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Brawling through a wacky version of Japan’s past in Like a Dragon: Ishin!

Don't bring a knife to a historical Japanese gunfight.
Enlarge / Don’t bring a knife to a historical Japanese gunfight.

Sega’s cult-favorite Yakuza series is in a league of its own in its ability to blend brutal, stylish combat with a heartfelt and endearingly melodramatic storyline. Following the success of 2020’s Yakuza: Like a Dragon and the spinoff Judgement series, the over-the-top and unapologetically earnest action series has made great strides in reaching a larger audience worldwide.

With the franchise’s 20th anniversary approaching, Sega is making a larger push for the series, now known simply as Like a Dragon, in the West. Like a Dragon: Ishin! is an upgraded visit to one of the franchise’s most elusive games and the first chance for Western audiences to circle back to the sprawling story’s 19th-century origins.

After some time with the game’s early chapters, it’s clear this remake reaffirms the series’ signature approach to marrying absurd yet poignant storylines with action encounters that come right out of a comic book.

Once upon a time in Edo Japan

Like a Dragon: Ishin! focuses on the exploits of Sakamoto Ryoma, a mid-1800s character who bears a striking resemblance to recurring franchise protagonist Kazuma Kiryu. Ryoma is attempting to find a mysterious assassin in the fictional city of Kyo. After infiltrating the Shinsengumi police force to hunt for leads, he’ll rub shoulders with other historical figures and vagabonds trying to survive through Japan’s Edo period, when the beginning of Western intervention was bringing radical shifts in Japanese society. Along the way, he’ll brawl with roaming gangs, help common folk with big problems, and engage with the city’s many incidental side activities and hidden stories.

The switch to a period setting, which reinterprets many fan-favorite characters into period-specific versions, makes for a fresh and interesting change of pace from the urban sprawl of previous Yakuza games. But the trip back in time, while different, doesn’t affect the series’ signature mix of different tones.

En garde.

The action and narrative are honed through that wacky yet still somehow totally earnest Yakuza-style lens. One moment you’re thrust into the politics of the Japanese criminal underworld, learning about the sacrifices and trauma characters have endured. And the next, you’re in a cathartic and raucous karaoke session where stone-faced protagonists sing their hearts out. It sounds jarring, but it all works so well in practice. Much like the recent Oscar-nominated Telugu historical epic RRR, Like a Dragon: Ishin! embraces its sense of hyper-reality to meld a crowd-pleasing action and storytelling style with its period setting.

Exploring the past

Like a Dragon: Ishin! sticks close to the plot and structure of its original Japan-only PlayStation 4 release. But this version revamps the combat and adds numerous quality-of-life improvements that bring the game closer to modern series entries. That includes introducing the flair and character growth systems found in 2020’s JRPG-inspired Yakuza: Like a Dragon, which melds with the original game’s brawling to make Ishin! feel like more of an action RPG.

My hands-on time with Ishin! dropped me into Chapter 3, which, as mentioned previously, sees Ryoma arrive in the Fushimi district of Kyo. As an outsider, he must explore an unknown town while trying to follow up on a mysterious assassin. This chapter is where the game’s structure and gameplay open up properly, giving you the entire Fushimi district to explore. While you have a main objective, you’re free to wander back alleys, engage in mini-games, and encounter unsavory and colorful characters hanging around town. These types of activities are what make the Yakuza games so special, and Ishin! delivers on that in a big way.

One of the more compelling aspects of Ishin! was just venturing out and exploring the city to see what I could find. I mostly took my time exploring the more populated areas of town, engaging in diversions, including going to restaurants to snag sushi and sake; checking out training dojos to better Ryoma’s combat prowess; and jumping in on side activities focused on learning complex dances to perform for a crowd.

Take a break from brawling with karaoke!
Enlarge / Take a break from brawling with karaoke!

One of my favorite moments, and a perfect example of how random the game can be, came when I rounded a street corner and found five people arguing. Upon interacting with them, I jumped into a sub-story involving a stolen mochi snack, asking me to figure out who was involved. A light interrogation sequence followed, which closed with a poignant story about the bonds of friendship. It was bizarre to find myself embroiled in this impromptu mystery, but once it was done, I was utterly charmed by how it played out. I found myself amused by how strange things can be and impressed by how Ishin! maintained an earnest perspective throughout the wacky circumstances.

So far, Ishin! maintains the Yakuza series’ characteristic vibrant, active world. Although it’s not a proper open-world game, Ishin! still provides a densely packed setting that you’re free to explore. The Bakumatsu era is recreated in rich detail, showcasing the lively personality and culture of the city. It was exciting just taking time to explore the streets, bump into wandering citizens going about their business, and even get into a few scrapes here and there.

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