Like a Dragon: Ishin – Game Review

My wife and I order the same meal from the same restaurant every Friday.

We share an order of fajitas from our favorite Mexican restaurant. It’s part of our weekly ritual, where we get a special meal to cap off the week. It might sound repetitive – to get the same thing all the time without variation. And if we eat there on other nights, we often pick other dishes to try. But on Friday nights, we order exactly what we always get. We sit down and eat exactly what we want when we want. And it tastes fantastic every time.

For me, the Yakuza series is like having my favorite meal again and again. Sure, each game is new – brand new plots, side characters, subsystems, mini-games, you name it; there’s a lot of novelty in each game. This gives the different titles their unique feel, which is a good thing. But on the whole, the games are essentially the same experience every time. I knew the silhouette of the game before I played it. The shape of it is clear even if the particulars haven’t yet come into focus.

So Like a Dragon: Ishin! might be brand new, but in many ways, it is the same comfort food I have come to love as I’ve explored the various Ryu ga Gotoku titles over the years.

Are you a returning fan of the Yakuza titles and want to know if you should pick this up? I mean, yes, obviously. I don’t have to tell you anything else – I’m preaching to the choir. It’s what we already know and love, and you’ve probably had it pre-ordered for months anyway.

If you are new to the franchise and wondering if you should try out Ishin!, please read on.

Most Yakuza-curious gamers have a similar story. You’ve probably heard nothing but praise about the series, seen a bunch of funny memes, and can recognize Kiryu or Majima on sight as “those funny Yakuza guys.” You may even have titles like Yakuza 0 in your game library, having picked it up for dirty cheap during a sale with all the intent in the world to play and enjoy it. But then you see that there are so many titles in the series, and you hear people talk about how deep they go, and you start to think about all the other games in your backlog and wonder if you really have the time to get heavily invested in such a long series…

Well, have I got a title for you.

Like a Dragon: Ishin! is built on the same framework as most other Yakuza titles. Yakuza 0-6 all more or less run on the same engine, while Yakuza 7 (also subtitled Like a Dragon, if it’s confusing, don’t worry, it’s not just you – these are the joys of localization and renamed games…) charts a new course for the series. The most significant advantage for newcomers is that Ishin! is like the majority of its sister titles while being a standalone experience.

Ishin! checks most of the standard Yakuza boxes:

  • hybrid third-person action RPG,
  • dramatic overarching plot of trust, loyalty, and intrigue,
  • expansive gameplay opportunities with multiple activities, mini-games, and side stories,
  • countless side stories and well-develop NPCs with engaging personalities, and
  • a dense primary locale that is packed with verisimilitude.

While I don’t think it’s inaccurate to refer to Ishin! and the other Yakuza titles as “open world” games, that term doesn’t capture the feeling of playing these titles. Many open-world games go wide in their world design: they want you to feel like you can go to any point on the horizon and find something to do, with varied terrain and environments. It’s an admirable goal, and many great games exist in this space, but there are issues with the interest of those diverse locations.

Often the larger the environment, the greater the challenge in keeping those spaces exciting and meaningful. It often results in many box-checking activities like collecting arbitrary amounts of loot, climbing watchtowers over and over, and repeating the same raiding missions repeatedly. The amazing breadth often becomes a repetitive and shallow experience at each location with only minor variations. The expansive landscape often fades away as the player fast travels past the vast empty miles to hop to the next quest and get on with the action.

Ryu ga Gotoku’s titles, like Ishin!, take a markedly different tack: depth over breadth. Ishin! is set primarily in Kyo for the majority of the game. A single city! You could walk the entire length in a few minutes if you counted the steps. Compared to most other open-world games, it’s a shockingly small patch of land. But not one bit of space goes unused. The streets have names. The shop owners have personalities. You can strike up conversations with all sorts of people and build bonds with everyone from up-and-coming sumo wrestlers to hungry street cats.

Ishin’s immersive setting draws you in and keeps you invested every step of the way. The absence of super precise fast travel makes you walk the streets of Kyo and learn its alleyways and thoroughfares, the shop locations, and the places of interest. Much like living in a real-life location, your habits will come to the forefront as you begin to have favorite paths to get from point A to B, favorite restaurants to grab a quick bite, and favorite shops that sell what you like. You cannot help but fall into the rhythm of daily life alongside the other characters, and that immersion blurs the line between player and non-player characters, between the game being played and a life being lived.

The game itself is rewarding mechanically. Again, veterans will be familiar with the rhythms here, but Ishin! is similar to the pre-7 Yakuza titles. You have three fighting styles that you can switch between during combat, and each one has a skill tree (well, more of a skill spiral) with additional bonuses and specialized techniques to unlock. A point system called orbs is used to unlock techniques where you slot orbs to unlock particular abilities/bonuses. The orbs are earned by gaining experience while fighting with that particular style. For example, make some moves with your swordsman and brawler styles, and both will earn experience points to unlock swordsman orbs and brawler orbs, but those cannot be used on the other styles. There are also universal orbs called Training orbs that can be used on any style, which makes them handy, and you can even replace them with style-specific orbs and free them up for other uses later.

But random street brawls are by no means all you will be doing in Ishin!. In fact, as the game goes on, you will likely spend less time fighting thugs and more time fishing, singing, farming, playing shogi, and more. Ishin! carries on the Ryu ga Gotoku tradition of having an outrageous number of side activities to engage in. Some are merely for amusement; others have bonus funds, items, and more to help you in the main quest. The elegance here is that the side activities are not singular branches with shallow outcomes but rather form even more complex webs as they cycle back into one another in curious ways. The resulting feedback loops create a seamless and seemingly endless amount of activities to fill your time. Rhythm games, life management sims, roster military sim management, crop rotation for harvest yields – the list goes on and on. And trust me, at some point, you will find at least one mini-game that hooks you and just begs you to be completed in full.

Thankfully there are rewards for all these other activities in the form of Virtue. These are the non-combat experience points for character progression. Virtue represents your place in the community and can be earned in various ways. Eat a meal? Earn Virtue. Hit a major story milestone? Earn Virtue. Help people solve their problems? Earn Virtue. Pray at a local shrine? Earn Virtue. Go fishing a bunch of times? Earn Virtue. The game rewards you with a steady stream of small, medium, and large Virtue benefits from all sorts of activities, which can be spent at larger shrines to expand your gameplay in various non-combat benefits. These include larger inventory space, access to better fishing rods, a bigger doghouse for your dog, or all sorts of things. The critical takeaway is that you are rewarded for interacting with the world both in the frequency you repeat specific tasks and the variety of tasks you engage with. The more you invest in the world, the more you invest in yourself. It’s a satisfying progression loop intimately tied to the game’s core themes.

Speaking of themes, the story is the usual top-quality work from Ryu ga Gotoku. The overarching main plot is full of the same great drama their other titles have. It’s a semi-romanticized world of complex choices among gritty individuals with much to lose. Much like the other Yakuza titles, Ishin’s world of ronin, rebels, Shinsengumi, and politics relies on three key rules:

  • certain powers must be respected,
  • certain rituals must be maintained, and
  • certain lines must never be crossed.

The story’s tension comes from what happens when one of these rules is broken and what is to be done about the offending party. And despite Ryoma’s relatively simple objective of avenging a murder, he is caught up in the increasingly complex drama and tangled webs of the world as he pursues the killer.

Ryoma is an interesting character as the lead. On the one hand, he is portrayed by Takaya Kuroda – the same actor as Yakuza’s lead character Kazuma Kiryu. Ryoma more than merely looks like Kiryu; he also has many of the same traits: strong without being cruel, stoic without being cold, and caring without being foolish. While obviously, the two are not identical, they share a host of similarities and perform similar roles in their narratives. Many other long-time Yakuza alumni appear, such as Okita Soji, who bears a striking resemblance to Goro Majima and shares many personality traits.

The ties are surface-level; no prior knowledge of the Yakuza games is required. It’s more watching your favorite cast do a period piece together, a hypothetical alternate universe where they were born in another time, or echoes of past lives resonating to today. The key is that the games rhyme visually and thematically. In this way, it serves as a sampler for newcomers to the franchise, a way to try a single game before you buy into the longer-running series. In fact, the game might be more startling to long-time fans than newcomers due to prior game knowledge; mentally, I was like, “Look, Ryoma, pretend all you want, but we both know you’re just Kiryu,” and then Ryoma goes and has two entire fighting styles that involve using a gun to just blast people away. In those opening fights, I was practically clutching my pearls in shock – new players will likely have no such qualms.

Despite all the positives, Ishin! certainly has its challenges. These are slow, methodical games by design, and while I enjoy their pacing, it’s not exactly a secret that they are demanding. Even just playing “purely” the primary story mode, the average chapter will take anywhere from 1.5 to 3 hours to complete, often involving a lot of cutscenes and dialogue. It’s all incredibly well-acted and superbly written, but it demands your full attention. You can’t just turn your brain off and pick up the story purely off vibes alone. These also necessitate substantial time being set aside for playing sessions. Despite my barely contained excitement when writing this review, there were days I just couldn’t log in any time because I didn’t have the time to dedicate to making major accomplishments in the story… so I just didn’t play at all because I knew I needed to set aside a more substantial block of time to get the satisfaction out of the game that I wanted.

Even as someone who adores these games, I found myself wanting to just knock something out real quick, only to discover roadblocks to a quick game session. Trying to walk across town will get you bombarded with random encounters, side stories, random everything. Even being introduced to a side story will involve a dozen or more dialogue screens to get through before you are even prompted with whether you want to pursue that particular lead now or at a later time. This is purposeful, of course – nothing is easy, nothing is quick, and your involvement in these people’s lives is an ongoing process of rooting Ryoma and the player in the location.

These aren’t side quests for XP; these are people’s lives. These aren’t boxes to be checked for an achievement; these are people’s lives. And much like in real life, sometimes you get caught up in unskippable, awkward conversations while you are going about your day. Still, the urge is there sometimes to just power through a sequence and get on to the next thing, and the game simply says “no!” which can be a turnoff when you already have a task you are invested in and want to complete. It can be hard to eat the meal you enjoy when the waiter interrupts you to bring more plates every two minutes.

There is also the technical side of things. The build I was playing on is likely a few patches away from being the day one release, so some glitches were to be expected. Sometimes characters’ walk paths would interact in strange ways, and character models would shift to unnatural angles. Or weird little quirks would happen where, say, a group of ruffians was going to jump me, but if I interacted with a random item pot on the side of the road, it would erase the approaching gang from existence. These are to be expected, especially in a game of so many dense interactions, but they were undoubtedly immersion-breaking.

The visuals are another area that could be controversial. For myself, the game’s look didn’t make me bat an eye – this is a remake of an older release, after all. But the original game was a launch title for the PS4 that was also available on PS3, and it, uh… well, looks like a launch title for the PS4 that was also playable on the PS3. The cutscenes are certainly high quality, but the in-game assets are from another era. If you buy this on PS5 expecting a next-gen visual feast, you might want to temper those expectations.

The character models are the most apparent letdown in this regard. Your core cast members like Ryoma are pretty high-quality, but many side characters such as NPCs or random encounter enemies have noticeably less detail. I wouldn’t say that they look bad on their own – they look like PS3-era character models – but when they are carrying on a conversation with Ryoma, it can be such a stark comparison that you are taken out of the narrative. At times it felt like Ryoma was talking to a cardboard cutout rather than another person like they were less fully realized characters because they were not as meticulously rendered. The contrast is hard to miss, especially as these conversations can go on for quite a while, and it is difficult to accept that these characters exist in the same world, visually speaking.

The setting itself also has its drawbacks in terms of muting the experience. It is perhaps unfair to compare Kyo to Kamurocho (the primary setting of the Yakuza games) because there is a vast time difference, obviously. But it’s impossible not to compare Kamurocho’s vibrant lights and stark day/night contrasts with Kyo’s more muted earth tones (though it also has a vivid look at night). It’s impressive how many new, original assets were used to bring Kyo to life. But it does not grab me quite the same way Kamurocho does.

Similarly, the side stories create an interesting contrast here compared to the rest of the series. Generally, the mainline Ryu ga Gotoku titles have grave main plots buoyed by side stories that run the gamut emotionally. Sure, some side stories are serious, but there are just as many silly and outright wacky side stories. It creates a wide tonal range and contributes to some of Yakuza’s online reputation, but that is part of the charm. Seeing Kiryu get into ever more outlandish situations despite being wrapped up amid these tense crime dramas is where the magic happens. You get the grim cruelty right alongside the absurd zaniness, a juxtaposition that feels at once alien and all too relatable in our modern lives.

Ishin! takes a slightly more muted approach with the side stories. They have range, too – there are serious stories, funny side characters, heartwarming moments, and the same beats you would expect. But there seems to be a resistance to going quite as fully into the absurd as the other Yakuza titles do, almost like they are pulling their punches with the wackiness. I understand the hesitation as this is meant to be more of a historical drama, and this is likely a conscious effort not to make light of these actual events (however dramatized they may be). I can’t fault the decision to hold back – and maybe some new players might find the lack of outright honk-honk memery to be a welcome change. But I will say that I missed some of the more outrageous moments I would often encounter in other games. It’s sort of like the difference between dipping a warm french fry in ice cream versus dipping it in water – sure, there is a similar effect, and perhaps the extremes were excessive before, but the extreme difference was part of the appeal.

Overall though, these are very minor complaints. Work of this scope will have flaws or odd technical issues here and there. Like a Dragon: Ishin is much like all the other Ryu ga Gotoku titles: a game comprised of many excellent components that still manage to be more than the sum of its parts. For long-time fans, it provides yet another way to experience a franchise that we love in the style we have come to adore. It is the highest quality comfort food. For newcomers, it provides an excellent way to experience what the franchise offers without needing prior knowledge or feeling like you are on the hook to “have” to play eight full games to get the complete experience.

I highly recommend that everyone – especially the Yakuza-curious – give Like a Dragon: Ishin a try. If you get a taste, you’ll find out why we order our favorite meal every week without complaint.

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