Like a Dragon Ishin’s Refusal to Change Is Its Best and Worst Feature

Like a Dragon: Ishin! is basically just Yakuza with some samurai thrown in for flavor, but we’re not complaining. That much.

Like a Dragon
Photo: SEGA

The Yakuza/Like a Dragon franchise (the name was recently unified across the globe) has been on fire in recent years. 2020’s Yakuza: Like a Dragon revitalized the series with its new battle system and protagonist, and its timed Xbox exclusivity also opened it up to new audiences. Thanks to that game, the series finally surpassed 14 million sales, which might have convinced Sega that the market was ripe to give Western audiences some of the Yakuza games they never received.

Like a Dragon: Ishin! Is the “latest” entry in the Yakuza series. The game, which was originally released exclusively in Japan for the PlayStation 3, has finally reached Western shores thanks to this 2023 remake. And while I have yet to roll credits on this game, I have played enough to say it is the most Yakuza game of the bunch, for good and bad.

Once a Yakuza, Always a Yakuza

Anyone who knows anything about the Yakuza (or Like a Dragon) franchise is well aware of its ability to balance the serious with the silly. Like a Dragon: Ishin! continues that trend, because what would a Yakuza game be without that trait? Boring, that’s what.

As is Yakuza tradition, the story dives heavily into crime drama and starts with the main character, Sakamoto Ryoma, paying for a crime he didn’t commit. That event starts a half-baked quest for revenge that evolves into a gripping political plot that tests loyalties and beliefs.

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True to form, Like a Dragon Ishin’s narrative is its biggest strength. The game knows how to pull you in and keep you hooked every step of the way, but more importantly, Ishin demonstrates that even when the writers have to stick to historical events, they are more than capable of turning them into a thoroughly Yakuza-like adventure (in this case, a samurai western).

Yes, believe it or not, Like a Dragon: Ishin Is based on the very real period of political turmoil known as the Bakumatsu, and all the characters draw their names and roles from the prominent figures of that era. In an interesting twist, every main character looks and acts like the main cast of the Yakuza series. It’s almost as if they decided to put on a play retelling historical events but forgot to practice how their roles acted. This is the mad genius we’ve come to expect from the franchise, and it just works so well here.

Even though Like a Dragon: Ishin! ditches the modern setting and technically predates entries like Yakuza: Like a Dragon, the game loses none of the franchise’s signature ability to balance drama with comedy. Take, for instance, an early cutscene where Ryoma meets an information broker in a bathhouse. The scene plays out like a film noir segment where people meet in public places to trade information and reveal plot twists. The conversation strikes a serious tone, but out of nowhere, a large and burly man bursts in to talk to the information broker. The next thing you know, you’re fighting the intruder, and nobody’s wearing a towel. The fight is intense but funny at the same time. And to get the upper hand, Ryoma slaps the man’s butt, which should give you all the insight into Like a Dragon: Ishin!’s tone (and Ryoma’s mindset) that you need. 

However, the story isn’t without its flaws. Specifically, the game heavily relies on one of Yakuza’s most divisive aspects: its cutscenes. Most Yakuza games sport overly long cutscenes, and Like a Dragon: Ishin Is no different. It’s not uncommon for a cutscene to stretch on for several minutes at a time, cut to black, only to load in another cutscene. These segments overstay their welcome pretty quickly, even if they do contain story-crucial conversations. However, for as long as Like a Dragon Ishin’s cutscenes are, at least they aren’t the longest in the video game industry, or even the longest in the series (I’m looking at you, Yakuza 6). On one hand, Ishin’s cutscenes can be forgiven since the game is a remake of a 2014 title. Of course, by that same measures, the developers could have reworked the cutscenes to be not as drawn out if they were inclined to do so.

That’s the strange thing about Ishin, though. It constantly forces you to confront certain flaws and wrinkles in ways that will make you question whether they are rough edges that should be smoothed over or an irreplaceable part of the formula.

You Need to Stop and Smell the Cherry Blossoms

If you have seen the trailers for Like a Dragon: Ishin!, you have probably noticed they mostly focus on the game’s fast-paced combat. To be fair, Ishin sports some fantastic battles and systems to go with them, but those trailers certainly misrepresent the experience.

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At its core, Like a Dragon: Ishin is an open-world samurai life simulator (at least within the context of its world). The game takes place in a city that isn’t exactly large, but it is lively. Nothing is stopping you from rushing through story segments to get to the end, but if you do that, you’re playing the game wrong. Like a Dragon: Ishin!’s city is a thrill to explore, as it is full of items to collect, minigames to play, and thugs to beat up. And as you progress through the game, you unlock even more areas, side activities, and minigames. 

While I previously stated that the main plot is the beating heart of Like a Dragon: Ishin!’s, its side stories are often just as worthwhile. As is true of all Yakuza games, the game’s streets are packed with optional missions just waiting to be distracted. Some are heartfelt character studies, while others explore ideas such as Japan’s changing opinion of foreigners and castes. And of course, some side stories are just silly, one-and-done segments, because it’s not a Yakuza game without some slapstick.

Many of these stories are off the beaten path, and you won’t know they’re available unless you organically talk to NPCs (or eavesdrop on them) or randomly encounter a strange sight. The same goes for the game’s many minigames. The karaoke and fishing minigames are easily the best of the bunch, but unless you go looking for them, you might never realize they’re there, Plus, I dare you to not burst out laughing the first time Ryoma casually hooks a great white shark. 

Like its storytelling, Like a Dragon: Ishin’s world isn’t completely spotless. This time, the culprit is the game’s breadth of content. It’s just so easy to get overwhelmed. Take combat as an example. Yes, fights are satisfying and flashy, and they also require on-the-fly tactical thinking since each of the game’s four combat styles has its own strengths and weaknesses. That’s a nice idea, but that depth comes back to bite players because of all the possible unlocks. Each style has its own skill tree, and it’s easy to forget which abilities you’ve acquired in the heat of battle. Did you unlock a finisher that slams enemies into walls in the Brawler or the Wild Dancer tree? Did you even unlock that finisher yet? You don’t need these skills to enjoy fights, but they add a tangible wow factor to the franchise’s combat. It’s another one of those ways some of the flaws end up feeling like an integral part of the experience.

The side activities are another double-edged sword. As previously stated, these are fun distractions that help break up the action and feature all the Yakuza camp we’ve come to expect. But, even these diversions fall into the same trap of overwhelming players, partially because many reward players with in-game currencies such as virtue. These sound like an optional bonus, but they are necessary for many upgrades. In order to unlock the best (or all) improvements, you need to get grinding. Mechanics such as Another Life farmwork and item forging are also subject to this flaw since they start small at first, but to get the most out of them, you need to invest a ton of time and resources into them. On the bright side, though, these systems provide rewards that overshadow what you put into them. Also, farming can have a nice zen to it once you learn to go with its flow.

More Like a Dragon Than Not

Ever since Yakuza 0, the company behind the franchise, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio (RGG) used their own proprietary Dragon Engine, although last year, the studio boss admitted the engine has been showing its age. So to change things up, RGG used Unreal 4 to create
Like a Dragon: Ishin! Unfortunately, this shows.

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Now don’t get me wrong; Like a Dragon: Ishin! is a beautiful game held up by a unique art style that toes the line between realistic and stylized. Every character is immediately recognizable; the game’s city sports beautiful architecture, and battle animations are ridiculously impactful. However, RGG seems to have had trouble with Unreal’s lighting system, especially during day segments. If sunlight hits a character the wrong way, it illuminates them way too much and gives them an ugly, plasticky sheen, even on the PlayStation 5. Night segments fare way better, but even then, sometimes areas can get a little dark. 

If you compare the original PS3 release of Like a Dragon: Ishin! to the remake, the difference is night and day, but because RGG is inexperienced with Unreal, the game graphically still lags behind prior games like Yakuza: Like a Dragon and Lost Judgement. If Square Enix can use Unreal Engine 4 to make a game as uncomfortably uncanny as Kingdom Hearts 3 and then produce a stunning looker like Final Fantasy VII Remake, I am more than confident RGG can do the same. It’s just a matter of whether or not they want to take the series to that next level.

As a package, Like a Dragon: Ishin! is a microcosm of the things that some love and some hate about this entire franchise. The plot is well-written and brought to life by colorful characters, but nobody knows how to concisely explain anything. The combat and minigames are engrossing, but there’s so much to do that you will eventually need a distraction from your distractions. The world is a wonderfully realized samurai life simulator, but it is not exactly a traditionally good-looking game or even one that takes full advantage of the technology that powers it. We’re living in a time when so many notable video game remakes completely reimagine even classic gaming experiences or update them for the modern age in clever ways. There are changes and updates in Ishin, but it almost feels closer to a victory lap for the original game and some of the core elements of this franchise. It can be frustrating to bump up against some of this series’ habits, but the commitment to that style at a time when so many other games are going in such a different direction remains a fascinating feature.

The good in Like a Dragon: Ishin! far outweighs the bad. Regardless of what you think about long cutscenes and an overflow of content, you need to play a Like A Dragon/Yakuza game at some point to experience something different, and Ishin is certainly a good place to start.