Like a Dragon: Ishin is one heck of a samurai game

Like a Dragon Ishin review

A remake of a PS4 game that never made it to the West, Like a Dragon: Ishin may not be the franchise’s best game, but it is still a worthwhile samurai romp through a historical Japanese setting.

A throwback in more ways than one, Like A Dragon: Ishin represents not only a time in Japan’s past, but also well-worn gameplay conventions. Spinning off from the wider Like a Dragon series (previously known outside as the Yakuza series), Ishin firmly sticks with the action genre the franchise was known for, as opposed to the turn-based RPG structure of the most recent entry. While the action is serviceable, what you really come for is the heightened Japanese crime syndicate melodrama.

Another nod to its past is that each main character in this 19th-century Edo period caper assumes the appearance of well-known Like a Dragon characters. For example, you play as Sakamoto Ryoma, who looks exactly like long-time series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu. Other familiar faces pop up at a regular cadence, playing roles similar to their 21st-century counterparts. For Like a Dragon fans, it adds a nice sense of familiarity to the otherwise unfamiliar time setting.

Like a Dragon Ishin screenshot
As with previous Like a Dragon games, the locations are beautifully realised.

Ultimately, this willingness to cling to its past proves both a strength and weakness of Like a Dragon Ishin. Endearing characters and a gripping story carry you through occasionally frustrating combat encounters, while copious side activities provide plenty of entertainment in between.

Like a Dragon: Ishin has an underdog heart

One thing the Like a Dragon games excel in is compelling you to care about its characters. As Ryoma, a skilful warrior, you stand up for those who can’t fight for themselves. In Ishin’s opening moments, he brutally knocks down a pair of higher social class members who harassed a woman seeking medical treatment for her daughter. This transgression sees Ryoma arrested, his crime against the ruling class severe enough for execution. With help, he escapes imprisonment and joins a plot to overthrow the oppressive regime, only to be framed for a murder he didn’t commit. Much of Like a Dragon: Ishin revolves around finding the actual killer, with Ryoma’s underdog plight one you easily cheer for.

In between lengthy cutscenes and wandering the detailed streets of Tosa and Kyo, most of the gameplay involves action sequences against hordes of foes wielding all manner of weapons. In combat, you can swap between four separate fighting styles: the hand-to-hand Brawler, the self-explanatory Swordsman, brandish an old-timey pistol as a Gunman, and a hybrid sword and gun wielder known as Wild Dancer. Brawler and Swordsman feel the best to use thanks to their respective weight, while the gun-toting styles lack the satisfying oomph required to stick with them for extended periods.

Like a Dragon Ishin screenshot upgrades
You need to upgrade your combat abilities to stand a chance against tougher opponents.

Through combat, you earn upgrades to each fighting style, which highlights one of Ishin’s shortcomings. For the most part, you need to use each style to power them up. However, it grates against the narrative of Ryoma’s status as an all-defeating warrior, that he doesn’t feel powerful to play as until later in the game. Additionally, it’s easy to neglect upgrading some styles in favour of others because not all of them are as equally fun to use.

Pace it out

Another criticism that could reasonably be levelled at any of the Like a Dragon games is that of inconsistent pacing. Long cutscenes take place between action sequences, meaning there are regular times when you can sit the controller down, make a cuppa, and still have to wait until the next interaction. Conversely, these cutscenes are brilliantly voice acted by a Japanese cast, plus the animations and character models are top-notch, something the developer Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio is renowned for.

That the combat sometimes feels clunky and imprecise isn’t a great detractor. Sure, the lock-on system needs improvement, and Ishin’s lack of flashy finisher variety falls short of other Like a Dragon games. But when it works, it’s still thrilling to successfully land a spectacular combo punctuated by a signature move from Ryoma.

Like a Dragon Ishin screenshot combat
Although sometimes clunky, slashing down waves of enemies is good fun.

Aside from fighting and story moments, side activities like managing a home and a small farming land offer quirky distractions from the brutal action. They may not rate as the series’ best mini-games – like the cabaret club management sim in Yakuza 0, for example – but there are plenty of enjoyable tasks to undertake and side characters to meet.

It doesn’t matter that Like a Dragon: Ishin isn’t the best in the series. The fact we even got it at all after a Japan-exclusive release is a lovely treat. Its highly engaging story about classism and forging a better future for people of all backgrounds continues the franchise’s thematic trend of standing up to those who abuse power. That’s something worth getting behind.

Like a Dragon: Ishin was played on PS5 using a code provided by the publisher. The game is available now on the following platforms:

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