In what feels like the blink of an eye, the Yakuza series has gone from somewhat obscure outside of Japan to one of the most beloved sagas in the medium, largely thanks to their earnest storytelling and ability to spin compelling mystery yarns. Years after playing it for the first time, moments from Yakuza 0 still reverberate in my mind, its climatic showdowns and tragic turns heavy with rich melodrama. While much of their appeal comes from their sense of style, these stories’ greatest strength is that underneath their maximalist aesthetics and affecting twists are heartfelt tales of brotherhood, self-sacrifice, and non-toxic masculinity.
Thanks to the franchise’s uptick in popularity, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio and Sega have decided to remake Like a Dragon: Ishin!, a 2014 historical spin-off that was initially only released in Japan. Despite being set in the 1860s instead of the present, and focusing on political upheaval over its usual crime family dynamics, in many ways Ishin! fits in neatly with the rest of the series. Its visual presentation is virtually identical, from its constant use of ostentatious camera angles to its tendency to introduce its major players with title cards. An even more obvious point of comparison is that almost every cast member shares a likeness and voice actor with figures from previous entries, with this story’s main character, Sakamoto Ryoma, evoking the visage and sultry tones of Yakuza protagonist Kiryu Kazuma. And more than looking and sounding alike, these people even behave similarly to their 21st-century counterparts.
While these many similarities are Ishin!’s main draw, and elements like its blood-pumping action sequences are a perfect match for its samurai flick stylings, its historical setting eventually clashes with the storytelling quirks of the series, resulting in a tale that feels less charmingly overblown and more deeply nonsensical. Its resemblance to what came before pays off when you’re playing it and exploring mid-19th century Kyoto, but its inability to escape its own tropes amidst real-life historical events leads to some uncomfortable simplifications and unsatisfying conclusions that make its story fly off the rails.
These gaffes extend from the fact that the narrative is technically a biopic, supposedly depicting the real-life figure Sakamoto Ryoma. The actual Ryoma lived during the Bakumatsu period and was instrumental in kicking off the Meiji Restoration, a paradigm shift within Japanese society where the Tokugawa shogunate ceded control of the government to the Emperor as the country partially broke down its caste system and moved towards industrialization, militarization, and nationalism. In the game’s rendition of events, Ryoma returns to his home of Tosa, only to be reminded of his deep distaste for the region’s strictly enforced class delineations. After reuniting with members of his adoptive family, who have formed the anti-shogunate Tosa Loyalist Party, he quickly finds himself embroiled in a plot that challenges the local government. However, after someone close to him is assassinated, he finds himself framed for the murder and on the run. After journeying to Kyo (modern-day Kyoto), he searches for clues about the killer and finds himself embroiled in an even larger conspiracy.
The proceedings almost entirely take place within this locale, and anyone privy to the structure of the Yakuza series will feel quite at home. Kyo is a densely packed space, its street corners filled with detours like storefronts, surprisingly engaging minigames, and chance encounters with plenty of loveable weirdos. One of the greatest appeals of these titles is the tonal contrast between their largely self-serious overarching narratives, full of betrayals and life-or-death stakes, and the comedic or saccharine digressions found in their many side-stories. Here you’ll help famous authors, uncover mochi thieves, translate love letters, and even help a few people face long-standing traumas. These sequences are frequently hilarious and charming in all the ways we’ve come to expect, their sincerity shining through. Similarly, the many minigames are amusing distractions thanks to their over-the-top presentation, as Ryoma sings, dances, and slices through cannonballs, with even mundane activities like woodchopping imbued with freneticism.
Similarly, when it comes to the scuffles with the many (and I repeat many) antagonistic ronin looking for a fight throughout the city, its aesthetics do a great deal of the heavy lifting. In duels, you can switch between four combat styles on the fly: Swordsman, where you use your katana to dish out slow and powerful strikes; Gunman, where you wield a revolver but forfeit defense; Wild Dancer, a speedy stance where you use your gun and sword in tandem; and Brawler, where you ineffectually utilize your fists. Aside from the last one, which is as unhelpful as it sounds, there is ample reason to switch between these on the fly, with Swordsman being potent against beefier foes, Wild Dancer letting you slice through swathes of weaker adversaries, and Gunman enabling mowing down small fry from a distance. While things can feel a little clunky at times due to the long recovery time on some moves, the sense of style always shines through. Heat actions, which you can use by building up a meter, let you carry out action movie heroics, and even after watching many of these sequences dozens of times, they never got old thanks to their elaborate choreography. It’s full of other great visual touches too, like how landing a strong attack to finish off an enemy results in a brief freeze-frame and dedicated sound effect, granting a dopamine rush whenever it lands.
Like most elements of its gameplay, there is a surprising amount of density to be found, with each fighting style sporting a winding skill tree with tons of new maneuvers and passive abilities. Admittedly, I wish these unlocked at a slightly faster rate, as even after playing for 50 hours, there were still some I didn’t have access to, but these upgrades granted additional flair and novelty. And on top of all this, there is a new mechanic called Trooper Cards, where you can enlist cronies who can heal you, provide buffs, or, uh, let you shoot laser beams out of your hands. These goons can be leveled up, combined, and recruited. Perhaps most important of all, unlike some of the previous installments (like Yakuza 3), I rarely found these fights frustrating or overly punishing. While in many other entries, I eventually ended up avoiding random brawls due to the monotony, in this case, I kept charging headlong into these battles so I could recruit more underlings, gain materials to help me upgrade my weapons and armor, level up my skills, and most of all, because these skirmishes were some dumb fun. Its combat may not feel as precise as what’s found in games like Devil May Cry or Bayonetta, but its progression systems and sense of style partially made up for this.
Although the entries in the Yakuza series are relatively similar, a significant part of their appeal is that they feel distinct from nearly everything else out there. While many of its rival franchises boast larger open worlds, these other games are frequently filled with activities that feel like working through a list of chores. By contrast, in Ishin!, and the series more broadly, we are presented with smaller but more densely packed vistas full of personality. Its side missions are memorable vignettes full of humor and warmth, and even run-of-the-mill inclusions like fishing are granted visual flair as Ryoma dramatically reels in each catch. Considering this experience is an up-scale of something released close to a decade ago, it is hardly revolutionary, but there is still a comfort food appeal in cracking open another largely well-executed entry in this series.
However, while its mechanics seamlessly make the jump to this historical setting, the same can’t be said about its storytelling practices. On its face, some of the overlap between Like a Dragon: Ishin! and its predecessors’ narrative tendencies are played to great effect. Initially, there is tantalizing intrigue as Ryoma’s quest to find an assassin leaves him undercover within the Shinsengumi, the organization that likely carried out the hit, transforming the proceedings into a compelling whodunit. This paramilitary organization is painted similarly to the Yakuza crime families in previous titles, full of despicable villains and occasional honorable figures who engage in power struggles for obfuscated ends. The camaraderie that forms between our do-gooder protagonist and his companions, as well as the cartoonish villainy of their foes, builds up towards the type of emotional swells we’ve come to expect from these games, and there are stretches where the narrative delivers on these soaring sentiments. For instance, those moments when the title card drops and the soundtrack kicks in as two fated foes exchange blows are still as breathlessly cool as ever. But while its sense of style and heart are still on display, the moral simplicity the series is known for is ill-suited for portraying the complexities of this historical era, resulting in a final arc that, at best, feels deeply goofy, and at worst, feels steeped in nationalistic rhetoric.
In attempting to mold its existing character archetypes onto complex historical figures, the entire undertaking feels like a thoroughly sanitized, folk-hero rendition of the past. The portrayal of Sakamoto Ryoma is likely the most egregious, and more than just being voiced by the same actor and looking the same as the main series’ protagonist Kiryu Kazuma, this version of Ryoma behaves almost identically to the virtuous ex-gangster. While the story attempts to explain the inconsistencies between Ryoma as he’s remembered in textbooks and what we witness here, and much of the plot centers around issues of stolen identity and historical misrepresentation, these circumstances eventually become difficult to buy into. Characters make increasingly bizarre decisions to toe the line between the series’ tropes and actual history, making it difficult to stay invested in their motivations during its final arc. However, on top of simply not congealing, the narrative’s failure to address the complexities of this period becomes increasingly frustrating, culminating in a final speech brimming with aggressively patriotic sentiment that flattens the ambiguities of this era.
The issue is less that anyone could mistakenly take away what happens here as true occurrences and more that it fails to reflect on how these events portray the birth of an Imperial Japan that would eventually go on to commit brutal acts. While it depicts how justifiable anxieties over a potential western invasion of the region led to this uptick in nationalism and pushes back on some of the xenophobia of the period, by simplifying the effects and aims of this movement and turning its political actors into morally righteous superheroes, it glorifies and glosses over events rather than diving into their nuances. I obviously didn’t expect “historical accuracy” from something tied to the spectacle of the Yakuza series. However, what’s found here has some uncomfortable undertones that feel more like national myth-making than something more critical, and its quirks are much more well-suited for its entirely fictional crime stories than for something set in this period.
Although much of Like a Dragon: Ishin!’s appeal extends from its connection to its predecessors, this cuts both ways. On the one hand, its rendition of Kyo is as idiosyncratic and engaging as ever, full of entertaining asides and endearing moments. Whether it was meeting the city’s inhabitants or dueling roaming ronin, I was taken by the familiar pleasures of these games. And despite some skepticism about how its historical period would be portrayed, the early turns of its story hooked me thanks to its marriage of murder-mystery, subterfuge, and deeply felt brotherly bonds. Unfortunately, these points of familiarity eventually proved incompatible with the kind of politically charged tale it was trying to tell. While most of my time with Ishin! was a delight, its closing hours are a mess due to its inability to reconcile the series’ naivety and optimism with the complexities of history, resulting in a sanitized portrayal of the past that is both bewildering and somewhat troubling.
Like a Dragon: Ishin! was developed by Ryo Ga Gotuku Studio and published by Sega. Our review is based on the PlayStation 5 version. It is also available for Xbox Series X|S, PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
Elijah Gonzalez is a former games intern for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing the latest indies and AAAs, he also loves film, anime, lit, and creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.