Like a Dragon: Ishin review - Racing chickens for restoration

Ryoma pulls off a heat action with his sword in Like a Dragon: Ishin.

Ryoma pulls off a heat action with his sword in Like a Dragon: Ishin.

Ryu Ga Gotoku Ishin! initially came out back in 2014, the year before Yakuza 0's breakout success brought the series to the hearts of players in the west. It's a bit of a weird one, and never saw life outside of Japan.

Like a Dragon: Ishin is the remake of this game - a Yakuza-style series set just before the beginning of the Meiji era of Japanese history.

I was desperate for some brand new Yakuza-style action, so had enormous hopes for Ishin's launch. For us in the west, it's basically a new game, although, on occasion, it does show its hand as a game that’s original design hasn't had the luxury of learning from future Like a Dragon instalments.

Okita Soji from Like a Dragon: Ishin
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Historical context

Like a Dragon: Ishin is based on the true events of the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate's rule of Japan. You play as the world-famous samurai and political reformist Sakamoto Ryoma. His face just happens to look like that of Kazuma Kiryu. He kind of acts like him too - aside from the desire to avoid killing at all costs. Ryoma has that style of honour and dejection that Kiryu holds throughout the series, to the point where even though this is a brand new character, you can sort of see him as the Yakuza hero we all know and love.

This is how a lot of the game's cast is presented, actually. Fans of the series will immediately recognise the characters who show up. Goro Majima is here as Okita Soji, being described by other characters as a 'Mad Dog'. Taiga Saejima and Makoto Date play significant roles. Any character you run into with dialogue actually - they all use the faces of the rest of the series' cast.

I was slightly fearful that the game would ruin some twists by putting a villain's face on supposed protagonists, but Ishin instead comes across like a production. I like to see it as a piece of historical fiction performance art, where everyone from the Yakuza world leans into their roles. I know most of them never met in the story's canon, but it's fun to imagine.

The historical context was fascinating. With all manner of cases of mistaken or forged identity, as was the done thing at the time, Ishin manages to weave an interesting fictional narrative out of real-world events - and hugely important ones at that. The game mythologises the likes of Ryoma and Okita in ways that must be slight embellishments, but it perfectly fits the vibe of the series as a whole. Kiryu is the glue that holds the Yakuza together, just as Ryoma is the only man able to change Japan and stop all-out war.

The main story is well worth going through. The cutscenes are super cool, and once you get to grips with the new names, what people are talking about, and the historical context (there's a slightly limited glossary feature that helps a tiny bit), you're good to go.

I can't shake the feeling that with the basis of Ishin's characters so deeply ingrained in history and real life, RGG studios are written into a corner of their own making, though. It's going to be much harder to surprise someone who knows who Sakamoto Ryoma is and what he did. Same goes for Saito Hajime. If you're familiar with the Ikedaya Incident, you won't be in for any shocks, to be honest. If you can push that aside, though, Ishin does a good job of bringing you into its story and making you care about what happens to the characters.

That's the main thing, though. I like the characters because of their dialogue and interactions. If you closed your eyes and heard Ryoma and Okita talking, you sometimes wouldn't be able to tell them apart from a funny dialogue between Kiryu and Majima. The characters' motivations are harder to get behind. The sides of the conflict become muddled, and Ryoma's single-minded goal of revenge becomes less and less worth fighting for, at least in my mind, the more it forces him into an undercover role with the Shinsengumi, the military government's violent police force.

There's a disconnect there. I like his interpersonal actions, but his broader goals seemed so off-kilter. You want to help everyone who exists because you're just so kind, but you'll gladly carry out murder and be a part of an organisation that runs Kyo by fear and violence? That ain't cool, man.

Ryoma singing in Like a Dragon: Ishin
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Minigames and friendship

When I first started playing Ishin, I was keen to see the side content. All the silly substories that bring a bit of lighthearted fun to the difficult world you're having to inhabit.

On the whole, Ishin does a great job.

It's a harder job, too. Unlike a game set in the modern day, you can't just make a substory that's funny because it satirises something the audience is already intimately familiar with, like famous movies or well-known musicians. You weren't alive in 1867. Neither was I.

There's more than enough great stuff, though. A mission where you have to figure out who stole from their workplace by seeing through their lies, one which puts you in creative control of Soseki Natsume's novel writing, and even missions that require you to befriend and adopt various dogs and cats around town. They're really cute.

There are the minigames, too. From serving noodles and fishing to your classic karaoke and traditional Japanese dancing, there's plenty of the classic change-of-pace stuff you know and love from the Yakuza series.

My personal favourite was chicken racing. I made so little main story progress early on in my time with Ishin. I just sat there, betting all my money on Thigh Will Be Done to win over and over. I can't stop!

A wide shot of the Shinsengumi in Like a Dragon: Ishin.
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Side dishes only

One thing I felt was conspicuously absent compared to my favourite series entries was a big side thing. Something like Majima's cabaret club in Yakuza 0 or Ichiban's company management from Yakuza: Like a Dragon. The closest Ishin gets to this is through Another Life and the Battle Dungeon.

Another Life is lovely, to be fair. You're tasked with paying off the debt of a young girl named Haruka (are you surprised?), and can make some progress in doing so by using the farm in her garden. You can grow ingredients, cook with them, and sell the products to local buyers. It's a nice distraction and a solid money-making effort, but I didn't find the relationship between Ryoma and Haruka particularly compelling during the cutscenes the mode unlocked. It felt a tad like I was expected to do some of the work, and imagine their relationship being like I know Haruka's is with Kiryu in the main series. She called Ryoma 'uncle' as soon as she met him, which didn't feel natural to me.

Battle Dungeon gives you special abilities and lets you run through dungeons, taking out foes, and beating a miniboss at the end. You can equip cards for these abilities, and each of them gives passive bonuses and a special move. They can all be levelled up, and the dungeons are a great place to grind battles and gain more experience, especially on harder difficulties. I just found myself bouncing off it, though. After twenty dungeons without a great deal of difference or variety, even in colour scheme and setting, I just didn't fancy it anymore. Even though the combat system is a real treat, allowing you to use fists, guns, swords, or a sword and gun at the same time, the dungeons were just a tad samey to me.

The town of Kyo in Like a Dragon: Ishin
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Not quite there, but I loved it

The Like a Dragon series has so much to live up to. From masterpieces like Yakuza 0 to the innovation from Yakuza: Like a Dragon, Ishin was always fighting a difficult battle.

I had a lovely time with Like a Dragon: Ishin, though. The historical setting was a nice change of pace from the bright lights of Kamurocho, and the way the characters were portrayed gave me the desire to check out more about the history of that era.

The substories might not be as hilarious as some in the rest of the series - you can tell a lot of them were written before they perfected the formula with 0 - and I may see some things as missing when I'd like them there. Still, as a spin-off of a beloved franchise, I'd highly recommend Like a Dragon: Ishin. It's about time for some more from Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, so enjoy.

Righto. Back to my chicken races.

Like a Dragon: Ishin
Like a Dragon: Ishin is a great standalone work that holds its own in a fantastic series. An exciting whodunnit plot is the basis for a whole lot of action, some solid storytelling, and characters you sort-of know and will grow to love.
7 out of 10

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