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I will confess to being moderately annoyed by the Like A Dragon thing.
It’s just pure dumb mental muscle memory, admittedly: I’ve been playing Sega’s Yakuza games (with some notable gaps, as the series made its way from the PS2 era onward) for a frankly stupid 18 years at this point, and referring to them by their old Western name—as opposed to Ryu Ga Gotoku/Like A Dragon, the original Japanese title—is just natural for me at this point. That, despite Sega announcing last year that it was adopting the Japanese name for all markets going forward. So be it.
Admittedly, the Yakuza name wouldn’t actually make any sense for the first game to be released in the series since that switchover was made: Next week’s Like A Dragon: Ishin!, which—despite featuring several organizations full of armed men running roughshod over regular people on the streets of a Japanese city—features very few actual yakuza members. (In fact, you spend a decent chunk of the game working as a sort of … freelance cop? Look, I’m not going to litigate the state’s monopoly on violent force here; I’m just saying you’re not really playing a yakuza guy.)
Ishin!—and the ! is included, like Jeopardy!, or I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!—is a remake of an earlier game, because it’s 2023, and every game is a remake of an earlier game. But at least this one is one you probably haven’t played before: Released on the PlayStation 3 back in 2014, the original Ishin! was kept to Japan, presumably on the basis that it’s premise was niche even by the standards of a series that prides itself on offering a ground-level view of many of Tokyo’s seediest and most neon-drenched neighborhoods. Which, again, not so much here, since the setting has been shunted back 150 years to 1860s Kyoto, and the player is dropped into the sandals of renegade samurai (and actual historical person) Sakamoto Ryoma.
The biggest storytelling gimmick of this new-old historical game will become apparent as soon as you get a look at Ryoma’s face, though, at least for fans of the series: He’s the spitting image of regular Yakuza protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, right down to retaining Kiryu’s usual voice actor, Takaya Kuroda, for his low-pitched, taciturn growls. And so it goes for almost every other character in Ishin!, all of whom have been, let’s say, “cast” with recognizable characters from throughout the Like A Dragon franchise, holding on to character designs, actors, and basic traits but all now existing in 1860s Japan. If you lack the context, you’re not going to feel deprived—the game is still written with an admirable clarity as it teases out its plot of backstabbings and betrayal in the Late Edo underworld—but series regulars will pick up a lot of characterization and inside jokes from seeing who’s been dropped into which roles. (Pro tip: Don’t put too much trust in the guy who spent the entirety of the original Yazkua betraying you at every turn!)
In terms of gameplay, Ishin! is similarly familiar fare: You wander the streets of the city, getting into fights with hordes of rampaging strangers, getting roped into the oddball problems of the city’s residents, and, almost inevitably, getting distracted by playing poker or betting on chicken races, or, if you’re an absolute degenerate, playing mahjong. And while the unique setting helps sell a new spin on some of these familiar stories or activities (including a few fun new ones), it’s also here that the game’s old-timey setting is the biggest detriment to the overall package: The drab dirt streets of Kyo simply can’t compare to the senses-assaulting splendor of the modern games’ Vegas-esque Kamurocho or Sotenbori, and its sprawl introduces a lot of unnecessary running, which combines with a demanding crafting system largely powered by random drops into something that can occasionally feel like a grind. (It feels significant that the original Ishin! came out before 2015 series highlight Yakuza 0, where Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio managed to sharpen many of the franchise’s various interlocking systems to a much finer point.)
At least the fighting’s fun: Despite the prominence of swords in the setting, combat in Ishin! is this series’ standard evolution of classic video game brawling. That includes four different stances (punching, stabbing, shooting, and stabbing and shooting) to switch between on the fly, each with their own progression systems, and enemies that mostly exist to get whaled on while occasionally getting a sneaky hit in. (Minus boss fights, which will take some genuine planning and skill.) The Like A Dragon games have never been especially precise or technical fighters—at least, I’ve never played them like that, which might explain why the bosses sometimes wreck shop on me—and Ishin! doesn’t break that mold. But it’s enjoyable enough that you won’t be too annoyed the dozenth or so time some overly optimistic street thugs decide to pick a fight with a man with a body count in the low 100s as he’s just trying to manage his cross-town commute.
And that’s a decent enough way to think of Ishin! overall: enjoyable enough. This isn’t exactly new Like A Dragon—it has none of the polish of 2020's Yakuza: Like A Dragon, or, presumably, next year’s Like A Dragon 8. (I swear, that numbering/naming convention makes sense if you’ve spent too many years slamming your head against it.) But it is a perfectly serviceable Like A Dragon game that you probably haven’t played at this point, and the story is both a) pretty entertaining in its own right and b) entirely non-dependent on you having 18 years of backstory under your belt. Which makes it easy to recommend, both to series fans, and to people looking for an oddball onboarding point for the franchise as a whole.