Mainly due to its availability via Game Pass in recent years, the ‘Yakuza series has become incredibly popular among Xbox gamers. Now that there is an established appetite for the franchise in the west Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio is spoiling fans with the only title that has so far been unavailable outside Japan. 2014’s acclaimed release Like A Dragon Ishin! has not only been remastered graphically, it has also been expanded with new content and brought up to modern gaming standards through the incorporation of Unreal Engine 4. As a fan of the series now re-christened ‘Like A Dragon’, I can honestly say the graphical upgrade alone looks stunning from the very first moments of the game. Let’s see if everything else delivers to the same standard in the XboxEra review of Like A Dragon: Ishin!
I will give away very little of the story in this review but needless to say, it has the usual level of complexity that we have come to expect from the series. You play as Sakamoto Ryoma, a lone-wolf Samurai who sets out to find the person responsible for the assassination of his mentor. Most of the action takes place whilst pounding the streets of Kyoto (then known as Kyo) until the later stages when a fiendish plot has been uncovered that leads our hero to a violent climax at the heart of the establishment.
As the game is set in the Bakumatsu period in the middle of the Nineteenth century a glossary has been included to give context to organisations and plot points that would be lost on anyone without an in-depth knowledge of Japanese history. Interestingly the developers have chosen to represent all of the major characters with the appearance of known characters from previous games in the series.
Have We Met?
Sakamoto Ryoma for instance is the spitting image of Kazuma Kiryu which works surprisingly well, especially if you have already spent weeks of your life guiding him through previous adventures in Kamurocho. My favourite character Goro Majima is also present as you would expect, representing someone else entirely but with exactly the same characteristics and temperament. This may sound strange but it makes sense. These faces bring with them not only a history but also a nostalgic feeling toward good times already experienced in this universe. Villains that I had a hard time beating in boss battles back in the day were good to see again this time around, even if I had my doubts about whether they could be trusted.
Gameplay is based on a sprawling map around the same size as the one in Yakuza 7. The surroundings seem a little drab at first compared to the dazzling cityscapes Yakuza players are used to but they are beautifully designed to represent the period. Starting with very little in terms of money or useful items it is necessary to farm ‘Virtue’ in between carrying out story missions. This can be done in multiple ways such as completing sub-stories and mini-games, eating at restaurants, praying at shrines, rescuing people under threat from attack, and exploring the local area.
Most virtue targets are attained naturally during gameplay without players even noticing that they are doing it, such as by running a certain distance. The only real requirement is spending enough time taking part in every event that the streets of Kyo can throw at you. Virtue points then can be exchanged for character upgrades and after a certain point can be traded for items that can be sold for cash such as Platinum Plates. Cash is necessary for buying weapons, healing items, food, etc. and in conjunction with collected rare items can be used to upgrade weapons and armour at Kurogane Smithing. Fans of the series will be more than familiar with this kind of gameplay.
Fight, Fight, Fight
Stepping back from the turn-based combat of Yakuza 7 to the more familiar brawling fighting style is a real treat. This time though the already established system has been embellished in a few different ways. Guns can be used liberally throughout Ishin! unlike in previous games where they are treated like nice-to-have disposable items. Here it is also possible to rely solely on fighting styles that use weapons as standard and pretty much ignore the brawler style itself. When you are coming up against armed enemies it is not very prudent to try and fight them with fists alone, especially those with spears. Another issue is that environmental items which can traditionally be used as weapons when using the brawler style are sadly lacking in Kyo.
You can choose to fight purely with a gun, with a sword, or with a combination of both in Wild Dancer Style. Personally, although I loved the pistol aspect I found that it was hampered by the close confines of a lot of the locations and tended to rely heaviest on the Swordsman fighting style which is great for blocking and attacking in equal measure. Orbs earned from combat experience can be allocated between the different fighting styles to unlock different skills, abilities, and finishers. Combat with weapons is surprisingly bloody but it has to be to fit in with the Samurai aesthetic.
Boss and underboss battles are numerous, particularly in the later stages as you would expect them to be, but unlike previous installments where a boss had three different health bars to deplete, this time around they only tend to have one. This did make things feel slightly easier but then again maybe I have just ‘got good’ and used my previous experience when taking them on. The standard potentially game-ending showdowns with absolutely no warning beforehand are also present so keep several healing items in your inventory at all times.
As usual, ‘Heat’ is built up while fighting and used to unleash devastating special moves once you have learned them. Unless that is, you make a rookie mistake like equipping the ‘Tranquil Towel’ headgear which has superb defensive qualities but also totally prevents any heat gain. I must admit it took me a while to figure that one out! Special moves based around QTEs are also present and can be very useful although failing a QTE will cause you massive damage instead of your opponent.
The secondary dungeon campaign in Ishin! revolves around the clearing out of bandit caves. This is the best way to grind combat experience, make money and attain rare items. The forty different levels can be rather challenging and a great time sink. Don’t even talk to me about the Ninjas! They also turn up in the main story and for me, they are the most troublesome low-level foe I have ever come up against.
Bandit caves are the best place to learn the strengths and weaknesses of ‘Trooper Cards’ in your collection. This is a new mechanic that (I probably don’t even have to warn you) is rather complex but entails leveling up a three-person squad for each fighting style whose special abilities can be unleashed to help you in battle. Some of these abilities have to be seen to be believed but I will give nothing away and let you discover them for yourselves.
The upgraded visuals are most impressive during stunning cut scenes. I became deeply immersed in the period-perfect environment and one particular incident involving a geisha with a bandit mask of fresh blood has stayed vividly in my mind days after I witnessed it. Sound design is also first-class. There is nothing quite like the sound of two Katanas meeting repeatedly in combat, grinding and sliding away from each other.
Sub Stories can be as random as ever, ranging from deadly serious to innuendo city and downright bizarre. These are always great fun and light relief from the brooding main story. Mini-games are also worth investigating. As well as those fans would come to expect, such as singing and fishing you can now waste your real life chopping wood, dancing (terribly in my case), and slicing cannonballs in mid-air. Udon slinging was a personal favourite along with the geisha Sake drinking competition and Chicken racing.
When things get tough for Ryoma it is nice to travel to his small farm and play ‘Another Life’. This entails farming crops, cooking numerous dishes (in another series of mini-games), and selling these at the market to pay off a large debt. I spent far too much time cooking during my thirty-nine-hour playthrough but it is relaxing and it was worth the effort to support my two adopted dogs, a cat, and yet another character who will be familiar to fans of the series. Health can also be recovered here with a sleep or a nice soak in the bath.
The climatic sections of the game were deserving of the build-up and involve interesting combat situations in unique surroundings. It was disappointing not to get to use more than one Gatling gun and a couple of cannons but I don’t suppose you can have it all.
The game ran well on my Series X with the only glitch experienced being some lens flare on two occasions that covered most of the screen. A day-one patch is already in the offing and it is highly likely to be fixed by it. Some random background NPCs disappear occasionally but I have seen that in many Yakuza games before and is probably the price you pay for having such a dynamic environment. This small issue has absolutely no impact on gameplay.
What more can I say? Like A Dragon: Ishin! deserves its acclaimed reputation and can only have been improved by this modernising makeover. The story, visuals, sound design, and game mechanics are all top-class. Complexity is the name of the game as usual, but fans of the series will have no complaints about what has been delivered here. Everything that gamers love about the series has been included and improved upon to freshen things up. Even the use of familiar faces feels right when it could have seemed very wrong. For fans and newcomers alike, this game is a triumph and needs to be experienced. PLAY THIS GAME.
Like A Dragon: Ishin!
XBOX Series X
- A welcome addition to the previously titled 'Yakuza' franchise.
- The addition of Swords, Pistols and Trooper Cards freshens up the already-established combat system.
- A well-designed immersive experience with impressively remastered graphics.
- Many familiar faces from previous titles appear in the game bringing with them a welcome sense of nostalgia.
- A roughly forty-hour experience that is well worth the money for fans and newcomers alike.
- Both gameplay and the story itself are considerably complex (as usual) which some newcomers may find off-putting.
- It is necessary to grind in order to level up sufficiently for the later stages.