Like a Dragon: Ishin

Like a Dragon: Ishin

It's time to put on your finest kamishimo and play samurai. We find out if this remake is something to wear today, or if it should live on in the past.

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What justifies a remake? A completely redesigned graphical basis is, some would say, a perfectly legitimate reason to re-release a title. That's where we are, I suppose, with this constant stream of older games reappearing with a prettier finish. However, with Like a Dragon: Ishin, also of course visually reworked, there's another reason I'd say why this game is highly relevant for a remake. Namely, the original, which was released in 2014, was only released in Japan, and so unless you're versed in the Japanese language and imported it, this title is one that's only now being made available to more people. I guess a growing Western interest in the Like a Dragon/Yakuza games, and its spin-offs, means that the rest of the world is now getting a chance to get in on this action.

So, in other words, it's time to get acquainted with Japan in the 1860s and take on the role of a Samurai. Because, unlike the other modern parts of the series, we move here to the last years of the Edo period. A chaotic time, to say the least.

Like a Dragon: Ishin
There's a lot of scum to clear off the streets.

The protagonist, named Sakamoto Ryōma, returns home after spending a year away honing his skills with his sword. Once home, things happen at a furious pace and after a series of events, Ryōma flees his home village. He ends up in the then Japanese capital of Kyo (later known as Kyoto) and what follows is a fairly classic story with the concept of revenge at its heart. It's not a mind-boggling experience at first, in fact the first few chapters of the game are quite trepidatious. But as with many stories, it grows on you and the plot thickens.

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As the hours pass, I begin to see through the obvious cracks and find several good things. There's a momentum to what we're experiencing here, and once you start investing hours in it, you're naturally eager to see where it all leads. There are a lot of names and faces to keep track of, but at the centre of it all is a character on the run, forced to live under an alias and trying to exact revenge for what forced him away from his home village. Ryōma is on a constant quest to find the truth so we get a revenge story with a bit of detective work thrown in.

We'll sift through those cracks I mentioned earlier. Because even though this remake significantly improves things from the nearly decade-old original, everything still feels pretty dated. There's a ghostly stiffness about the characters, and their animations make the characters feel like wax dolls that often jerk around. Even the surroundings feel like flat backdrops more than living places. When you think of Ghost of Tsushima, for example, which despite a different time period still has to be the closest comparison (except for the rest of the games in the series, of course), it feels even more like the visuals don't quite reach where we expect them to be today. Especially when we're offered so much else in the gaming world that sets the bar high. Small details like trees and vegetation not moving, empty alleys with a total lack of detail and a kind of stiffness don't exactly make for a technically good visual impression.

When night falls in Kyo, however, the surroundings are transformed slightly thanks to the light, which gives it a cosier atmosphere. And while the comparison to the modern titles in the series - where neon lights and paint in particular bring the streets to life - may seem unfair, it's the one I constantly make as I run around. Because many areas and details feel almost a little neglected, as if they've put energy into a few places but forgotten the rest. As I turn onto the main street in Kyo, the feeling still manages to creep up, and some vivid details pop up from time to time, but the overall impression is simply nowhere near where I'd like it to be.

Like a Dragon: Ishin
Serious boys with bloody futures.
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To round off my dissatisfaction, however, it should be added that the cutscenes are neat, with pleasing camerawork, and the lifeless characters suddenly seem to take on new life in these sequences. There are also places that shimmer a little extra, and when I compare to the original it's clear that it's still a pretty neat change, in places. But still not near what we would expect visually in 2023.

The focus on action and combat is smooth and reasonably rewarding in all respects. Tactics and the importance of defending yourself and changing your playstyle feel well balanced. There are four different options here. Either you fight with your fists, with your katana, with your firearm or with both gun and sword in a style called Wild Dance. Fighting with the sword alone feels best so that's how I do it for the most part. Usually you're in combat against a group of four or five enemies, or more difficult one-on-one challenges against more high-profile characters. Combinations and skills are unlocked as you go along, and most of what you'd want in an action-RPG is here in the form of items and upgrading your equipment, or getting new ones.

It's also packed with both side quests and mini-games, many presented in a comical manner with action-packed music and slightly madcap presentation. Helping to serve food is done at a frantic pace where you have to remember the right button combinations. There are a bunch of dice games and even western poker to relax with. If you're someone who likes to take their time and do a lot alongside the main story, there are many hours to be had here. Side quests, known as Substories, pop up in abundance as you make your way through the streets and alleys. I like that encounters with characters who want to give you side quests feel natural, as often you turn a corner and a short sequence plays whereupon you find out the character's problem. It makes for a much more dynamic presentation when it feels like it happens randomly this way, and while the general rigidity unfortunately creeps in here too, at least encounters with different characters are fun.

Like a Dragon: Ishin
The battles are stiff, but quite entertaining.

On the streets you encounter small gangs of bandits and other people eager to get into a fight. There's a bit of unintentional comedy in the presentation of shooting or stabbing waves of scum, with blood spurting but then everyone feels okay, says how sorry they were for fighting and runs off with their tails between their legs. But I guess you want to avoid the streets being filled with piles of dead bodies. For those expecting, and wanting, a lot of action, at least you won't be disappointed by the number of battles on offer.

It's in the interaction with the multitude of characters that appear that this still succeeds quite well. All have distinctive personalities and are loosely based on real historical figures. In addition, they share looks and have the same voice actors as other characters in the game series, with the main character mimicking Kazuma Kiryu who is the protagonist of the main Yakuza games. A lot of names fly by, and for those who want to delve deeper into Japanese history, even during conversations you can get more information about what places and events are referring to and read a bit more about them.

The story unfolds in chapters, and a few hours in, when all the introductions are done, it feels much more enjoyable than during the rather drawn out and slightly dull opening. Not much really changes in terms of gameplay, but a lot of it is of course about getting to grips with everything the quest has to offer. Getting into the many battles once you've unlocked some skills also feels more fun. As mentioned, there's a lot of blood spilled as swords cut through bodies, especially when special abilities start to be used, and switching between the four fighting styles is done smoothly with the digital joystick. You can both dodge and parry, and with a bit of practice get long-lasting combos in battles, but unfortunately these, like other movements, feel a bit sluggish and neither as smooth nor as neat as you might have wished.

Like a Dragon: Ishin
There will be a lot of sword duels. As it should be.

Despite my criticism throughout, there are many parts that feel okay, even almost good. It's full of content, and fans of the series should definitely check out this installment as well. Because if you've immersed yourself in the Like a Dragon series, this is probably an essential to add to your gaming library. For myself, I would have liked it to feel less dated and stiff. But for now, there are a few too many small details to get hung up on. For example, the screen fades to black, admittedly only for a short second, when you change areas or enter buildings. At the same time, these are things that, for me, justify how I feel about the experience as a whole, where very small negative details simply disrupt the rhythm.

An older title that is to be transported to the present day must of course be able to meet the standards we have today and so there is too much here that could have been worked on more. There is a lot of running back and forth in a rather dull place, tough battles and the rhythm is broken in long misplaced sequences of dialogue that eventually becomes quite tiresome. But most of all, it could have used a bit more life and movement than just characters who feel like they're frozen where they stand. On the plus side, however, there's a story you're happy to follow to the end and so this really is packed with content in the form of side quests and other things to do.

I would have liked what emerges a little way into the story to have been introduced earlier, even if it could be argued that it's a good thing that the adventure actually grows as the hours go by. As a whole, however, it's too unpolished and lacks sharpness, which of course, as a final touch, is a pretty bad thing for a samurai and his trusty sword.

06 Gamereactor UK
6 / 10
Engaging story. Lots to do. Grows on you with time.
Unpolished visuals. Stiff animations. Flat characters and environments.
overall score
is our network score. What's yours? The network score is the average of every country's score

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Like a Dragon: IshinScore

Like a Dragon: Ishin

REVIEW. Written by Conny Andersson

It's time to put on your finest kamishimo and play samurai. We find out if this remake is something to wear today, or if it should live on in the past.

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