It’s 1867, and the streets of a dusty Japanese town are buzzing with activity. Merchants, standing beside their carts and stores, call out to passers-by as they stroll along, while bandits line the back alleys in wait to ambush innocent villagers. Sometimes, the occasional stray animal roams around, but one particular presence stands strongly among the sea of characters: the lone katana-wielding Shinesengumi warrior, Sakamoto Ryoma.
Armed with sharp, stoic features and a grim expression, the samurai cuts an intimidating figure and is an imposing sight – until he helps out the locals, that is. Gone is the menace that mows down, slices, and pummels his enemies, morphing into a reluctant hero in the face of helpless individuals, who among others, asks for his help in… identifying two mochi thieves.
It’s the type of scene that has become characteristic of the long-running and popular Yakuza series of action/adventure role-play games, which was recently renamed Like a Dragon, to mirror the English translation of its studio, Ryu Ga Gotoku. Instead of the neon-painted setting of Kamurocho, Like a Dragon: Ishin! transports players back to the Bakumatsu era, swapping out modern-day automatic weapons and suits for katanas and kimonos.
At the core of it, however, the game still retains much of the Yakuza DNA. During a 40-minute gameplay preview at Thailand Game Show 2022, there seems to be the general sense that it’s building up to be a faithful and more polished counterpart of the original, which was released in 2014 as a Yakuza spin-off of the same name.
Indeed, this remake revisits many familiar elements and experiences. A considerable chunk of the time is dedicated to playing various mini-games, wandering through alleys, beating up hostile forces, and taking on side quests. There are no arcade machines here, but you can pick up shogi, poker, or fishing when you’re not going around looking for trouble.
While the preview playthrough didn’t cover any of these activities, it saw Ryoma solving a “heinous crime” – in the quest-giver’s words – involving the theft of a daifuku mochi. It’s exactly the kind of bizarre, nonsensical humour that one would expect from a Yakuza spin-off, with this endearing charm carrying over to the culprit-identifying process.
After interrogating a group of five suspects and gathering clues from their statements, you’ll have to point out the two perpetrators, and the warrior does so with an over-the-top, exaggerated gesture. Ah, never change, Yakuza humour.
Much of the overarching story and exploration takes place in the Day Mode, which is the main reason for the shift to Unreal Engine 4 with this entry. When the sun sets, it’s time for the Shinsengumi to get down to serious business, such as putting a stop to “Izu the Butcher,” a deadly fighter capable of defeating two captains with little effort.
Like its original counterpart and the Yakuza series, Like a Dragon: Ishin! doesn’t shy away from violence here, honouring instead its blood-soaked tradition that’s rooted in actual Japanese history. Katanas are always dripping with blood, while wounded enemies often paint the streets with splashes of crimson.
The revamped visuals mean that all the bloodshed now appears to be more realistic, and it’s a welcome upgrade that extends beyond combat. Narrative sequences have never looked better, with details like shadows, facial cues, texture designs, and surface lighting coming through cleanly. As expected, the voice-acting continues to be excellent, and fans should recognise Kuroda Takaya, the voiceover talent for Yakuza protagonist Kiryu Kazuma, as Ryoma.
In contrast, the hack-and-slash action could do with a little more refinement. Combat does feel more fluid and slick, but it can also be a bit stiff and clumsy at times – an experience that’s exacerbated by the lack of a target lock feature. While that shouldn’t be a major issue for the most part, it can be frustrating when your special attacks end up hitting air, especially during boss fights.
These abilities make up part of the brawler-style combat that Like a Dragon: Ishin! has brought over from the previous entries. The main goal here is not just to defeat foes, but to best them as stylishly as you can by chaining slashing, punching, and shooting combos. There are four styles to switch between: sword and gun, sword, gun, and fists, with each of them coming in handy for different scenarios. The katana, for instance, deals the most damage, but is bogged down by its slow swing speed, whereas the sword and gun is fast yet doesn’t hit that heavy.
Once the gauge is filled up, Ryoma will be able to unleash special abilities that can range from a powerful Kamehameha-esque energy attack to self-healing. There will also be QTE (a quick time event) activation during boss battles, so don’t be too eager or absorbed in chain-pressing the buttons.
Despite the short preview session, Like a Dragon: Ishin! made for an enjoyable affair, and continues to be a charmer with its seamless transition from serious to lighthearted moments, beautiful visual upgrades, and the familiar nostalgia of the Yakuza touch. The game appears to be a step in the right direction, with its heart in the right place to hopefully conjure up a memorable, delightful dice-and-slice affair yet again.
Like a Dragon: Ishin! is due to arrive on 23 February 2023 on PS5, PC, and Xbox Series X|S.