Like a Dragon: Ishin! turns the Yakuza into samurai without missing a beat

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Four characters line up in Like a Dragon: Ishin

It took me a lot longer than others to fall in love with the Yakuza series. Ishin came out back in 2014 in Japan, before Yakuza 0 came out. It was a launch title for the PS4 over there, but never received a western release. Since Kiryu and Majima's prequel adventure brought a ridiculous amount of popularity to the series in English-speaking parts of the world, though, we have a full-on remake coming soon.

Personally, I can't wait.

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Like a Dragon: Ishin is such a bizarre concept for a spin-off. Set in the Bakumatsu phase of the late Oda period, all the Yakuza characters you know and love are there. Except they aren't. Kiryu is kicking about, but his name is Sakamoto Ryōma - a real-life samurai and moderniser of Japan in the mid-1800s. The avatars of a whole load of Yakuza series favourites are used to represent the samurai of the era. Most exciting to me is that the likeness of Yakuza 0's Daisaku Kuze is back. He's my favourite, and I can't wait to see more of him, along with everyone else, in the full story.

Two characters lock swords in Like a Dragon: Ishin.

I love the fighting again

Getting into fights is essential to your progression in the Yakuza series. I've played a few games in the series, and whilst the turn-based combat in Yakuza: Like a Dragon was a delight in its own way, Ishin brings back the real-time combat the series is known for.

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Much like Kiryu in previous games, you have four fighting styles to choose from, each of which makes use of a different weapon combination. You have fists, a sword, and my personal favourite: Gunman. Yeah, that's right. Kiryu gets a gun in this game, and once you learn more about each of the fighting styles, I expect a whole lot of new stuff to become available.

Heat actions are as violent and terrifying as ever, and with a bit of patience, I found myself getting used to the styles pretty swiftly, dancing around baddies and inflicting unimaginable suffering upon them. It's a relief - you spend a lot of time in combat in this series, so it's good to see it translate into the not-so-modern day.

Kiryu's avatar fires a gun at an enemy in Like a Dragon: Ishin

Substories?

The preview allowed me to play in the daytime and at night. During the day, I had the opportunity to view the town. Ishin does a fantastic job of making the place feel bustling and alive, with NPCs trundling around the streets hawking their wares, bandits getting ready to beat you down in back alleys, and people to talk to offering insights into the local area. In some ways, it couldn't be further from Kamurocho, but the vibe of the fictional Tokyo district is brought into the 1860s brilliantly. There's even a general store called Don Quijote in reference to the real-life shops both in Japan and in the main series.

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Unfortunately, the way the demo I played worked meant I had barely enough time to fully enjoy the game. Gutting stuff, to be honest. Having watched the intro cutscene, I just wanted to pop into town and pick up a little substory, but alas, a couple of NPC chats and fights later and I was all out of time.

I'm not sure what to expect from the substories, then. A lot of the ones in the Yakuza games I've played have been focused on satirising the era in which they're set, so will it be as easy to do so when the game is set in the 19th Century rather than the 21st?

Kiryu's avatar readies his sword in Like a Dragon: Ishin

Get into scraps

Nighttime gave me a bit more of a linear task. Along with a few friends, I had to go take on Not-Nishiki in his hideout. Fighting henchmen on the way, I enjoyed the interactions my character had with the others. At the end of the road, it was myself and Kashiwagi's stand-in facing off against our foe, and Kiryu convinces him to take a step back and make it a 1v1 by savagely roasting him for being old and broken. Brutal.

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It made me more and more excited to learn more about how these situations come about in context. It's always hard to get a proper look at a game so massive in a 40-minute demo, as you can tell from my failure to get any substories done, but what I saw bodes very well for how Ishin will come across early next year.