author: Giancarlo Saldana
Like a Dragon Ishin Review: High-Ranking Samurai
Mixing the classic feel of Yakuza and Like a Dragon games with some Japanese history, Ishin offers you a new way to enjoy the series and even teach you a thing or two about the way of the samurai.
Like a Dragon Ishin is, to some degree, art mixed with history mixed with the humor and gameplay the Yakuza or Like a Dragon series is known for. It’s a bit like watching a classic film like Rashomon or Seven Samurai and getting transported to a Japan where samurai walked the streets and blood sprayed out of people faster than a firehose. The game takes place at the end of the Tokugawa period, a time when Japan started opening up to the rest of the world and when the powers of influence started to shift, but it still manages to feel like a Yakuza game because it manages to infuse its essence into every aspect of your experience.
- A robust Like a Dragon game with so much to do and explore;
- Four distinct fighting styles that let you experiment during combat;
- An inviting world that mixes history and fiction.
- Side stories and random encounters can often interrupt the flow of the game;
- Story can get convoluted at times.
When Ishin first came out back in 2014, you could only play it in Japan so this remastered version lets the rest of the world take a trip back in time to not only an older version of Kyoto, but to an older Like a Dragon game that still can stand up against some of the changes its modern installments have introduced. It has its highs and lows, but rest assured you will still be beating up random gangsters, awkwardly singing tunes to strangers, and exploring bustling boroughs teeming with life.
One of the first of many gags Ishin has in store for you is that its protagonist is a historical figure named Sakamoto Ryoma, who sounds and looks like none other than Yakuza series veteran Kiryu Kazuma. Many other colorful characters from the series make an appearance, as well, and portray various people from innkeepers to fellow samurai which give the game a very recognizable feel to it despite it taking place in an entirely different timeline.
This unique mix of characters also lets the game have some fun with its historical setting. Sure, Sakamoto is literally brushing shoulders and clashing swords with some important people who will influence the direction of the Japanese government during this tumultuous time, but he is also just a guy who wants to exact revenge on his father’s death and clear his name. The added glossary of historical terms give some context to your setting so even if you never studied Japanese history before or know the different between a daimyo or a bakufu, Ishin does its best to keep you informed.
Still, the plot of the game is a whirlwind of storylines. Each chapter gets Sakamoto closer to finding out the truth but in order to do so he needs to infiltrate the Shinsengumi, a special police force with its own way of exacting justice, work with people he thought were out to get him, and still manage to complete his duties as captain of the division he is now responsible for while posing as someone else. The main plot gets confusing at times, and if you add to that all the side stories you will encounter, you get a get a game that offers you so much but can leave you wanting a mental break from time to time.
One of the reasons you can sometimes lose track of what you are doing is that Ishin often gives you a new side story to work on while you are completing a current one. Like previous Like a Legend games, you will often get interrupted on the street by someone asking for your help, and these cutscenes happen when you least expect them. From protecting a foreigner who wants to share his knowledge of western farming with Japan to taking a dirty cat to a bathhouse to get cleaned up—the range of quests varies from nondescript to comical. They may not all be winners, but they are all distracting if you are focused on finishing a story objective or if you are simply trying to get from point A to point B. Not only that, but sometimes you get a quest that is way over your current level and requires you to grind or upgrade your weapons if you want to even stand a chance of completing it.
Exploration is key to discovering everything the game has in store for you, whether you want to deal with getting interrupted midway or not. The city of Kyo (the former name of what is now known as Kyoto) is quite busy, and while it won’t compare to the glitzy glamour of Kamurocho in past games, it offers a distinctive charm that makes you want to visit every stall and check out every shop. Doing so will reward you with plenty of mini-games such as chicken races to real games of shogi against increasingly difficult opponents. There is something for you to get lost in when you want a break from the story, and yes—the shogunate did have karaoke bars back apparently.
Ishin not only features classic themes Like a Dragon is known for, but it also manages to mix in enough variety in its mini-games and side stories to give us a new way to enjoy all the action, brawls, and ridiculousness we have come to expect from the series.
Visually, Kyo looks amazing—especially at night when the city comes to life and paper lanterns illuminate its entertainment districts. Ishin looks just as good as more modern Like a Dragon titles, and cutscenes showcase its more realistic graphics and facial renderings. Despite it being entirely in Japanese, the game’s cast conveys enough passion and earnestness to make you feel their emotions even if you are spending much of the game reading subtitles and clicking through read-only conversations.
Way of the Samurai
Like any good samurai movie, there is plenty of fighting going on here, too, and Ishin gives you different four different fighting styles with which to punish your foes. During a brawl, you are free to swap to the style you want at any time, but there is a certain delay that prevents you from switching in between combos. Instead, you need to pick your style and commit to completing a string of combos before swapping out to a different one. Brawler lets you beat up your foes with your fists, gunman lets you shoot down enemies from a distance, and swordsman lets you perform deliberate blows and parries with your katana. Wild Dancer, on the other hand, leaves you open but mixes gun and sword techniques for more fluid attacks.
Each of these skills comes with its own set of combos and special Heat techniques that you can use the more you do damage—these range from kicking enemies while they are down to grabbing them and spinning them around to hit anyone in your path. The more you pick a style, the more experience you can gain to further unlock their respective skill trees for more attacks and skills. It’s great to experiment and find the right style for the right situation, but unlocking more devastating combos takes time and each style’s skill tree can take you some time to complete if you don’t focus on just one.
Later in the game you also encounter special cards you can equip that further augment your attacks. Some of these let you heal during battle while others let you unleash lightning bolts and perform other more devastating and comical attacks a regular samurai wouldn’t be able to pull off. It’s this mix of precise combos with some over-the-top moves that give Ishin’s combat system a fitting feel that rewards you for mastering its intricacies.
Most of your fights will be story-specific, but random battles just like the side stories you will encounter can come at you when you just want to be left alone sometimes. Bandits and ronin roam the side streets of Kyo so you will often run into thugs who want to challenge you even if you aren’t in the mood. You can do your best to avoid them or run past them, but they also can be distracting when you just want to sightsee for a change.
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Because there is so much to do in the game, Ishin is one of the most robust Like a Dragon games you can play. Sure, not every side story will be a winner and fighting your umpteenth brawl against thugs in the same alley can get repetitive at times, but because there is so much to do, you can easily move onto to another activity if you get bored and come back to it later on. Its main story will definitely keep you busy, but you may not even discover all those side stories or mini-games unless you make an effort to find them all.
Mixing history with a charming cast of thugs, Ishin is an impressive spin-off that manages to give you a game that you never would have thought of before until you actually play it and realize how it works so well. It not only features classic themes Like a Dragon is known for, but it also manages to mix in enough variety in its mini-games and side stories to give us a new way to enjoy all the action, brawls, and ridiculousness we have come to expect from the series.
Giancarlo Saldana | Gamepressure.com