How do they do it?
The Yakuza studio delivers yet another fantastic story that alone is worth the entrance fee.
Like a Dragon, the Japanese role-playing series which until the superb Yakuza: Like a Dragon a few years ago turned things upside down, and renamed the series (in the West anyway) from Yakuza to Like a Dragon, is back.
With Like a Dragon: Ishin we get a new and updated version of the game that was previously called Yakuza: Ishin, and never saw a launch outside Japan. This game stands out quite strongly from other games in the series where it is not actually about the Yakuza in any way. Like a Dragon: Ishin is instead a game loosely based on Japanese history. We take the trip back to the middle of the 19th century, seen in a chaotic time on the eve of the Edo period, with political intrigues and struggle against oppressive forces.
In contrast to the other games in the Like a Dragon/Yakuza series, this game is based on real historical events. We take on the role of Sakamoto Ryoma “played” by Kazuma Kiryu, the main character in the Yakuza series before it was renamed Like a Dragon. Many other well-known characters from the series appear in new roles, and that makes the whole thing very whimsical, entertaining, and well-known, even if it is at the same time very different, and very, very entertaining.
Best in the business
Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio may not have the budget to produce something on the same level as God of War and The Last of Us, but if you want good stories, there are no better games on the market. It doesn’t matter how many of these games I play, and how potentially tired I would get of the same gameplay grind of running around big cities, beating up idiots on the road, playing around with dancing and karaoke and other nonsense, while I solve one bizarre side quest tangle after another.
The stories they spit out are like fine wine late in the evening after a long, hard day where all you want is to feel your body relax for just one and a half minutes. I get caught every time. The intensity of the whole thing, the small, subtle details that have so much to say, the muted shoe game where a slight twitch in the eye muscles is enough to say everything. These games are full of banal nonsense, but the stories are always dramatic, sometimes poignant, and bloody serious.
In Like a Dragon: Ishin, things start out fairly calm, but deception, intrigue, and conflicts quickly turn into a story about revenge. Ryoma must flee, take on a new name, and do a thorough job to find out who is behind the murder of someone close to him. He has almost nothing to go on but has fought the masked killer once, and that’s all he needs.
What follows is infiltration and a journey that goes deeper and deeper into a network that may not deserve daylight. This is a game with such a good story that it almost deserves one of those “I can’t play” difficulty levels so that everyone can enjoy the drama without necessarily being good at digital swordsmanship.
Challenging when it comes down to it
My one major gripe when it comes to Like a Dragon: Ishin is strictly speaking difficult. It is far too sadistic and makes it a bit difficult to really prepare for the big challenges. For the most part, the game is almost embarrassingly simple. As in other games in the series, you can’t go down many streets before you meet a small group of mobsters who imagine you looked at them strangely. There are many campaigns, but they are over quickly. The challenge is not there, and that makes it a bit difficult to fully find the opportunity to be really good before you suddenly end up in a situation where you really need to be really good.
The battle system offers action-packed real-time battles in a manner similar to the Yakuza games up to Yakuza: Like a Dragon, where you can choose between several styles. Ryoma can fight with four different styles, and you can switch between them in the middle of a match. Here, high responsiveness, timing, and the ability to read every tiny move the enemy makes are the keys to victory.
You can fight enemies with everything from just fists to swords, guns, or a combination of swords and guns. All forms of combat have their unique aspects and are more or less effective in different situations. Fighting with a sword is, for example, very effective in the face of a single enemy, while the combination of sword and gun is a wild dance tailored to pounding groups with several enemies.
All forms of combat can be developed and refined by placing spheres on a board that, purely visually, reminds a lot of the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X. You get spheres by being good at fighting, and the styles you use the most, you will also get the most spheres for. Sensibly enough, you do not only get balls color-coded for each style, but you also get neutral balls that you can use for the technique you want. Practical if you have ignored a technique and suddenly find out you should do something about it.
The battle system is a lot of fun. When you really start to master it, it quickly turns out to be an art form of its own to block, dance away from the enemies, and land blows where an opening presents itself.
A world full of bullshit
Playing Like a Dragon: Ishin and taking in history are two very different things. As usual for the series, you are taken to a larger city where you can move around freely. Here there are many shops, restaurants, and various other things you can spend your time on. If you want, you can waste money on chicken races, where you naturally have to put money on the chicken you think will reach the finish line first. Alternatively, try your hand at karaoke before karaoke was a thing, or learn to dance while the voice of a particularly virile man sings a cheerful song.
While walking along the street, you will constantly come across various things to do. They’re often silly, like the time a guy needs help figuring out who stole his mochi, or the teacher who needs help understanding a globe. Other stories are of a more empathetic nature, such as when the poor boy didn’t quite get to say a proper goodbye to his friend who was moving.
These great contrasts are an important ingredient in what makes these games so special. The developers fill their game worlds with life and excitement, seriousness and humor, and one is happy to be there. There is nothing quite like this, and while many try to create a bit of humor to play off the seriousness, few manage to do it as well as this.
The fact that this is a new version of an older game is nevertheless something to be noticed. There is a lot of back and forth, and it is easy to get a little tired of certain things. It’s nice to run around the city, but being attacked by bandits around every other corner is a bit tiring, and there’s a lot here that I really don’t see the point of. There are many mini-games and distractions here, but most of it is pure rubbish that you almost regret having spent a few minutes on.
At the same time, this formula has been used up and down back and forth for many years now, and it is perhaps time that the developers do something with it to breathe some new life into the circus.
“Sega and Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio spit out Yakuza/Like Dragon games at an impressive pace. If it’s not Yakuza, then it’s Like a Dragon, and if it’s not Like a Dragon, it’s Judgment. There is a certain risk of oversaturation because even though all these games have clear differences, they are nevertheless built on the same basis. It’s the same type of storytelling technique, it’s the same type of humor, and the worlds you get to travel to have the same structure.
The fact that we are not renting yet speaks volumes about the quality. Like a Dragon: Ishin offers a charismatic value full of both seriousness and humor. The absolute biggest draw is definitely the story, where the developers once again deliver drama and mystery that you can’t wait to enjoy more of. There are few game stories that interest me to such an extent that I’m disappointed when the cutscenes are over, but the Like a Dragon series makes it happen. Like a Dragon: Ishin is by no means an exception”.