It has taken almost 10 years, but Sega has finally brought “Like a Dragon: Ishin!” to U.S. shores. A spinoff of the series formerly known as “Yakuza,” it was a project that was far different from others in the series.
The most obvious difference was that it takes place in 19th-century Japan during the Bakumatsu. It was a fascinating era when two samurai factions clashed. One side defended the centuries-long reign of the military shogunate and the other sought a revolution and restoration of the emperor to power. Amid these two enormous forces, players take on the role of a man named Ryoma Sakamoto, who is searching for the man who assassinated his master Toyo Yoshida.
Ryoma was framed for his mentor’s murder and he fled authorities to find the real killer. His investigation leads him to Kyoto, where he goes undercover as a member of the Shinsengumi to search for leads. That faction is loyal to the shogunate and puts him at odds with his sworn brother Takechi Hanpeita, the leader of the loyalist forces trying to overthrow the military regime.
A TALE RICH IN JAPANESE HISTORY
It’s a complex story, one that runs deep in Japanese history. When it was first launched, that may have been a tough sell for a mainstream audience, but the “Like a Dragon” franchise has built a strong fanbase and samurai sagas have gotten more attention thanks to works such as “Ghost of Tsuhima.” There’s also the popularity of anime such as “Rurouni Kenshin” set a little after this period.
The tried and true gameplay of “Like a Dragon” blends seamlessly with this compelling historical fiction to create an engrossing epic. “Ishin!” basically takes the structure of “Yakuza 0” and adapts it to 19th-century Kyoto. Ryoma wanders streets and alleys getting into fights with ruffians, warriors and random thugs, aiding bullied townspeople in the process. Venturing the thoroughfares, he can regain his health by eating at restaurants or buying medicine from stores.
DIFFERENT FIGHTING STYLES
Players have four different fighting styles they can pick on the fly. Each has strengths and weaknesses, and they can be upgraded via skill tree over the course of the 40-plus-hour campaign. Swordsman has the best balance of defense and offense and is great for one-on-one encounters. Gunman is great for ranged combat as enemies run toward Ryoma. Brawler is great for dealing with crowds but offensively weak. Wild Dancer lets players use a gun and sword as Ryoma gracefully dodges and parries attacks, but all that balletic movement makes it harder to use.
In addition, players will eventually earn Trooper Cards in a process that add another layer of spice to the action-heavy combat. Players can assign different cards to each fighting style, and as they battle foes, a meter goes up that allows players to use special powers in the middle of a fracas.
Ryoma can send out bears and tigers to maul foes or toss out fireballs to knock out adversaries. Yes, it’s not historically accurate, but the series, for all its intense melodrama, has never taken itself seriously.
That’s evident in the Substories, which are the lifeblood of “Ishin!” For as good as the main story is, players will enjoy the sidequests just as much. At this point, the developers, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, has these down to a science.
While wandering around Kyoto, Ryoma will run into these tales, where he helps an old lady, gets involved in a courier business war or finds himself at an unusual brothel.
These adventures have varied goals and lead to fetch quests, foot races and unexpected brawls. These asides give players rewards that help them upgrade Ryoma’s gear or offer a currency called Virtue that lets Ryoma upgrade other aspects of the game such as sprinting distance or fishing expertise. The goodies make them worthwhile, but the short stories also add narrative texture to the campaign, so that “Ishin!” doesn’t seesaw from one epic moment to another.
BUILDING A VILLA
The last notable section to the campaign is the Villa that Ryoma purchases. This is an area where players can grow vegetables, cook dishes and sell both with the help of Haruka, a young girl he takes under his wing. He helps the orphan keep her family home by handling the farming and cuisine.
Like the Substories, players don’t have to spend too much time at the Villa, but it’s hard not to take a dive into the farming life. That’s especially true when a lot of sidequests dovetail into this part of “Ishin!” Vegetables and dishes players obtain become important in other Substories they come across.
It’s essentially a web of gameplay loops and narratives that make the campaign addictive to play even if players don’t advance the main story.
Despite the deep dive into Japanese history, “Ishin!” has a way of making the subject fun and compelling, so that the story Ryu Ga Gotoku conveys translates to any time period and any language.
‘Like a Dragon: Ishin!’
STARS: 3½ out of 4
PLATFORM: Xbox Series X and Series S, Xbox One, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, PC
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