With Yakuza (er, Like A Dragon now) having finally gained global popularity in the last few years, this was the best time to bring over Ishin, a period spin-off in the franchise that never quite made it to the west, set during the 19th century, when Japan was undergoing several social, cultural, and political upheavals. Ishin, though long requested for a global release by series fans, had never quite made it over until now. It made sense – Yakuza was already a niche franchise in the west at the time, barley keeping its head above water. A spin-off of that, and one so uniquely and specifically Japanese? That was never going to fly.
Or so the thinking went. Of course, now that the developers ands publishers have the confidence that there is an appetite for this franchise, this universe, and just Japanese media in general, globally, they are capitalizing on it. Like A Dragon Ishin is a faithful remake of the original game built in Unreal Engine (it is actually the first game in the series, which has used proprietary engines thus far, to use Unreal), and largely brings the experience missed by the rest of the world to modern standards without losing what made it so special to begin with.
That something is largely the setting. Ishin takes place in the tail end of the Samurai age in Japan. More specifically, it is set in in 1867, in what is known as the Bakumatsu era. This was a time when Japan was facing the simultaneous unrests of impending globalization, encroaching imperial powers, rapid industrialization, great social changes as the traditional class and caste systems endemic to Japanese society in its feudal age got called into question by the common people, and an impending change in the government and systems of governance in the country.
"From the unique architecture, to the way the cities are laid out, the way people are dressed, to the contextualization backdrop for a lot of stories (main and side-quests) in the game, from the music to even the combat (we’ll get to this in a bit), Ishin does a very thorough and convincing job of beckoning you into its setting, and pulls you in through sheer novelty. "
This unique inflection point in Japanese history allows Ishin to draw from an extremely rich and textured era in terms of its setting. Yakuza/Like A Dragon games have always been excellent at creating a sense of time and place – hell, I’d wager that “virtual tourism” is pretty much half the appeal of the franchise for a significant portion go its fanbase. Being transported into a rich and authentic recreation of mid-nineteenth century Japan holds a special kind of novelty to it, especially given how good these games are at recreating their settings and establishing atmosphere.
From the unique architecture, to the way the cities are laid out, the way people are dressed, to the contextualization backdrop for a lot of stories (main and side-quests) in the game, from the music to even the combat (we’ll get to this in a bit), Ishin does a very thorough and convincing job of beckoning you into its setting, and pulls you in through sheer novelty.
That novelty is what sets Ishin apart from its peers in the series. In terms of content and quality, this is a fairly bog-standard Yakuza/Like A Dragon game, delivering pretty much exactly what you expect from the series, in the exact ways you expect it, and at the average level of quality you expect from the franchise. To be clear, I don’t mean this as a criticism. A bog standard Yakuza game is an excellent game, and on top of that regular old excellent, Ishin benefits from the novelty of its setting buoying it beyond the middle of the pack status it would otherwise have within the franchise – again, not a criticism, because middle of the road Yakuza is pretty much more compelling than about 80% of all games on the market to begin with.
This becomes evident the more and more you play the game. At first, the whole thing feels remarkably novel and unique and new and fresh, but the more you play it, the more you realize it’s Yakuza. You still have the excellent, hilarious, and sometimes oddly emotional, side stories that comprise the heart and soul of this franchise. You still have epic, sweeping stories pulling in across all strata of the depicted society to create a larger narrative that keeps hilariously escalating stakes beyond the point where that stops making any sense.
You still have that story delivered with some excellent voice acting, and melodramatically written and choreographed scenes, with over the top drama, emotion, enunciation, and action. Even the characters in the game, while ostensibly a “new” cast, are basically all your favourites from the series bearing different names, but pretty much the same personalities and temperaments. Kiryu, Majima, Saejima, Nishikiyama, Akiyama, the gang is all here, and they’re pretty much exactly who you remember them being – they’re just going by different names.
You even have the glut of mini games to lose your life to, including not just this game’s two signature ones (a dungeon crawling side mode, and a life sim side mode), but also some serious mainstays, such as a karaoke mode which features an amusingly anachronistic song selection, including fan-favourite Baka Mitai.
"The characters in the game, while ostensibly a “new” cast, are basically all your favourites from the series bearing different names, but pretty much the same personalities and temperaments. Kiryu, Majima, Saejima, Nishikiyama, Akiyama, the gang is all here, and they’re pretty much exactly who you remember them being – they’re just going by different names."
All of that is still here. Without the mid-nineteenth century veneer, it would be good, not great. That setting, however, does help recontextualize and enhance all of that greatly (even when it ends up being funnily at odds with the game, such as the aforementioned karaoke mini game).
The one area where the setting is never at odds with the game at all is the combat. The combat in Ishin is thoroughly infused with the flavor and flair of its period setting. To great effect. Kiryu (er, Ryoma in this game) is wielding a sword and a revolver, and he uses both in a beautiful dance, across multiple play-styles – one that emphasizes swordplay, one that puts your firearm front and centre, one that is a regular old brawler style, and, my personal favorite, the Wild Dancer style, which blends swords and guns (and brawling, sometimes) in an elegant interplay of movement and violence.
All four are extremely well fleshed out, with full-fledged skill trees to level up for all of them, and each of them being viable in specific scenarios (though, of course, if you are skilled enough, and/or have mastered it enough, you can pretty much brute force your way through any situation the game throws your way with your preferred style).
Honestly, I love how the combat in Ishin looks and feels. It’s probably weird to say, but I’ve never been huge on Yakuza brawler combat. I enjoy it, but it’s never something I actively look forward to or go out of my way to seek. But the combat in Ishin just feels, and more importantly looks, so goddamn satisfying, that I went out of my way to seek out as many fights as I could, and actively engaged with the combat side of things more than I have in any other brawler game yet.
"The combat in Ishin just feels, and more importantly looks, so goddamn satisfying, that I went out of my way to seek out as many fights as I could, and actively engaged with the combat side of things more than I have in any other brawler RGG game yet."
As I mentioned earlier, Ishin is a) a Yakuza game through and through, and b) a surprisingly faithful update of an almost decade old game. This means that the issues it has (outside of the aforementioned amusing anachronisms) are inherited. For example, animations can feel stiff, and textures can look low-resolution. There can often be awkward transitions and cuts, geometry can seem simplistic in places, in some occasions background characters can pop in or out of existence when transitioning from gameplay to cutscenes or vice versa, and loading between different zones can happen often, although typically it’s a second or so each time, so it’s not disruptive.
This is all belying its PS3 roots, and mostly it never gets in the way of the game doing what it is best at, but for the tech inclined eagle eyed pixel scouring, frame rate counting obsessive, it’ll definitely stand out, I would bet. Other than that, a lot of the things about Yakuza games that can turn people off — the lack of an English dub, for example (which newer entries have had, but this does not), or the insane time investment they require — all of that is still here. If those things stopped you from fully being on board with the other Yakuza games, I would wager the same will happen here, because the novelty of the setting aside, this is a Yakuza game through and through.
Ultimately, Ishin is a great game to hold us over until Like A Dragon 8, which continues the mainline story, eventually releases. It retains pretty much everything that made the original game a fan favorite among those who did play it, while also smartly modernizing what was necessary with a light and deft touch. It’s hard to think of any fan of the saga who will come away from this release unhappy. If you wanted more Yakuza, you have it. If you were starting to get fatigued, but weren’t completely off the train, then this game is just fresh enough to re-engage you, and just familiar enough to scratch the itch.
This game was reviewed on PlayStation 5.
Incredible sense of time and place established via its great setting; combat is spectacular, and probably the best (or most visually satisfying, if nothing else) brawler combat in the series; retains all of the Yakuza/Like A Dragon series' strengths, including a LOT of addictive content, great setting, compelling characters, dramatic storytelling, and more.
Retains a lot of the Yakuza/Like A Dragon series' weaknesses too - the length of the game may be a put-off to many, for example, as might be the lack of an English dub; its technical PS3 era roots are often clearly visible.