Review: Like A Dragon: Ishin!

More than half a decade on at this point, it’s odd to imagine that for a time, it seemed as if a series like Yakuza was being kept alive by virtue of little more than corporate reliance and the most hyper-dedicated of its small but crucial community of fans. A series having maintained a near-continuous annual release of new titles since its inception with the original release in 2005 — followed up by mainline and spin-off releases alike — with nowhere near the commercial viability to imply, at a glance, such a schedule was fruitful.

But credit to Sega in maintaining such strong support. A support that in 2017 would finally pay dividends with the release of Yakuza 0. The right game at the right time you could say — a perfect starting point for newcomers and ideal premise for series veterans given its chronological placement as a prequel to the mainline entries. In a year crammed full of memorable games — even releasing at the very start of the year where it should in all likelihood have faded from memory. Though one could argue it still remains relatively niche compared to most series, the release of Yakuza 0 in 2017 kicked off what eventually would become a new lease of life for the series. A growing acknowledgment from Western audiences, as much its native Japan, it would only grow in strength and confidence alike. Confidence not just in its newest entrants, but in revisiting prior attempts. In offering those same Western fans a look at the series beyond the modern-day streets of Kamurocho.

Like A Dragon: Ishin! — a remake of 2014’s Japan-exclusive spin-off which also served as a launch title for the PS4 at the time — is one of these said revisits. A game set during the Late Edo period of Japan; though its cast of characters take on different names of varying backgrounds and origins, it’s hard not to look past the recognizable faces and exchange them in one’s minds for those we already know from mainline entries prior. It’s not like Ishin! is hiding from it either; a reference at one point in the story to one of its characters being dubbed a “mad dog” and it’s clear Ishin!‘s reliance on familiar faces is one of its more blatant but all-too-familiar “yeah, just go with it” pitches. Not that that’s been a bad thing for Yakuza in recent past. If anything, a player’s acceptance of the series as part-dedicated to its world-building and part-ludicrously adamant on poking holes in said world is why it’s garnered such an impassioned following.

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With Like A Dragon: Ishin! this year, that need to “go along with it” manifests just as much through a deviation in its core combat and gameplay loop, as much its late-19th century setting. Don’t be mistaken though: Ishin! remains quintessential Yakuza at its prime and addictive best. Momentary bust-ups between eager, if small-minded, thugs in the city streets; a slowly unraveling, conspiratorial tale of murder, loyalty and revenge that knows how to end each chapter with a hook or tempting cliffhanger. And lest we forget: indulging in the bevvy of restaurants, side stories and mini-games any great Yakuza entry is renowned for. The kind of distractions that can so easily extend a roughly twenty-hour campaign to double that length if not more. To praise the genuine fun one can have amid Ishin‘s side content isn’t inherently new for this series.

Neither is the notion that its main setting — the then-capital of Japan, Kyo — struggles in anyway to convince you a slower pace whilst navigating its many streets isn’t unwarranted. Though it may lack the electric glitz, glamour and grime of something like Kamurocho, Ishin‘s Kyo still holds its own by way of those simplest of moments. And much like the mainline entries, it’s these simpler moments — on passing crowds of NPCs and stores/restaurants open for business — that are just as much a highlight as any story-beat, boss fight or slice of side content provided throughout Like A Dragon: Ishin! Onomichi and Yokohama each had their own commendable identities as series locales and Late Edo-period Kyo is more than deserving of its spot alongside.

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What’s more notably different this time, however, is with the combat. And the means by which Ishin makes strides in being one of the more mechanically-interesting releases in the series, if not its most immediately satisfying to interact with. That’s not to say that the balancing of four fighting styles — series-staple Brawler, Swordsman, Gunslinger and Wild Dancer, the latter serving as a sort of hybrid of close-range swordplay and long-range firearms¬† — doesn’t result in that same voluntary eagerness to be master of all trades. Like any great hack-and-slash action game whose best moments come when you’ve finally figured your way in, out and around the switching from one style to another.¬† But Devil May Cry this is not. And given how deep, flexible and multi-purpose Ishin‘s combat and consequent set-pieces are, it’s a shame that even through this remade current-gen form, the game doesn’t nail the perfect landing its gameplay so fittingly deserves.

Because when it comes to actually engaging and controlling the main character of Ryoma, as far from fast and fluid Yakuza’s combat has remained over the years, Ishin‘s wealth of options is begging for something more reactive and quicker-paced. The ability to cancel into and out of other styles, for example. Instead having to wait for an inputted move-set or animation to end before such desire translates to what’s happening on-screen. And while the series has usually been on-point with its auto-targeting system, given how much more there is to consider in Ishin, don’t be surprised if there’s a more frantic button-mashing as a consequence of you facing anywhere but the direction of your desired target.

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It’s important to get these irks and minor annoyances out of the way because as stated, Ishin‘s combat — flaws and all — is the one I’ve actively engaged with and dug deepest into across the series for some time. More so than Like A Dragon, even if the latter can be excused for being a more traditional, turn-based affair, than a real-time effort. But that extra dedication of one’s time pays off superbly in Like A Dragon: Ishin! Learning when and where best to switch between close-range hits and longer-range opportune shots of one’s revolvers. Focusing on one specific enemy to then quickly take out a crowd of foes with a style prone to large, sweeping attacks or contextual Heat Actions. Again, this all sounds like well-trodden ground for the series, but Ishin‘s focus this time on dedicated styles to switch between — as well as that more strategic use of fists, blades and guns alike — is where this entry shines best. Helped on top by the way the game governs the act of leveling up and building outwards across its four different skill trees, one for each fighting style.

For every level gained, you’re given an orb to place in any one of your four skill trees. But you’ll also gain style-specific orbs the more you utilize that respective fighting style. The best part being that you can swap out general orbs for their color-coded equivalents at any time, even for those more earlier unlocks. It’s a small detail but one that alleviates any concern on missing out on some desired unlock later down the line. Ishin wants you to get stuck into its systems as soon as possible and is all the better because of this. Beyond this however, Ishin, has a more ingrained focus on loot-based stats and trying one’s best to get the accompanying numbers governing attack and defense, as high as possible. While not the most invasive or cumbersome form of progression, it can lead to momentary anxiety over equipment having the wrong colored square/rarity or second-guessing whether it’s worth going off hunting for more crafting materials and items alike.

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Despite this, Ishin! just about manages to stave off any worries that the game is to devolve heavily into some mindless-but-unrewarding grind. Remedied not just by the fact the major boss fights are challenging but manageable enough to tackle on their own. To the point I voluntarily confined said fights to tense one-on-one stand-off’s with a blade, out of sheer delight at the way it was framed. But it’s also thanks to one of the more meatier side activities, the Battle Dungeons — a guilty pleasure to return to again and again. And by extension, swapping out Trooper Cards — which serve as temporary buffs and assists you can employ, activated after certain fighting styles are employed for a sufficient-enough time — in building up the ideal build. Builds that work not just in said dungeon-crawling missions, but across the main game once they’re unlocked in the story. Though you can set the activation of passive skills/buffs to automatic, it does admittedly take away from another one of Ishin‘s smart little tactical additions. Knowing when to act and with which specific set of enemies.

Such is the wealth of content on show here, that it’s easy to brush off the occasional technical issues. As noticeable and in the case of one erratically-spinning NPC clipping through solid ground, comical they may be. Texture pop-in upon the game world loading back in again is a consistent though brief instance. And while the lack of an English/localized dub is one plenty of players and fans may not care much for, by contrast it’s a shame that pre-rendered cutscenes here are capped at 30FPS. With no option — like so many games on current-gen systems at present — to sacrifice resolution for higher frame-rates. The unitary presets around resolution and frame-rate aren’t a deal-breaker by any stretch, but it’s worth flagging up nonetheless.

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Closing Comments:

Exactly what fans of the series have come to expect, whilst still providing one or two interesting deviations in gameplay along the way, Like A Dragon: Ishin! fuses familiar traits with a delightfully-versatile combat system to great effect. Those worried that a game both spin-off in nature and far-flung from the series’ present day roots would feel too isolated should take comfort from the fact this year’s remake of a pre-0 entrant remains quintessentially Yakuza in all the right ways. And while the take on style-switching, combo-chasing combat this time round is admittedly imperfect and far from the most fluid system to engage with, some occasional scuffs and rough edges aren’t enough to deter Like A Dragon: Ishin! from coming away as one more worthwhile and thoroughly-entertaining spin-off in the Yakuza series.