Even as a fan of the Yakuza series (rebranded now as Like A Dragon), I didn’t know much about this Ishin spin-off before I sat down to play it. That is mostly because the original Ryū ga Gotoku Ishin! game from 2014 only released in Japan. (In fact, it was a launch title for the PS4!) So if you’ve only recently learned that Like a Dragon Ishin is a remake, you’d be forgiven for asking what exactly it’s remaking. That said, all I really needed to know is that it’s a Yakuza game set in 1860s Japan, which is about when the anime Samurai Champloo takes place, so I was immediately on board.
Somewhere between a remaster and a remake, Like a Dragon Ishin polishes the original game with upgraded graphics using Unreal Engine 4, adds a wealth of new content, and replaces some of the original cast members and their character models with those from the more recent Like a Dragon games. That last point might disappoint some fans, but it might have been complicated for Sega to offer new contracts to past voice actors of the original game. At any rate, the new character models and voice work are still fantastic, based on the two hours I had the chance to play the game at a preview event.
From yakuza to samurai
Like a Dragon Ishin focuses on a swordsman named Sakamoto Ryoma, who has the same character model as Kazuma Kiryu from the mainline Like a Dragon games (except he usually wears a blue hakama or black kimono). Ryoma was an actual samurai in Japanese history that had great influence during the late Edo period, but the depiction of Ryoma here is historical fantasy and more in line with the over-the-top scenarios of the Like a Dragon series. I like to imagine this as Kiryu being somehow forced to be a reenactment actor in a living museum set in 1860s Japan, like how Colonial Williamsburg works. I mean, Kiryu gets himself into fairly ridiculous side quests, so this wouldn’t be out of place.
Ryoma returns home and tries to work with his sworn brother, Takechi Hanpeita, and father figure, Yoshida Toyo, to reform the rigid class system of the town. But then Toyo is assassinated by an unknown figure who uses the Tennen Rishin sword style. With Ryoma framed for the murder, he changes his name to Saito Hajime and attempts to locate the assassin in the capital of Ryo.
The build I played starts off around this point, near the beginning of Chapter 3, when Ryoma decides to use his new identity to infiltrate the Shinsengumi as a disciple of the school. Along the way, you’ll meet other figures, particularly the division captains of the Shinsengumi, who have the same character models as many of the series’ favorites. The character models, animations, effects, and environments have all been enhanced using Unreal Engine 4, and on the Xbox Series devkit I played, the graphics shined through.
Dancing, singing, chicken racing, oh my!
The first thing I encountered in the game made me instantly recognize that I was playing a Japanese game - fishing. One turn to the right and I found myself speaking with the first person with a quest bubble above his head, and moments later, I was sucked into trying to catch a fish from the river to save his marriage. Yes, this is the type of Yakuza content I’m here for. The first few attempts didn’t go well because of my weak fishing rod, but then after exploring a bit, I visited one of the many shrines in Kyo where I could trade in Virtue for items and permanent boosts. The developers were kind enough to give me a save where I had more than enough Virtue to purchase a premium fishing rod that made completing the side story easy.
From there, I briefly explored the graveled streets of the Fushimi and Gion districts of the capital. As a completionist, I had the urge to eat at every restaurant, purchase goods from every grocer and weapon shop, pray at every shrine, and pick up every last sparkly item on the ground. Doing pretty much anything in the game gives Ryoma extra Virtue, particularly the many side stories that start just by running into them. Along the way to the next story point, I solved a protest that involved a crowd dance, met a woman who couldn’t stop talking, and answered questions about geography for a teacher who didn’t know anything about globes.
In fact, I was only able to do half of the mini-games spread throughout the city in the two hours I had with the game, but I made sure to try karaoke (or utamaruya), buyo dancing on stage (nichibuza), chicken racing, shogi, and (my favorite) Japanese mahjong. Unfortunately, I missed side work at an udon shop, wood chopping, the gambling den with poker, and the brothel (yamabuki). At any rate, all of these side objectives gave Ryoma extra money and sometimes bonus experience that can give skill points for him to improve one of his four fighting styles.
The Way of Bushido (with Guns)
As Like a Dragon fans will understand, exploring the streets is actually quite dangerous, with random groups of ruffians, hooligans, and loudmouths who have no idea that they are about to receive a beatdown. Ryoma has four distinct styles that you can switch between on the fly: Swordsman (katana), Gunman (firearm), Wild Dancer (firearm and katana), and Brawler (fists). For most of my run, I used the basic katana stance for high damage and the brawler style as an homage to classic Kazuma Kiryu. But I could see the value of the Gunman for long-range fights and the Wild Dancer for fluid sidesteps and counterattacks.
Whatever stance I chose, evading or blocking at the moment while paying attention not to get flanked were essential in combat. It’s also important for getting the highest combat grades at the end of each battle. I didn’t really get my bearings with the controls until I was fighting one of the captains of the Shinsengumi in a bout where I was stunned and knocked around multiple times. Not parrying at the right time forced me to use what few recovery items Ryoma had on him to reach the next plot point.
Samurai Night Fever
It’s understandable why Sega thought Ryū ga Gotoku Ishin! would be too Japanese for Western audiences to appreciate back in 2014. But I hope the publisher realizes that Like a Dragon fans in the States are exactly the type of people who would be down for this Like a Dragon Ishin remake. Just give us the game already so we can live out our samurai fantasies.
This preview is based on hands-on time with a work-in-progress build of Like a Dragon Ishin. The game is set to release on February 21, 2023 for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS5, PS4, PC, and Steam.
Nick Tan posted a new article, Like A Dragon Ishin turns Kazuma Kiryu into the rugged samurai we've always wanted
Very much looking forward to having more Yakuza to play with helvetica soon!