The Yakuza series—now called Like a Dragon worldwide—is so thoroughly Japanese that it’s understandable why it struggled in the West for so long. Its emphasis on historical context created a high bar for entry for non-Japanese gamers. Despite that, this semi-open world action crime series is one of the few of its ilk to go beyond copying Rockstar Games’s homework and offer something unique and delightfully weird to all players.
So the real test for its reach outside Japan wasn’t if players would follow the series down the JRPG rabbit hole that Yakuza: Like a Dragon did by trading in its most commercially viable feature, its combat, for turn-based battles and Dragon Quest references. Rather, it was if those same players are ready for something like Ishin, an open-city samurai simulator so deeply steeped in turn-of-the-century Japanese history and politics that it comes with the same type of built-in, mid-dialogue encyclopedia entries as last year’s academically dense Pentiment.
Ishin stars a slew of familiar characters from the mainline Like a Dragon series doing a sort of metahistorical cosplay as very real figures from Japanese history. (Imagine if the characters from The West Wing were replaced with those from House of the Dragon and you have an idea of the metanarrative dissonance at work here.) The game, both then and now, throws names and titles and prefectures and legends and traditions at you with the fury of a Dostoyevsky novel, only begrudgingly cluing the player to what something means when it’s absolutely necessary.
Thankfully, the main through line of it all is easy enough to grasp. Ishin takes place at the end of the Edo period of Japanese history in the 19th century. Ryoma Sakamoto, a revolutionary who just so happens to look, sound, and act a hell of a lot like Kazuma Kiryu (the protagonist of the Like a Dragon series), comes back to his homeland after a long time away studying the blade, but he’s quickly forced into hiding after the unexpected assassination of his father, a state official. He assumes an alias, moves to Edo (the city that would become Tokyo), and infiltrates the local police force, the Shinsengumi, in order to try and root out his father’s killer.
Still, it’s easily a half-dozen hours before the thrust of Ishin’s plot reveals itself to the player, and maybe an additional six before the game is done throwing tutorials for various mechanics at you. Besides teaching you how to fight, which is a breeze for anyone who’s played the mainline Like a Dragon games, Ishin still will stop Ryoma in his tracks to learn how to craft weapons, armor, cook, farm, sing, run/hide from authorities, race chickens, play shogi, and so on—and that’s before you encounter the random bystanders with side stories to pursue.
Ishin is nothing if not thorough, and much of its combat and activities are so delightfully goofy and intuitive that even if you lose your bearings, you can probably still get by and have a good time. Despite there being four separate combat styles that you can typically switch between at will, unless a specific scene or enemy forces your hand—such as your needing to use the bare-handed Brawler style while naked inside a bathhouse—pick a favorite and you’ll still be able to cruise through most battles with panache (even if the post-battle grading system doesn’t think so). But it’s a bit of a bumpy road getting to the point when Ishin takes the training wheels all the way off—all the bumpier thanks to an extremely fussy camera—and it’s only testament to how engrossing the presentation is here that the constant interruptions don’t break the game.
Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios has been walking a tonal tightrope for 20 years with Like a Dragon, balancing tongue-in-cheek and often silly non sequitur humor with criminal intrigue and familial drama as serious as a heart attack. With Ishin, the balance skews a bit more toward the latter, but this is still a game where Ryoma instantly falls under the thrall of a hippie “do what thou wilt” dancing cult roaming Edo’s streets. One intense, suspenseful mystery involves finding out who ate a cop’s last mochi. Ryoma can leave a fight to the death against a vile group of corrupt samurai and 15 seconds later he’s making friends with a hungry Shiba Inu.
It’s almost miraculous how such wild tonal swings don’t break the immersion of the game. Instead, they provide much-needed respite from the ins and outs of a bloody, morally charged tale about family, betrayal, colonialism, democracy, and revolution unlike anything that’s ever been released on Western shores. Baked right into the mechanics is the fact that keeping Ryoma away from living something resembling a normal, honorable life will damage him over time. Some of the best perks and armor in the game are hidden behind Ryoma literally keeping his house in order. It’s highly impressive that all that lives in perfect balance in Ishin, where taking up the sword to seek justice is as wonderfully intricate and as it is here.
This game was reviewed with code provided by fortyseven communications.
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