Two hours into Like a Dragon Ishin!, a remake of Ryu ga Gotoku Ishin, and it becomes clear why the original game was only released in Japan. As a spin-off of the Yakuza series (which is now called Like A Dragon), Ryu ga Gotoku Ishin came out on PS3 and PS4 in February 2014, but never had a Western release. While there could be many reasons why this happened, this was likely due to the story being heavily focused on Japanese history and political intrigue during the late Edo period. It romanticizes the life of Sakamoto Ryoma, in part by giving him the likeness and voice of series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, and dramatizes his real-life exploits as a samurai who played a significant role in the events that led up to the Meiji Restoration before his untimely assassination.
As someone who chose to take a college class on Japanese history and has watched a lot of anime that takes place around this time period, like Samurai Champloo, Ninja Scroll, and Rurouni Kenshin, I fit the target audience for Like a Dragon Ishin!. And I admit that’s pretty niche. But all you need is a passing interest in samurai life to appreciate the plot. Like a Dragon Ishin! is also a formidable example of the franchise, with strong third-person combat against random groups of ruffians on the streets and plenty of fan-favorite mini-games like karaoke. As a remake, the game does a satisfactory job providing a graphical facelift as well, though there are still some lingering parts and mechanics that make it obvious that the original game was made on PS3.
The Bushido Code
So as not to spoil the story too much past the first few chapters, Sakamoto Ryoma returns to his hometown of Tosa where he reunites with his surrogate father and a sworn brother who both want him to join a loyalist party that seeks to end what they believe is an overly strict and oppressive class-based government. The arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry and his U.S. Navy ships in 1853 had put the strength and stability of the Tokugawa shogunate in question, leading many factions to believe that Japan needed to reform its isolationist policies if it wished to remain independent. Unfortunately, one high-ranking loyalist party member is assassinated and Ryoma is blamed for it, forcing him to flee and take on a new identity in the capital of Kyo as he searches for the true assassin.
As Like a Dragon fans would expect, the plot involves betrayal, deception, corruption, and interfactional disputes. Even when compared with other games in the series, Ishin has a tremendous number of twists and turns as Ryoma narrows down his list of suspects. To pull this off, the story introduces a lot of characters, many of which have new character models along with new voice actors that are from the more recent games in the series.
While that helps with facial recognition and turns the production into something like a tongue-in-cheek stage play, the story gets overly complicated in spots. It could have edited out maybe five minor characters to narrow the focus of the plot. To make things easier for Western players, the game has a minor glossary that explains a limited number of terms during dialogue, but what was really needed is a codex, similar to those in Dragon Age or Mass Effect. An explanation of samurai ranks, dappan, daimyo, and other specific vernacular would have made the story easier to digest for a broader audience. At the very least, a breakdown of all of the major characters would have been a good quality of life addition.
Bringing a gun to a sword fight
Unlike the mainline Like a Dragon series that has Kazuma Kiryu punch and kick his way through street punks and yakuza flunkies, Ishin highlights four distinct styles. In addition to the traditional hand-to-hand Brawler style, Ryoma can wield a katana as a Swordsman, a pistol as a Gunslinger, or combine the sword and pistol together as a Wild Dancer. In combat, you can switch between each style on the fly, allowing you to build Ryoma as you see fit. Each fighting style has a unique skill tree with specific techniques, with some abilities being locked until you learn them from an appropriate teacher. Apart from some skill nodes that provide general bonuses to maximum health and heat, these four skill trees don’t really mix with one another.
Ishin has fairly easy combat on normal difficulty. Even on the higher difficulty settings, Ryoma has plenty of inventory slots for restorative items, so he can recover quickly if you make a few mistakes. Ultimately, the Gunslinger style is somewhat overpowered since guns don’t require reloading and they never run out of regular bullets. If an enemy tries to charge at you, it’s easy enough to bait them into an attack and fire shots while they are busy swinging at the air. The Swordsman style isn’t too shabby either for sheer attack power, especially against armored opponents. Once you’re able to craft a decent blade at the blacksmith or purchase one at a vendor, it’s a solid choice.
Making fights even easier, this remake introduces Trooper cards to the mix, though they’re largely an unnecessary addition. At a certain point in the game, Ryoma can recruit troops to his side that provide active abilities and passive bonuses to his four fighting styles. These troops gain experience, have a level cap based on their rarity, provide some extra health for Ryoma, and can be recruited by spending currency or finding them on the battlefield. The more useful trooper abilities heal Ryoma or boost his attack power, so they’re worth keeping around if just for these minor boons. However, the recruitment system is essentially a gacha system, though it isn’t as terrible since you can only use in-game currency on it. That said, if you’re a purist, you can pretty much ignore troopers altogether.
A rusty blade
Unfortunately, the Brawler style doesn’t keep up with the others in terms of attack power. While there are equipment slots for swords and a gun, there isn’t one for fists (the gauntlets sadly don’t count). So even though I filled in the Brawler skill tree and learned a lot of extra techniques, it became an extremely weak option by the midgame. If some of the more general Brawler moves, like the ability to evade and then roll away, crossed over to the other styles, it would have been worth the investment.
Combat also suffers from camera issues, particularly when Ryoma has his back against a wall or when he’s fighting in tight corridors. The camera sometimes jerks around or rises so that it’s angled toward the floor. Even when I tried controlling the camera manually, there were instances where I couldn’t tell what was happening until I moved to another area to let the camera reset. The lack of a lock-on makes it tough to target a specific foe too.
It’s in these moments where things feel saddled by having to remake an older PS3 game. Every once in a while, an NPC will walk into a wall, or there will be two or three of the same NPC all grouped together on the street. The simple act of picking up a shiny collectible off the street (it’s usually a prize ticket) will make all enemies on the road disappear. It also would have been convenient if you could select which fighting style you want to start with before combat, and if there was an easier way to rotate special ammo for guns without having to go back to the menu to re-equip different rounds.
Samurai Night Fever
In addition to the story, where Ishin shines most is in the sheer quantity of substories, side activities, and vendors that bring all the districts of Kyo to life. Altogether, these optional side missions can effectively double the 30- to 40-hour main storyline. The map in the game is smaller than the expansive metropolis in Yakuza: Like a Dragon, but it’s still dense for its size and chock full of restaurants, bars, and quest-givers. Ryoma can sing at a karaoke bar (or utamaruya), fish in the river or the sea, dance with a fan in buyo class, make udon noodles in a memory game, chop wood, bet on chicken races or limit hold-’em at a gambling den, and enter a Japanese mahjong tournament. If you would rather sharpen your combat skills, there’s a combat arena, a scarecrow challenge, and trooper missions.
While most of the substories end with Ryoma having to knock some sense into a band of drunk, troublesome, or easily offended men, a good chunk of them require you to interact with an NPC multiple times. That usually means fetching them food, medicine, or other items. However, you frequently have to wait a certain amount of time as a cooldown before you can talk with the NPC again. Now, I figured out that you can just save and reload the game to get rid of this cooldown as a workaround, but it’s still irritating that it happens so often.
At any rate, completing these substories bestows Ryoma with a high amount of Virtue, a currency that can be exchanged for minor perks at a shrine. That’s not the only way to earn Virtue either, as Ryoma will earn small amounts just for praying or spending money at a shop. Finishing specific diligence records, which can be done throughout the game, will net a chunk of Virtue too. If you follow the questline with a certain Shinto priest, you’ll unlock a specific store where you can exchange extra Virtue for rare crafting materials and even fighting style experience.
The main side attraction is by far and away a mode called Another Life, an adorable farming sim where Ryoma helps a girl pay back a loan by growing produce and cooking dishes. Not only is farming the best way to gain money, especially after spending Virtue to upgrade the farm, but Ryoma can adopt up to three dogs and three cats. He can even build a deluxe chicken coop for extra eggs. Apart from some NPCs that ask Ryoma for vegetables, Another Life is entirely optional, but it’s hard not to get sucked into what is a delightful break from the seriousness of the plot.
Like a Remake
Though Like a Dragon Ishin! is rough around the corners, its complex story and rich world with an abundance of side adventures are well worth the cost of admission. The game’s reinterpretation of Japan’s Bakumatsu period is a transporting experience that explores a moment in history that is not often available to Western audiences. Ishin has some trouble upgrading the combat system and camera controls to today’s standards, and it’s not a graphical powerhouse despite some visual upgrades. But anyone who is a fan of the Yakuza Kiwami series will likely forgive these faults to a degree. Like a Dragon Ishin! may be just a remake of a spin-off, but its blades are sharp enough to ignite your inner samurai.
This review is based on a digital PC copy of the game supplied by the publisher. Like a Dragon Ishin!! releases on February 21, 2023 for PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, and PC.
Like A Dragon: Ishin
- Complex story with political intrigue in 1860s Japan
- Brings former capital of Kyo to life
- An abundance of side activities and substories
- Virtue reward system
- Another Life farming sim
- Story can get too complicated
- Camera issues
- Guns are a bit overpowered
- Brawler style doesn't keep up with attack strength
- Insufficient glossary, a codex would've been better