Like A Dragon: Ishin is either the first Like a Dragon game in the West or the latest in a long line of a major franchises, depending on your view of the naming convention. This was created by RGG Studio and they are well known for their “Yakuza” series, though that series is now named “Like a Dragon” which is a direct translation of the original series title, Ryu Ga Gotoku.
However, Like A Dragon: Ishin, or Ishin as I’ll call it for brevity’s sake, is a stand-alone title, for the most part. However, the connection to the entire Like A Dragon Franchise is important. While this is a fresh new story in a new time period with new characters, every major character in Like A Dragon: Ishin uses a similar face to the rest of the Like A Dragon Series.
This might be the most important part of the game because for some it’s a little too on the nose, and for others, this is pure fan service, which is what fans of the series might enjoy. Many characters who no longer are part of the larger franchise, appear once more in Ishin, and in many ways, this works.
Seeing some of the great heroes’ and villains’ faces tell a new story is entertaining, however, there’s a bit of an uncanny valley for many of the characters. It was often that I could tell that certain characters were people I knew, but sadly with a change in hairstyle and clothes it was hard to place them, again this is something some players may love, and some players may hate, and this time around it bothered me just enough that I feel like I should mention it.
The one big negative though with this is that every character plays to type, meaning if the character is a villain in Like a Dragon as a whole, they’ll typically be a villain here, the same with the heroes. While every character is different, it’s a shame that there wasn’t more of a mix between the heroes and villains of this story.
That being said, the story told here is rather solid. The game focuses on “Kiryu Kazuma”’s character Sakamoto Ryoma who is based on a rather famous historical character. After a tumultuous first chapter (This is a Like a Dragon game after all), Sakamoto Ryoma adopts the name Saito Hajime.
Rurouni Kenshin fans will instantly perk up because that’s also a name of a major villain there, and sure enough both Ishin and Kenshin have characters based on the same historical character.
The basis of most of Ishin’s story is rooted in historical facts. Saito Hajime eventually joins the Shinsengumi, which is run by Kondo Isami, he’s befriended by Okita Soji (played by the same face as Majima Goro), and they are defending the Bakufu (shogunate). This and much more of this story is based on historical fact.
However Saito Hajime and Sakamoto Ryoma are not the same people, and a majority of the story is fictionalized, this is historical fiction, but similar to Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Like A Dragon: Ishin will make players more interested in the time period and the real characters behind this story. Though Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a little more historically accurate, both of these are entertaining for the fictionalized accounts.
The story in Ishin is mostly well-paced. There is at least one chapter that just seems to have a minor reason for existing and the final chapter seems to load multiple unnecessary diversions for time, but overall, if players enjoy the typical Like a Dragon style, born from Yakuza movies, Ishin will feel right at home even if it’s based on the Samurai and the Bakumatsu time period (essentially the time period after the Black ships have arrived in Japan to “open up the country”).
Sadly what is supposed to be the biggest twist in the story is given away almost immediately especially if players are familiar with Like A Dragon’s flow, but overall the story is well told and still will hold many surprises for fans of the series.
Though the story is only one of the major features of this franchise. The combat will be where players are spending most of the time and in that Ishin is a little unstable. The main draw of Ishin is to return to the Samurai time period, and that may make people think of a lot of sword fighting, but within the Bakumatsu time period, guns have entered into the mix. The good news is Sakamoto Ryoma can use both, as well as combine them and use a bare-handed style as well.
That means there are four different fighting styles in the game, and each one feels different enough to be worth including. Even the combination of sword and gun feels unique to both. Bare-handed brawling against sword-wielding goons sounds dangerous, but there is an enhanced amount of defensive parry ability that helps offer a higher risk-reward structure in theory.
In practice, however, Ishin boils down to two styles. The sword is so powerful almost no other style is necessary, and there are only a few moments when the range is required. The guns on the other hand can stun-lock large groups of enemies to the point where if players want to they can just rain fire down on enemies.
Ishin tries to balance this with enemies who have armor, which does weaken the gun’s power but just requires players to switch to the basic sword mode. Bare-handed and the combined sword and gun style have neither the power nor the utility to be necessary and even though I tried my hardest to use the Barehanded mode, it’s a foolish move that will only make the game harder.
Add in the fact that equipment exists in this universe and players will be able to get better guns and swords, and the focused styles also will provide more of the bonuses of either, there are only two of the four styles worth spending time with.
This isn’t a negative per se, as long as you’re a player who is willing to accept that there are styles of fighting that have no purpose, but it’s a shame that the developer couldn’t balance the four styles to be more useful.
As for the rest of Ishin, it has all the typical drapings of a Like a Dragon title. Outlandish side stories, interesting characters, unique moments, a wonderful self-contained map, and a memorable location. Mini-games return and with new additions added players will have everything from the classic Karaoke, mahjong, shogi, and casino games, to chicken racing and a Geisha set of mini-games that feels just explicit enough to make someone blush.
But this is ultimately what a LIke a Dragon title is, which is also how Like a Dragon: Ishin has been sold. Ishin was intended to tell a different story, and provide an odd form of fan service in that many characters already in the universe could return for one more game. At times it feels almost like a play, with characters playing similar characters to their originals but telling a different story, but that’s also what makes this charming, it’s a chance to see new pairings, but also one more chance to fight Ryuji Goda, a chance to see an alternate history for Majima Goro, a chance for Kiryu Kazuma to hang out with friends once more and fight against a secret cabal once more.
And in that, Like a Dragon Ishin succeeds. It also succeeds in one other way. As amazing as the Like a Dragon franchise is, many characters feel so well developed it’s hard for them to surprise characters once again, and Ishin allows a way to tell a new fresh story using characters fans are already quite familiar with. Ishin is a breath of fresh air in that it can show there’s still a lot of life left in the Like a Dragon formula, even if it isn’t in a typical Like a Dragon game.
That’s perhaps Like a Dragon: Ishin’s strongest point, it’s the perfect game for someone who has played the entire franchise and wants to play a similar game, but not another of the main series entries. And you know, I’m really happy to have played through this entire game and go another wonderful story out of it.
I would recommend players new to the franchise start with Yakuza 0 and then play through the entire Like a Dragon franchise (Kiwami, Kiwami 2, 3-6) but if players are already familiar with that franchise, or just want an interesting Samurai story, Ishin is amazing.
On the other hand, if players don’t enjoy the larger Like a Dragon franchise, I would recommend skipping Ishin, as it’s mostly going to be more of the same.
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