencing historic Kyoto and reminiscing over my own emotional connections to the city.
Thanks to the new graphical uplift, Ishin! looks really beautiful, especially at night when you can see the lanterns lit up near the river and towns. It’s by no means groundbreaking compared to current-gen games, but for someone who has an interest in Kyoto, it’s a great way to bring the Edo-period prefecture to light.
This setting enhances the game, distancing itself from the urban locations of previous Yakuza games while offering a fresh sense of discovery. Personally speaking, it’s a dream combination of my favourite place in Japan with my interest in ancient history. Because of this, I’ll always connect my emotional experience of Kyoto to this game, which will encourage replayability because of the sheer amount of content and my own sentiments on the prefecture.
Overall, Like a Dragon: Ishin! is a great remaster that should be on your radar whether you’re a Yakuza fan or new to the series. It’s both familiar and distinct, allowing players to familiarize themselves with the series without knowledge of the past Yakuza games. Furthermore, it allowed me to reminisce about my first trip to Kyoto because of my ties to the area.
For that, Like a Dragon: Ishin! delivered an experience that was priceless to me, and as I revisit Japan later this year, it will be a game that I remember as I walk through the streets of Kyoto again.
Like a Dragon: Ishin! is available on the PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC via Steam.
Image credit: Sega