1860s Kyo is plagued by widespread inequality, and one samurai will change the course of history in his search for justice. Take up the sword of Sakamoto Ryoma and venture to Kyoto to find your father’s killer, clear yourself of a framed murder, and restore your honor. In doing so, you will bring an end to the samurai era and forever change the future of Japan.

Publisher: Sega
Reviewed on: Playstation 5
Also available for:
PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC

Cast: Takaya Kuroda, Hideo Nakano, Unshō Ishizuka, Kazuhiro Yamaji, Kazuhiro Nakaya, Akio Ōtsuka, Shidou Nakamura, Hitoshi Ozawa, Riki Takeuchi, Hidenari Ugaki

Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio
Director: Yasuaki Uehara
Producer: Makoto Suzuki
Lead Artist: Daisuke Fukagawa
Writer: Masayoshi Yokoyama
Composers: Hidenori Shoji, Chihiro Aoki

After releasing 5 mainline entries in their successful Like A Dragon franchise (known as Yakuza in the West), Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio are about to release their first PlayStation 4 title in 2014. A spinoff from their modern-day crime series, their new game would take place in the era of Japanese samurai with the decision made to not release the game outside of Japan with the belief being that foreign gamers would be uninterested. Cut to 2022 and after the success of the latest Like a Dragon and Ghost of Tsushima, a remake of that game, Like a Dragon: Ishin!, has now been released worldwide giving everyone outside of Japan the chance to play experience this samurai story.

Set in Japan between 1853 and 1867, in what is referred to as the Bakumatsu phase of the Late Edo period, you play as Sakamoto Ryōma who has returned to his home province of Tosa after studying his swordsmanship in Edo (now known as Tokyo). He soon finds himself framed for the assassination of his father figure and flees to the city of Kyo in pursuit of the actual assassin. His journey sees him join the ranks of the Shinsengumi, an elite group of Swordsmen commissioned by the military government, in order to find the killer he believes is among their ranks.

Like a Dragon: Ishin! is incredibly dense with many references and discussions around the political nature and the state of Japan at the time. There is little hand-holding for anyone without an understanding of Japanese history, save for some glossary terms you can look up for more information like who the bakufu were or what city Kyo is in modern Japan. Couple this with the game not having an English dub and this may be a major barrier to entry for some, but it just made me more invested as I looked to learn more through this interactive history lesson. While the events of the game are by no means 100% accurate, a lot of the characters are based on real people and were inspired by real movements of the time which has definitely peaked my interest in learning more about the period.

Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio crafted an amazing main story that perfectly weaves a story of revenge, found family and betrayal into the time period in a way that had me excited to find out what would happen next. The performances can bit a bit melodramatic at times, but it works in this game which can switch tones from super serious to ridiculous at the drop of a hat. The start of each chapter begins with a recap of recent events, a great refresher for anyone who hasn’t played the game for a few days or anyone who found themselves sidetracked with the vast variety of sidequests and activities. While the sidequests can greatly vary in quality, from multiple-part stories to monotonous fetch quests, there is always something new or different to try.

Combat sees you switch between four different stances; Swordsman which has you fighting as a traditional samurai, Gunman in which you use a pistol on your enemies, Brawler for hand-to-hand combat, and Wild Dancer which is a style that combines the use of both a katana and a pistol. While switching between the stances takes a beat or two, it mixes up the combat experiences which can get a bit tedious, especially when you want to just explore the city. While I ended up using the swordsman stance the most, earning experience in each style is highly recommended.

Like a Dragon: Ishin! is chock full of different systems and mini-games for you to learn and attempt to master, varying greatly in their quality. The stance levelling and the virtue system are two that I found rewarding and fair, with you earning points for using each stance to put into the skill tree to unlock combat buffs and abilities and the completion of different tasks earning you virtue points to spend on other buffs or discounts. I also enjoyed the trooper cards which give supplement abilities to each of your stances.

One system I found frustrating and unbalanced was the blacksmithing, the only way to upgrade your weapons, which required you to actually blacksmithing items to earn experience. With the necessary costs in both money paid and items consumed often proving too extravagant, it made me give up on this whole endeavour and just hope to pick up better gear in combat encounters.

While Like a Dragon: Ishin! definitely feel at times like a PS4 launch game with odd animations and extensive load times, the gameplay and story still hold up today. Well worth devoting many hours to, this Like a Dragon spin-off is an engrossing samurai story that hopefully inspires more games from this time period and encourages Eastern studios to bring more of their titles to the West.