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Like a Dragon: Ishin! (PS5) review: A delightfully fun "samurai" game

By Captain Grover - 7 Mar 2023

Like a Dragon: Ishin! (PS5) review: A delightfully fun "samurai" game

Video games set in Japan’s samurai era have a special place in most gamers’ hearts, there is a certain charm about playing as a highly-skilled, katana-wielding warrior that makes these titles so appealing. In Sega’s most recent action-adventure title, Like a Dragon: Ishin!,you can do exactly that. And despite a few kinks in the system, this game has proved itself to be quite the charmer indeed.

Like a Dragon: Ishin! is a spinoff of Sega’s hugely popular Yakuza series, and while English-speaking fans may be seeing this title for the first time, Ishin is not a new game. It is a remake of a PS3 title of the same name that was given a Japan-only release back in 2014, when the Yakuza series was not as popular as it is today.

Once you delve into Ishin’s first few hours, it is not hard to understand why Sega was hesitant to release this game to a broader audience back then. While samurai-themed games have always been popular with non-Japanese audiences, Ishin’s characters and plot are based on real-life historical events that few gamers would be familiar with.

Like a Dragon: Ishin is set in the late 1880s, during the last days of Japan’s Edo period when the era of the samurai as sword-wielding fighters is nearing its end. Gamers take on the role of Sakamoto Ryoma, a low-ranked samurai who quickly finds himself embroiled in Japan’s power and political struggles, as the country teeters on the cusp of modernisation.

Within the first hour of the game, Ryoma loses his adoptive father to an assassination, is accused of the killing, and ends up on the run, taking on a false identity as Saito Hajime to avoid detection by his pursuers. With a new name and a single-minded quest to find his adoptive father’s killer, Ryoma soon finds himself involved with the Shinsengumi, a group that served as a special police force for Japan’s samurai-run Bakufu government at the time.

If the names Sakamoto Royma, Saito Hajime, and the Shinsengumi do not ring a bell, you are not alone. While these real-life historical characters have been popular cast members in many Japanese games, anime, and TV shows, few have been released to an English-speaking audience. The stories also require an in-depth understanding of Japan’s pre-modern history and political events to fully understand.

As a bit of a Japanese history neard (I did major in East Asian history in college after all), I was happy to play a game based on this very interesting and turbulent period of Japanese history. However, some other gamers I know, including a close friend and a cousin, found Ishin’s story hard to follow because of the many historical references used throughout the tale.

Don’t expect Ishin to be a history lesson either. Like many other games featuring Ryoma and members of the Shinsengumi, the game’s story features some real events but is otherwise highly fictionalised. For example, Sakamoto Ryoma and Saito Hajime are two very real and very different people – the part in Ishin where Ryoma takes on the name Saito Hajime as a false identity is completely made up.

Its story may be a little complicated for some gamers, but Ishin’s clear in-game instructions make it easy for players to keep up with the game's flow. Key events were always well-presented, with clear instructions on what Ryoma is expected to do to uncover the next part of the tale.

As a Yakuza series spinoff, Ishin also features many familiar faces in its cast of historical characters. Main man Sakamoto Royma, for example, bears the same face as Yakuza’s Kiryu Kazuma. Series favourite Majima Goro makes an “appearance” as Okita Soji, a Shinsengumi captain.

Fans of the Yakuza series would undoubtedly be happy to see some of their favourite characters in traditional Japanese garb. They would also be glad to know that many popular gameplay features from Yakuza have made it into Ishin. Chief among these is the open-world  gameplay, this time presented as recreations of the Tosa domain’s castle town and the pre-modern Japanese capital of Kyo (known as Kyoto today).

Rendered in beautiful 3D, these two open-world locations are some of the best virtual recreations of pre-modern Japan available right now. Both Tosa and Kyo are alive with plenty of shops and places of interest, bustling with townspeople going about their day, and packed with many activities to distract you from the main story.

I had plenty of fun having Ryoma explore Kyo and discovering all the different places to eat, buy supplies, forge and upgrade weapons, and even gamble on racing chickens. As the story progresses, Ryoma will also get access to his own home in the countryside just outside of Kyo. This is where players will get access to a few more mini-games, including a surprisingly in-depth farming sim and a cooking game that lets Ryoma whip up dishes that can be used as healing items.

The cooking and farming may sound rather domestic, but Ishin is, after all, a Yakuza-inspired title, and players can expect a brawl to be around every other corner as they navigate the game’s open world and its story. While the modern-day Yakuza titles are all about street fights and bare fists, the sword and gun take centre stage in Ishin.

Ishin’s combat system lets players choose from four different fighting styles – Brawler (no weapons), Swordsman, Gunman, and Wild Dancer (sword and gun). During certain in-game events or parts of the story, players may find themselves restricted to one or two fighting styles, but are usually free to choose whichever suits them best throughout most of the game.

Compared to the main Yakuza series titles, the combat system in Ishin feels more technical and in some ways, a little less fun. Even though players get four different combat styles to choose from, most fights will end up being fought using the Swordsman or Wild Dancer styles simply because they were the most practical in attack and defence.

One-on-one sword fights can sometimes be rather long-drawn events, with players having to do little more than keep blocking until they find an opening to attack to take a quick stab at the enemy, before quickly going back into a blocking stance, and the cycle repeats itself all over again.

While most fights in Ishin, especially the boss battles, still provided a generally satisfying experience, I would have preferred the fighting styles to be more balanced so that players could add more variation to the many brawls that Ryoma gets involved in. I also felt that, with swords and other weapons being such an integral part of Ishin’s combat system, the weapon forging and upgrading system was made available a little too late into the game for players to take full advantage of its features.

Despite these kinks, Ishin is lots of fun. Like all Yakuza series titles, the game is designed such that players can spend plenty of time pursuing side quests and mini-games for as long as they like, before progressing in the story at their own pace. And this is exactly how Ishin should be played.

In all, Ishin is a delightfully fun game that offers a pretty immersive experience for those wanting to live the life of a samurai, complete with a decent story, and a plethora of mini-games and sub-quests to keep players entertained. Fans of the Yakuza series should definitely get this game – it’s has everything you love about the series, with more swords instead of guns. For everyone else: if you’re up for a good action-adventure title, or enjoy samurai-themed games, then Like a Dragon: Ishin! would be a great investment of your time.

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  • Playability 8
  • Graphics 8.5
  • Sound 7.5
  • Addictiveness 9
  • Value 9
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