How Like a Dragon: Ishin! Departs from the Yakuza You Know (and What Remains the Same)

Summary

The characters you know and love from the Yakuza series head (way) back in time, but series vets will quickly find their footing.Like a Dragon: Ishin! comes to Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S on February 21, 2023

The Yakuza series has never been one to sit still — players explore the vibrant, violent ’80s in Yakuza 0 all the way to the neon-hued present day in Yakuza Like a Dragon. While the series has consistently moved forward, the next (re-)release from Ryo Ga Gotoku Studios, Like a Dragon: Ishin! (heretofore shortened to “Ishin”), takes you back in time — by quite some margin — to the Japan of the 1860s.

The Bakumatsu era couldn’t be more different than flashy, modern day Kamurocho (the primary setting for most Yakuza/Judgement titles) — yet during a recent hands-on with the game, I found that for all that’s different, there is much in Ishin that a Yakuza vet will find familiar. Here’s what Ishin changes… and what it doesn’t:

Is that…?

There’s something very familiar about swordsman Sakamoto Ryoma. I didn’t recognize the name (though apparently, he was a real samurai), but the face is unmistakable. No, Kiryu, Majima, and other members of the Tojo clan didn’t hop into a DeLorean to play out their samurai fantasies — this is more of a “What…if?” situation where familiar faces and personalities are mapped onto a cast from different era of Japanese history.

This also means that everyone is back on the table: if you’ve enjoyed Yakuza 0 through Yakuza Like a Dragon, you’ll frequently be pointing at the screen, saying ‘is that ___?’  Even if said familiar face met their untimely end in a previous title — or you thought they were dead then it turns out they survived but then they die for real in a dramatic and meaningful scene (it happens in this universe!) — they may show up in Ishin under a new guise. Enjoy the deja vu!

Lights out

Taking place in the mid-19th century, you’d expect Ishin‘s setting of Kyo (as modern day Kyoto was known at the time) to have little in common with the bustling, brightly -lit Kamurocho of the Yakuza series. Despite vastly different architecture and technology, Ishin players will find Kyo to be similarly sized and, more importantly, just as densely packed with interactable locations as more familiar Yakuza locales. Ishin is very much an open world, replacing karaoke bars, hostess clubs, and beef bowl joints with blacksmiths, fish markets, and udon stalls. Despite the change of set dressing, many interactions are similar to the games taking place in modern-day Japan, as Ryoma builds up a rapport with various merchants and barkeeps. There’s even a (slightly anachronistic) Don Quijote for your shopping pleasure!

Act first, strategize later

If turn-based RPG Yakuza: Like a Dragon is the most recent (or only!) RGG title you’ve experienced, know that Ishin plays much more like the action-heavy Yakuza games as well as the recent Judgement titles. Even still, Ishin presents the largest departure we’ve yet seen from the action brawler; there’s significantly more emphasis on weapons, particularly swords — complete with crafting and upgrade elements — and a costarring role for firearms. While Yakuza games typically relegated guns to limited use, in Ishin you’ll immediately draw your katana and revolver at every provocation.

During my hands-on time, I gravitated to Ryoma’s Wild Dancer style, swinging a sword in wide, one-handed arcs and punctuating slashing combos with a revolver shot to good effect. Brawler fans are not left out, as Ryoma can holster and sheath his equipped weapons for a classic, unarmed scuffle. But why would you?

The swingin’ (18)60s

One of the hallmarks of the Yakuza franchise is how frequently it careens from intense drama to absurd moments; this probably shouldn’t work, but any fan will tell you that it absolutely does. So it’s a relief to see that Ishin keeps things weird, with Bakumatsu era mini-games and full-on sub-stories (the series; term for side quests) including chicken racing, cannons, highly infectious dance crazes, and all sorts of gambling and gaming. While karaoke may not have existed in the 1860s, make no mistake – there is absolutely a singing minigame, featuring voice actor Takaya Kuroda belting out period-specific tunes set to imagery of Ryoma violently ripping daikon radishes out of the garden. You… have to be there.

And indeed, you won’t have to wait much longer before you can be there. Like a Dragon: Ishin! comes to Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S February 21, 2023.

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