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Like a Dragon: Ishin review – An exceptional RPG that fulfils the Samurai fantasy

This romp from Kyo is outstanding, even among its peers.

I spend one Ryo for access to the Gion brothel and take on Rock Paper Scissors on the hardest difficulty. It’s a tough fight but I clutch out a win against a now borderline-naked prostitute, and leave her confused as I walk out the door and back to the street. 30 seconds later, I’m unloading three bullets into the chest of a street thug, only for his friend to join my local police force. Like a Dragon: Ishin is exceptionally entertaining.

That might not be a shock to fans of the Yakuza series, a long-running powerhouse that has thrown players into Kamurocho with numerous games as generous with balls-to-the-wall action as it is with genuinely engaging narratives and a healthy dollop of wackiness. I was glad to discover after over 80 hours of in-game fighting, fetching, and fishing that this 19th Century historical rollercoaster lacks none of the bite of its modern brothers.

These are just a few of the ludicrous minigames you can play in Like a Dragon: Ishin.

Let's break it down for those of you who aren’t familiar with the Like a Dragon franchise. It’s a third-person action game, with a heavy focus on deep character-driven stories with often political twists and turns threaded throughout. This puts the series in a somewhat unique position among its peers: one second you’re pulling off explosively violent finishing moves, the next you’re learning about the importance of an empty lot. Like a Dragon: Ishin takes that tried and true structure and places it in an altogether different setting: 19th century Kyo.

I was initially worried that the game would lose some of that punch, some of the wackiness from substories, or intrigue from the main plot. I was daft. Like a Dragon: Ishin brilliantly recreates all the appeal from its counterparts. Rather than looking at current quirks and issues in the modern day, Like a Dragon: Ishin plays many of its subplots and smaller themes with a forward thinking approach. This can be intentionally humorous at times with hard hitting questions like “I wonder if perfume will ever catch on”. It does require you to pay close attention, but thanks to a handy glossary button and chapter recaps, it’s easy to keep track of what’s happening throughout the game.

Screenshot from Like a Dragon: Ishin in bathhouse
If this game wants to be tongue-in-cheek, it doesn't hold back.

Some out there will miss Kamurocho, but Kyo is a lovely city that feels bustling and pumping with life. The developers are experts at creating authentic-feeling hubs to roam around in at this point — conversations happen all around you. You’re waved down by people if a shakedown is happening nearby, and merchants roam the street with their stock on their backs. At night, drunks will stumble through the streets. All these combined breathe life into the game in a way I think is critical.

When Like a Dragon: Ishin wants to get serious, it has no problem doing so. An example that stood out to me is the debate around opening up to the world. The context of British black ships forcing Japan to open up its borders is consistent throughout the game, as is natural considering when the game takes place. With that historical backdrop, your character is quick to approach these topics with the seriousness they deserve.

As a matter of fact, it’s the story aspect of Like a Dragon: Ishin that really stands out to me. It’s a nightmare game to review, because I’d foolishly start a new chapter at 11pm and find myself enraptured with what was happening until 4am when I had to call it quits. In a game with so many fun side activities to take on (with special shout outs to the dancing and gambling den which I lost full hours to) it says a lot that I felt torn between having a blast with extra stuff on the side or trucking on with the main plot.

Screenshot from minigame from Like a Dragon: Ishin
It takes a lot to drag me away from excellent fun like the cooking minigames.

But, if you do want to blow some time away from all the drama, I do not exaggerate by saying you can literally dump dozens of hours into all the extra content. You can really lose yourself in Kyo, hitting credits long before you see and collect everything. Some of the best substories I experienced were in the post-game where the world becomes your oyster. I only managed to pay off my home, gave chicken racing a serious shot, and tried to wrap my head around Mahjong post-50 hours. This game is packed with stuff to do.

I want to make a special note of mission dispatches and collecting trooper cards, a massive new addition with Like a Dragon: Ishin. Around midway through the story, you find yourself in command of your own squad, which you can take into a separate set of mini-dungeons packed with enemies. This turned out to be a bit of a grind, but since the game has that same punchy combat as the world has come to expect from the Yakuza series, it was hardly a bad experience.

In terms of collecting new troops, you can gain them following random encounters out in the streets, following mission dispatches, and you can even dump cash into a gacha-style pack opening. I’ve spent hundreds of Ryo on legendary cards, only to find themself with duplicates. With 400 unique cards to collect, I really don’t understand why duplicates are even there. It’s a single player game, give completionists an olive branch. This being my most pressing complaint with Like a Dragon: Ishin should say a lot for the overall quality present.

Screenshot from combat in Like a Dragon: Ishin
Once you get a squad you're happy with, you'll fly through challeging missions.

That being said, I also ran into a few bugs and frustrations. Nothing too major, but blemishes on an otherwise beautiful woodblock print. A few crashes here and there during long periods of play, temporary freezes, and menus not showing up especially in the blacksmith. One time the poker minigame visually broke, as if the game itself was trying to keep me from logging back into my pokerstars account. These were thankfully few and far between, but keep these in mind as you play and enable autosaves for a safety net.

Like a Dragon: Ishin in my eyes earns the lofty score I’m giving it. The game is the most fun I’ve had with a single player game in years, and getting a review code for it the same day as Hi-Fi Rush left me spoiled, incredibly tired, and astoundingly happy. It’s worth your time and your money.

Like a Dragon: Ishin will launch February 21, 2023 for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S. This review is for the PlayStation 5 version of the game.

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