Like a Dragon: Ishin! does things just a little differently. At least, you’d think so. It drops the Western Yakuza name, trades in the modern setting for the late Edo era and shoves a not particularly murderous Kiryu a katana and revolver into his hands. That sounds sweeping, but the changes don’t go beyond the surface. Ishin! tells a largely familiar story with a familiar cast and now somewhat outdated gameplay. The result is a fun Yakuza outing, but one we’ve experienced before.
In Ishin! you play Sakamoto Ryoma, a historical samurai who was central to the fall of the Japanese Shogunate. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that you play Kiryu as Ryoma. Indeed, Ishin! manages to tell a story about the founding of the Japanese empire within the framework of the Yakuza world, including its cast. Virtually everyone from the modern Yakuza returns in a similar role to their modern counterpart. Majima plays an unaccountable psychopath, Yeonsu Kim is an old-fashioned spy and Haruka is just Haruka.
So Ishin! does take some creative liberty in telling this historical story. Effectively, it manages to intertwine actual history with Kiryu’s story as we know it. Yes, Ryoma is a samurai from Tosa fighting the skewed power relations of the Tokugawa shogunate, but here he is also an orphaned child who joins the Yakuza-like Shinsengumi to avenge his adoptive father. The result is a feast of recognition, even for this ignorant Westerner familiar with only one half of the plot.
This beautifully woven story is immediately Ishin!’s greatest achievement, but it does make the plot quite predictable. That makes sense, of course: if you want to lean on familiarity, you can’t come up with something new. It just goes a long way. As soon as you recognize a character from a previous Yakuza, you know exactly what role he will play – and thus how the story will unfold. In itself, that’s not a disaster: if “spoilers” can ruin a story, it probably wasn’t a very good one already, but Yakuza games have a similar cadence anyway, with some of the same story beats. Now it feels even more like the same song.
Almost identical to Yakuza 5
The same goes for the gameplay. Technically, you could say that Ishin! has received the “Kiwami treatment,” only that has pretty little impact here. Sure, it looks better than the original, exclusively Japanese game, and some characters have even been completely replaced by actors from the new games. The difference between Kiwami and Ishin! is that Ishin! was already a fairly modern game. The original came out in Japan in 2014: right between Yakuza 5 and Yakuza 0. So the jump here is not very big, and the gameplay is largely intact.
Ishin! thus plays almost identically to Yakuza 5: fights are a bit less wooden than the games before it, and you have about four fighting styles, each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses. That also means that fights are not nearly as fluid as those in Yakuza 6, or as tactical as those in Part 7. On top of that, Ryoma, unlike Kiryu, has weapons by default, and the streets of Tosa and Kyo are somewhat less cluttered than those of Kamurocho and Sotenburi. As a result, especially in the first half of the game, there is much less focus on the absurd heat actions you expect from an older Yakuza. It’s quite a nice change to attack enemies with a katana, revolver – or both at once – but in terms of game systems, it feels like a step backward.
The mission structure also leans more toward that of the older Yakuza games. For example, you’ll spend a fair amount of time on quests where you have to talk to random NPCs, and you can bet your ass you’ll have to attack an enemy base at the end of every second chapter with a fairly static boss fight at the end. The gameplay of Ishin! does what it needs to do, but like the plot, it won’t surprise or overwhelm you anywhere.
Grinding just present
Fortunately, the additional missions and activities are again quite extensive – perhaps even a little too extensive. Of course, all the standard activities are represented again, including an arena and rather creative 1860s variations on baseball and karaoke. The larger mini-games this time consist of a farm that you maintain with Haruka, and a very repetitive dungeon crawler where you can collect materials and use friendly NPCs for special attacks.
That gathering of materials, by the way, is crucial in Ishin! After all, you can grind quite a bit for stats here. Your weapons and equipment can all be strengthened at the blacksmith – and you’ll need quite a bit of money and materials to do so. In the original game, you could even use the Vita companion app for this, so you could farm on the bus or train and continue with a stronger Ryoma once you got home. Now you can get through the game just fine on normal with minimal grind, a full inventory of healing items and some cheesy tactics here and there. Should you want to go for the 100%, know that unprecedented repetitive grind awaits you.
Ishin! Is not the first Yakuza spin-off, nor will it be the last. It is, however, the spin-off with the most unfortunate Western release to date. It is a fine remaster, and it tells an incredibly interesting, historical story within the framework of the Yakuza universe. Unfortunately, it’s also a game nearly a decade old in a franchise that hasn’t exactly stood still in all that time. Like a Dragon: Ishin! is a feast of recognition, but regularly feels a little too familiar.