Like a Dragon: Ishin! Review

Ryoma Sakamoto vs. the Universe

Whoever decided to inject samurai and camp into my RPGs has earned my wholehearted appreciation. When Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio developed Like a Dragon: Ishin! it was clearly a game made for history buffs and those who love to wax poeticly about the past. Although the Like a Dragon series has explored Japanese history before, Ishin is the first to be localized for Western audiences. While the game has its share of hiccups, it’s hard to deny how crazy the world of Ishin is and why it’s completely worth the visit.

Set in the Bakumatsu years in the 1860s, the game depicts a Japan that is at a crossroads. Does it move towards modernization or stay the course of traditionalism? In the feudal district of Tosa, the Tosa Loyalist Party begins to plot its course regarding Japan’s future. Players take on the role of Ryoma Sakamoto, who returns home to Tosa after being in Edo for a long time to learn swordsmanship. Arriving home, he is reunited with his adoptive father, Yoshida Toyo, and his sworn brother, Takechi Hanpeita. Toyo, a high-ranking government magistrate, seeks to end the rigidity of the Tosa social class system and begs Ryoma to join his cause as part of the Loyalist Party. However, on the night that Ryoma and Toyo are set to meet, Toyo is assassinated by an unknown assailant. Having been accused of Toyo’s murder, Ryoma flees from Tosa vowing to prove his innocence.

One year later, Ryoma, now residing in Kyo, has been going by the alias of Saito Hajime. His strong belief in finding Toyo’s killer leads him to join the Shinsengumi, an elite group of warriors who believe they enact the will of the Tokugawa Bakufu. Upon joining the group, Ryoma begins his investigation into Toyo’s murder and gets entangled in Shinsengumi politics, as well as conflicts with larger organizations vying for power in Japan. Under the guise of Saito Hajime, Ryoma must strike a delicate balance between each faction, which becomes quite the challenge when another murder takes place, and the emergence of an imposter in Kyo draws near.

Shirtless men = serious conversations.

Ishin showcases fantastic storytelling from start to finish, with great twists and turns to keep the player guessing on numerous plot points. The game also toes the line between being ultra serious and incredibly campy in a way the series is known for and exaggerates both ends of the spectrum flawlessly. When the main story is present, it’s got a much darker tone and is effectively a gritty crime drama. However, Ishin has arguably some of the most entertaining substories to date. From the Ee Ja Nai Ka political group and its cultish dance to being forced to play house with a group of small children, Ryoma gets wrapped up in some utterly silly scenarios that show just how absurd and ridiculous the world can be. There is such sincerity in Ryoma’s character that it makes these situations all the more insane, and yet players will be happy to be along for the ride. The polar opposite storytelling intentions allow for both compelling main and substories, showing how entertaining the world of Ishin truly is.

Adding to this are the Bonding Events, which are substories that require players to repeatedly interact with specific people. Some eccentric characters that Ryoma meets include a young boy who is banned from having vegetables, a sword-loving fanboy, and a “lucky cat” who will give players weird crap in exchange for money. These events allow Ryoma to get to know the locals around Kyo and help them with their problems. There are also Pet Bonding events where Ryoma can help animal friends in need, and then adopt them. All of these events are entirely optional but absolutely worth doing given how crazy many of them are, and they are a good source of upping Ryoma’s reputation in an area and can assist in earning him virtue.

Ryoma draws the short end of the stick in a game of pretend.

Virtue is a new form of currency in Ishin where Ryoma is rewarded for good deeds, whether by assisting the locals, beating up petty thugs, or participating in local entertainment such as gambling or eating at restaurants. Virtue can also be earned at Ryoma’s villa, dubbed “Another Life,” where players can get their farming sim on with tasks such as planting and maintaining crops, shipping out orders, playing with the family pets, and even cooking meals. Virtue can be spent to upgrade a variety of gameplay elements such as Ryoma’s farm, being able to run faster, or even accumulating virtue faster. Investing in these upgrades is very helpful, especially for those who enjoy much of the game’s side content. It’s very easy to fall into the rabbit hole of Ryoma’s many side hustles and collecting virtue becomes almost addicting.

While there’s lots of story content to explore, the other large chunk of the game comes in the form of combat. Ryoma has four combat styles that can be toggled between on the fly. Brawler is straight hand-to-hand combat, Swordsman is specific to samurai sword techniques, Gunman allows for long-ranged combat, and Wild Dancer is a sword-gun combination. Each of these styles has its own advantages and disadvantages, but the balancing on each feels lopsided and unpolished. Brawler is the most polished, as it’s the standard for the Like a Dragon series, where Ryoma can smack people with objects and punch his way through problems. Swordsman at times can feel very stiff and unrefined, lacking fluidity in its movement but dealing heavy hits. Wild Dancer is great in concept but lacks punch in its hits, and the gun is frankly useless, often missing more than it hits. 

Then there’s the Gunman combat style. Like a Dragon has attempted gunplay before and did it poorly in Dead Souls, and here it continues the trend of being uninteresting and cheap. For starters, the gun has automatic targeting for enemies, and while this sounds great in theory, it’s really just a cheap way to get out of a situation. Even weirder is the fact that players and enemies can shoot through walls with auto-targeting and still hit. It’s just not a well-balanced style and needs considerably more time in the oven. This is not to say that combat isn’t enjoyable in Ishin, because it is and with each level up players can invest in how they wish to build Ryoma’s abilities. 

Shooting down the big guys.

Another element in combat is related to the Shinsengumi, where Ryoma can recruit troopers to his ranks through random encounters, or by completing substories. Each trooper comes in the form of a card, and each card has its own unique abilities that can be mixed and matched. These cards add an interesting layer to combat, as they allow Ryoma to boost any of his skills mid-battle, heal, or even call forth lightning from his hands. While the combat is good for the most part, the addition of the cards is a nice touch as it’s another layer of customization that can be added to each of the four styles.

Like a Dragon: Ishin pays homage to its setting, not just through storytelling, but also in its sound presentation. There are tons of beautiful and simple tracks that feature traditional Japanese instruments such as shamisen and taiko. There are also very cheesy but charming pop ballads that add to the soundtrack, such as “Iji Sakura,” a pop song that features traditional instruments and the gravel of voice actor Takaya Kuroda (who voices Ryoma), which completely sells the fantasy. A lot of the tracks do a great job of fitting into the setting and story. The game also features phenomenal Japanese voice acting by many Like a Dragon veterans such as Koishi Yamedra, Takaya Kuroda, and Hidenari Ugaki. However, one of the best performances comes from Hideao Nakano, who voices the elusive brother of Ryoma, Hanpeita Takechi. The voice actors do a phenomenal job of not only portraying their characters but also easing players into the setting and making it feel natural.

Unfortunately, Like a Dragon: Ishin’s biggest stumble comes from its massive performance issues, particularly in later parts of the game. Playing the game on PlayStation 4, there were noticeable issues when too many characters or elements were on the screen at once. In one particular chapter, the game chugged to a halt because it was trying to load fire, burning buildings, and tons of other objects, causing Ryoma to sputter when running. This is also coupled with long load times and NPCs who often get caught in the environments.

Living that sweet farming life style.

Living that sweet farming life style.

Moreover, there is an inconsistent quality in the graphics between the cutscenes and gameplay. The in-game graphics for many of the characters lack expression and cleanness both in their faces and in character models, compared to the cutscenes which showcase fantastic movement and energy by the actors. It’s also very easy to get lost in Kyo given all the buildings and locations look identical and lack distinctive features to help players differentiate where they are. The only areas where this is not the case are Gion, the red light district; Mibu, home of the Shinsengumi compound; and Mukugorai, the slums. However, these areas are much smaller in scale compared to the main parts of Kyo.

I want more games like Ishin, because having history come to life in an RPG makes for a fun and interesting experience. While the storytelling is fabulous and the substories are legendary levels of insane, there are definitely parts of Ishin that could have used a bit more refinement, such as the combat and location design. There are some solid bones in Ishin that I want to see in other Like a Dragon games, such as the inclusion of Another Life in different forms, and its ability to transport players into a different historical timeline is both unexpected and well executed, even if there’s still room for growth. Where Like a Dragon: Ishin shines its brightest, however, is its reminder that video games can be both serious business and absolute fun. It’s what the series has made a name for itself doing, and this newest entry does not disappoint in that regard.

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'Good' -- 3.5/5
20-40 HOURS

Some of the best substories in the series

A fantastic and well woven main plot

Another Life and virtue elements add a fun extra layer

Graphical issues throughout

Combat is a mixed bag

Performance issues throughout

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