Like A Samurai

HIGH Saigo Kichinosuke’s meeting with a small dog.

LOW The combat takes just a touch too long to get going.

WTF One of the final bosses was born around the corner from me.

Like a Dragon: Ishin takes place in the mid-19th century during a turbulent time in Japanese history. The way of the Samurai and the Shogunate are nearing their end, and the Western world is knocking on the gates of Japan very, very loudly. The threat of civil war looms, social inequity permeates every aspect of life, and only a historical hero blessed with the face of Kiryu Kazuma can pull everything back from the brink by the edge of his sword.

That’s right — Like a Dragon: Ishin has finally been translated and released in the West. Hooray!

Following the exploits of Sakamoto Ryoma as he tries to uncover the murder of his adoptive father, his journey will take him on a complex tale of political backstabbing, brotherhood, countless violent confrontations, serving udon to hungry customers and more. The name may have changed to better reflect its Japanese title, but Like a Dragon: Ishin is still what we know as a Yakuza game through and through.

With little information to go on regarding his father’s killer other than the rare style of swordsmanship used in his assassination, Ryoma heads to Kyo(to), changes his name to Saito Hajime and joins up with a brutally efficient special police force known as the Shinsengumi in the hopes of crossing swords and unmasking the culprit. It’s a longshot, to be sure, but that’s how these things go.

As an accomplished swordsman from the start, Ryoma has access to four distinct fighting styles to switch between on the fly, from an unarmed stance focused on parrying and a well-rounded swordsman posture to mowing unarmored enemies down at range with an infinitely reloading revolver, or just going all in and dual wielding a katana/gun combo while pirouetting around the battlefield like a gymnast in the Wild Dancer style. None of these styles make the others obsolete, so frequently swapping around to suit the situation is encouraged.

The third-person realtime combat initially seems a little flat compared to the head-cracking violence of Kiryu’s Yakuza adventures, especially as Ryoma’s sword slashes and gunshots have a surprisingly limited effect on his enemies, but once the player unlocks additional moves and ‘Heat’ options (Like a Dragon‘s name for spectacularly violent special moves with a cinematic flair) both the spectacle and the quality of the combat ramp up considerably. It may not be the tightest or most finely-tuned action out there, but flipping an enemy into the air and unloading a revolver into them before they hit the floor satisfies every single time.

Less successful is the introduction of Ishin‘s ‘troop’ mechanic. As a Captain in the Shinsengumi, Ryoma can recruit underlings to permanently help out in battle. These underlings don’t actually have a physical presence, instead being reduced to cards which confer bonuses and special effects when activated. While they don’t detract from the overall experience, they don’t add much to it either, aside from an irritatingly large portion of the screen being filled with their portraits during battle.

Another interesting feature is the re-purposed characters from the main series such as Goro Majima and Koichi Adachi. While we’re already acquainted with characters and how they act from previous titles and they generally slot into thematically similar positions here, there are certainly exceptions in how they may be expected play their roles in Ishin. Previously friendly folk might be a little more conniving this time around, and sworn enemies of Kiryu may be more sympathetic to Ryoma. It’s not an epic subversion of expectations based on who we formerly knew these people as, but it’s enough to prevent players from knowing exactly what a character’s role is upon first encountering them.

The Yakuza series has always been exceptional at providing non-Japanese players with a bit of virtual tourism in the way it whisks them into modern-day Japan, and Ishin goes one step further by transporting them into a different age entirely. It’s frequently beautiful to behold, with the only downside being a few too many 90-degree angles in the architecture and brief texture pop-in as a result of switching from the Dragon Engine to Unreal. On the whole, though, it’s a visual feast that historians and fans of Japan alike are guaranteed to appreciate. Standing on the Kyo bridge at night and staring off into the darkness is a thing of beauty.

This sense of place is further bolstered by Ishin offering a wide variety of side content for players to while away the hours in. One of the most substantial is a homestead simulator where Ryoma has to help pay off the debts of a familiar looking orphan in order to prevent her from losing her home. This opens up a variety of new ways to make money or create powerful items via farming, cooking, adopting pets, upgrading facilities, selling produce at market and even more. Unsurprisingly, Ryoma’s search for his father’s killer screeched to a sudden and immediate halt once these features unlocked for me.

In the end, Like a Dragon: Ishin is yet another strong entry in an exceptionally strong series, finally having been translated into English and lovingly reworked for the current generation almost a decade after its initial release. The combat’s showing its age around the edges and there are other minor quibbles to be sure, but this is still a trip to the past that’s well worth taking.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Ryu ga Gotoku Studio and published by Sega. It is currently available on XBO/X/S, PS4/5 and  PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the XBX. Approximately 45 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains Blood, Strong Language, Suggestive Themes, Use of Alcohol and Violence.  The official description reads: This is an action-adventure game in which players assume the role of a man (Sakamoto Ryoma) searching for his father’s killer in Edo-era Japan. Players explore open-world environments, interact with characters, infiltrate gangs, and engage in frenetic combat with rivals/enemies. Characters mostly use swords and pistols to slash and shoot each other; some sequences prompt players to box/punch their way through fights. Combat is highlighted by gunfire, screams of pain, and large blood-splatter effects. Some cutscenes depict slow-motion effects as characters are stabbed. The game contains suggestive material: a mini-game depicting Sakamoto in his underwear shooting a heart as moaning sounds are heard; a mini-game depicting videos of female figures posing suggestively (e.g., stroking a pipe); close-up camera angles of cleavage. Players’ character can engage in a drinking game, attempting to keep Sakamoto’s hands steady while consuming sake. The words “f**k” and “sh*t” appear in the game.

Colorblind Modes: Colorblind modes are present.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game offers subtitles. The subtitles can be altered and/ or resized. From what I can tell, the entire game is completely playable without audio, with plenty of visual indicators onscreen to support any audio based effects. Furthermore, there’s a commendably wide range of accessibility options on offer. I’d say this one is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: Certain functions are remappable. Movement’s going to remain confined to the stick, but buttons can be swapped around.

Darren Forman
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