Like a Dragon Ishin review — 'just great’ is enough for Yakuza rebirth

By Lee Brady,

Like a Dragon Ishin ushers in a name change for the Yakuza series with its arrival on PS5 and PS4 — just in time for the series' most ambitious outing to date.

Like a Dragon Ishin trophies have arrived alongside a huge name change for a series that contains some of the best action RPGs on PS5 and PS4. But how does the new entry, which trades modern Tokyo for 1860s Kyoto, hold up next to the rest of the series? In this Like a Dragon Ishin review, we look at everything the game offers and reflect on what it's like to play this fascinating Yakuza spin-off.

This review was written and scored using the PS5 version of the game after 48 hours of gameplay.

Setting and Theme

IshinRyoma Sakamoto, your lead.

The opening cinematic of Like a Dragon Ishin, both in delivery and in dialogue, purposefully obfuscates the identity of our protagonist, and it does this for a few reasons. By far the biggest reason it does this is to introduce the game's main theme — the nature of identity, "what's in a name," and all that Shakespeare stuff.

A second reason is that, for fans of the Yakuza series, it might be a weird little surprise to hear that the guy we're playing as, a guy who looks a lot like regular series hero Kazuma Kiryu, is called Ryoma Sakamoto in this game for some reason. The third reason the game hides the hero's identity is because, should any Japanese history buffs be playing the game, the sight of a man named Sakamoto Ryoma wearing the iconic blue haori of the Shinsengumi is bound to get some audible gasps.

IshinWelcome to Kyo.

Like a Dragon Ishin is a game that takes all of the comedy and melodrama of the Yakuza series and uses it to tell the history of real-life political figures in 1860s Japan. While likely to go well over the average western player's head without a handy dose of Wikipedia articles to read along with, all you need to know is that two men — Sakamoto Ryoma and Saito Hajime — stood on opposite sides of a fight for the future of Japan.

So when Like a Dragon Ishin combines those two opposing figures into a single character and has him played by naive idealist and sentient scowl Kazuma Kiryu, you might start to grasp that the game's designers were perhaps more interested in exploring themes derived from a historical setting than anything factually accurate. At the end of the day, this might go entirely over your head though, as really the meat of the game is about fussing and fighting your way around in old-timey Japan.

The consistency of Like a Dragon's combat

IshinTime to fight.

Combat is without a doubt the most consistently good element of any Like a Dragon game, and Like a Dragon Ishin is no exception on that front. Even with a sword and a gun, Ishin’s combat manages to retain much of the arcade-brawling strengths of its predecessors. The flashy over-the-top charms and eminently masterable difficulty ensure that players new and returning are bound to have a good time fighting their way through Sakamoto Ryoma’s world.

That said, Like a Dragon Ishin can feel a little restrictive compared to later games in the series. You'll spend upwards of 60% of your time in Ishin engaged in combat, as almost every side activity will eventually burst into a brawl at some point or another, and simply walking from A to B will result in at least one fight with thugs. Spend enough time with the combat and you'll find holes big enough to poke a katana through, particularly if you've played recent Yakuza games. Ishin is a current-gen remaster of a 2014 Japan-only PS4 game and was built upon the bones of Yakuza 5, so returning players who enjoyed the faster-moving fights from Yakuza 6 or Yakuza Kiwami might tangibly feel the series taking a few steps back.

IshinRyoma repping the brand.

While swords and guns do seem like a significant change for the series at first, the gulf between each style’s approach means there’s far less overlap when engaging in fights, which makes changing strategies and fighting styles on-the-fly far less of an option. Eventually, you’ll find that most enemies are only dependably beatable with the block of your sword, forcing you to rely on the Swordsman style — the most balanced and least exciting of all the combat styles Sakamoto Ryoma has at his disposal.

It is also embarrassingly easy to break the combat in Like a Dragon Ishin, especially with the original game’s Trooper Cards being freely available outside the game’s Battle Dungeon mode this time around. Trooper Cards give Sakamoto Ryoma super moves that can be spammed at enemies incessantly or used to grant you fight-winning buffs. Pair these moves with one of the lesser elemental weapons and then all you have to do is hit your opponent a few times, watch as they burst into flames, wail on them with your superpowers as they writhe around on the ground, then rinse and repeat until the fight ends.

Sure, as with any good action RPG, you can simply not equip these game-breaking advantages — the advantages aren’t the actual problem, it’s the ease with which you can attain them. Play the game as the designers intended by investing bit by bit in its world and, before even a quarter of the game’s story or missions are finished, you’ll find yourself equipped with the weapon loadout that will carry you through to the final boss.

Minigames and Side Activities

IshinSega Bass Fishing. Alright, fine, it's not a bass.

Of course, one of the real draws for Yakuza players is, as always, all of the side content and minigames. The benefit of Like a Dragon Ishin's setting means that even if you've played one of the minigames in another Yakuza title, you're getting a chance to experience a stripped-back, 1860s Japan version of that minigame, which adds a lot more flavour than you might expect.

Suddenly, series staples like karaoke and dancing use classic Japanese instruments and drums rather than sweeping modern orchestras, and it does give the game its own distinct identity. Cooking at the local udon shop, fishing by the river bank, playing mahjong or the various gambling minigames — you'll find yourself inextricably drawn into these experiences and spending as much time there as you will wandering the streets of Kyo.

IshinKaraoke, as joyful as ever.

Of course, these can get in the way if you really have somewhere to be — the game is wonderfully effective at putting side missions where you help people out and various other diversions right in your path, ensuring you can never simply blast your way through the story with ease. It casts a wide net, hoping to draw you into something else so that you'll learn to breathe and truly invest yourself in this world.

Wacky characters and misanthropes toss their life problems at you, and if you're even remotely into roleplaying, you'll find it impossible to have this universe's Kazuma Kiryu ever simply turn down a person in need. Plus, the game incentivises these interactions effectively by employing a 'friendship meter,' which grows the more you spend time with characters, and 'virtue,' a sort of spiritual good guy energy that you spend on buffs and upgrades.

IshinHaruka, your farm buddy.

Trophy Tactics

When it comes to Like a Dragon Ishin trophies, everything that TT’s Sean Lawson wrote about the Yakuza series trophies back in September 2022 remains utterly true. You can leave no single stone unturned: beat the story, the minigames, the side games, the side stories, the little mundane activities, the bonus content, the bonus-bonus content — all of it.

What tactics can be used to earn this platinum sooner? Well, I recommend farming strawberries or ginseng as soon as possible to bump up your income, which you can trade for a few better weapons and armour that will make the fights a tiny bit easier. You can also complete the Battle Dungeon mode earlier for easier resources and better superpowers.

That’s really as good as I’ve got, this will just take hours upon hours to platinum no matter how you approach it. The best tactic is really just to lean into it all, let the game take you wherever it wants, and enjoy it like you would a change in lifestyle for 80-100 hours until the platinum pops and you realise you haven’t eaten real food in days.
After a while, I found it impossible to shake loose from these systems, even at times when I desperately wanted to plough on with the story a little. Tying it all together is 'Another Life' — a farm mode. Lord help me, I simply cannot say no to a farming simulator, especially if it gives me the Stardew Valley-like freedom to leave at any time, beat up thugs for a few hours, then come back to harvest some crops as a 'break.'

Eventually, you might even realise that the designers are trying to do something here with Like a Dragon Ishin's distractions — they want you to lose yourself in the problems of this world. They want your identity to become intertwined with Kazuma Kiryu, Sakamoto Ryoma, and Saito Hajime — it works to pull the game's narrative themes together better if you feel personally invested in this place.

IshinThe best side mission.

This would be an empty desire on the designer's part if they weren't so good at writing genuinely excellent side-stories, brimming with comedy and love. One mission might see Sakamoto Ryoma, stone-faced and earnest, playing the mom in a children’s game of house. Another story might remind you of a real-life person you met once who at first seemed cool, only to later turn out to be the most volatile alcohol drinker you’ve ever met.

You might even find yourself forming a pseudo-realistic emotional connection with an old lady character who needs you to run to the shop for her. You might start checking up on her every time you pass her house, even though you’ve already maxed out her friendship meter and, after that point, she digitally wants for nothing. Perhaps she won't feel somewhat real to you, but the fact it could get this kind of behaviour out of me is a singing endorsement of the simple brilliance of the writing on display here.

RPG distractions and narrative

YakuzaMeow.

Everything you do in Like a Dragon Ishin contributes to one of the game's various checklists, and if you're the kind of person (like me) who likes to just work away at these checklists, it can quickly turn overwhelming. You have main story quests, side quests, friendships, virtue quests, farming missions, Battle Dungeon missions, Battle Arena missions, and then just a full ledger of miscellaneous nonsense that will offer rewards for your character upon completion.

After so many hours of checklist-filling and mindless questing, your mind will likely start to go a little numb while playing Like a Dragon Ishin. Most quests start out with a good premise, quickly devolve into a tedious little combat segment, and then conclude with a paltry reward and a request to visit soon and finish the job properly. Do this enough times and you'll find yourself skipping dialogue just on the general vibe of the person you're talking to. Sometimes, if no impression is left at all, you'll find yourself walking around certain roads just to avoid side stories that didn't grab you in the first instance.

IshinYou're about to lose it.

In defence of the game's sheer amount of things to do, you probably wouldn’t be doing any of this at all if the impeccable humour and charm of the first thirty or forty side missions you take on didn’t leave a good impression. The writing in Like a Dragon Ishin is earnest, creative, and occasionally tooth-meltingly saccharine. There's a relatable quality here, though you're almost certain to lose sight of that quality the further into the game's checklists you dive, and you may find yourself wishing the designers had just shown just a touch more restraint.

The designers definitely intended much of this — there's a palpable theme of disconnect prevalent throughout the game that the barrage of misleading character names, ahistorical accounts of real events, farming minigames and over-the-top moments work to render real in the player's mind. The game writers and designers have an emotional truth about the world they wish to impart upon us, and to soften the blow, they need this game to feel as disconnected from sense and reality as possible.

IshinLike a Dragon Ishin stands strong.

The flip side of this approach is players are likely to feel completely alienated from the narrative now and then. Like a Dragon Ishin is, unfortunately, a little too good at distracting us, so players are very likely to lose track or just tune out of the main plot at regular intervals. That inability to follow the story is just par for the course with Yakuza games — it's just a shame when the ambition behind this one, particularly by the story's finale, is perhaps the most optimistic and pure the series has yet to offer.

Summary

While Like a Dragon's somewhat restrictive combat and sheer bulk are sure to wear on some player’s nerves, you also can't fully fault any of it. Like a Dragon Ishin’s madcap revisionism of real-life historical events pairs neatly with its disparate game modes and endless distractions, ultimately delivering a fascinating and great game that is remarkably pure, enduringly playable, and consistently hilarious.
8 / 10
* Lee played Like a Dragon Ishin! for nearly 50 hours on PS5 and earned about 48% of the trophies before reclaiming his life. TrueTrophies received a code for this game and some of its DLC courtesy of Sega.
Lee Brady
Written by Lee Brady
Staff Writer Lee keeps one eye on the future (Shadow x Sonic Generations), one eye on the past (PS Plus Premium games), and his secret third eye on junk he really likes (Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts games). Then he uses his big mouth to blurt out long-winded opinions about video games.
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