Like a Dragon: Ishin review – RGG Studio stuns with remake of Samurai epic

Screenshot of Edo-Era Kyo in Like a Dragon IshinSega

RGG Studio’s latest, Like a Dragon: Ishin, is actually a remake of an older title, now remastered and released in the west for the first time. But, is it worth the wait?

It feels like you can’t so much as sneeze before a new game from RGG Studio releases. However, Like a Dragon: Ishin is a unique proposition as it’s the first time that western fans can experience the series in a brand-new time period – the late 1800s. This isn’t a brand-new game, though. While it was originally released in 2014 for the PS3 and PS4, it hadn’t been localized for the West, until now.

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Like a Dragon: Ishin: Key Details

  • Price: $59.99 / £59.99
  • Developer: RGG Studio
  • Release date: February 21, 2023
  • Platforms: PS4, PS5, PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X

Like a Dragon: Ishin: Trailer

Twilight of the Samurai

 Like a Dragon: Ishin looks inward toward the changing attitudes of a nation and its ideals in a rapidly changing political landscape. The black ships have arrived, and Japan has opened up trade with foreign bodies due to military pressure.

You take control of Sakamoto Ryoma, a real-life historical figure – though RGG Studio has understandably taken creative liberties to bring him to life. It’s not long into your time as Ryoma that you find him framed for the political assassination of his adoptive father, forcing him to flee. Your goal is to clear your name and find the assassin responsible. It’s not hard to feel Yakuza’s influence though as keen-eyed fans will notice that Ryoma looks suspiciously similar to series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu. 

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This is a recurring motif throughout, with the most prominent players being played by characters previously seen in the Yakuza series. It’s a lovely bit of fanservice for those who have been keenly following the series thus far. Ryoma is particularly compelling, and his initial stoicism cracks as you meet the inhabitants of Kyo, and help them with their various trials and tribulations. 

Like a Dragon Ishin Majima as OkitaSega

Like a Dragon: Ishin deals with the crisis of national identity in a changing world. Traditionalists remain loyal to the current system, while renegades attempt to disrupt the status quo through action  – though it is an uphill battle. Ryoma and his allies are attempting to enact change in their society, and with so many elements in play, there’s a lot of political jargon to initially take in. 

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You’ll need to quickly familiarize yourself with the caste system of late Edo-era Japan, as well as other associated phrases. Luckily, the game allows you to simply press the options button during dialogue for quick explanations of what complex nomenclature means. This ends up working well, and you’ll soon be able to differentiate what separates a Goshi from a Joshi, and exactly what the Bakufu is. As you progress through the melodramatic political storyline which is laced with twists, you’ll face an adversary or two who need cutting down. 

Dancing through the streets

Like a Dragon ishion character holding a gunSega

Like a Dragon: Ishin’s combat is dense. The third-person action has four different styles to choose from: Swordsman, Gunman, Wild Dancer, and Brawler. Each of them possesses their own unique moves and skill sets, allowing you to express the violence you need in any given situation.

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You’ll face random encounters while exploring the city of Kyo, where you’ll take on groups of nameless goons at once. You build a heat meter through combos, which you can unleash through stylish finishers. These range from shooting folks at point-blank to shoving an orange down someone’s throat at a, frankly, unreasonable speed. 

After battle, you get ranked and rated, with a healthy dose of experience points for each of the styles that you chose to use, which can unlock enhancements and extra moves.

Eventually, you’ll also be able to assign “Trooper cards” to each style. You can steadily earn more through different activities which can give you anything from buffs to godlike superpowers. There is an expansive weapon upgrade and crafting tree to engage with after farming combat missions, too. It might sound overwhelming, but these mechanics are all drip-fed at an understandable pace and make for a deeply engaging experience. 

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Heaps of personality

Chicken racing in Like a Dragon IshinSega

It’s not all about melodrama and combat though as the streets of Kyo have a wealth of worthwhile side content. Like a Dragon: Ishin’s tone can quickly shift from serious to wacky in a matter of seconds. But, it never feels out of place, thanks to the number of people you can interact with. These substories are found organically while walking in the streets or chatting with vendors. 

Their tales can range from a comedic tale of love, to dismantling underground loan shark rings, or just an aspiring Sumo being really hungry. The world is littered with these quests, and the strength of their writing really shines. It doesn’t feel like they take away from the tale that the main story is trying to tell. There’s never an assault of icons on your map either, and the majority of these quests are found organically. 

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You’ll also be interacting with a multitude of minigames. Once you’ve leveled up your relationship with an Udon store, the owner asks you to help out. This unlocks a brand-new minigame where you’re taking and making orders at the ramen store for a bit of cash. Of course, series tentpoles like Karaoke are also included, with a unique Samurai twist. 

Due to the relatively smaller scale of the map, I found myself spending a lot more time engaging with the side content than usual. Yakuza and RGG Studio titles can often feel bloated, but I found that the balance was just right. It’s the only game in the series where I’ve interacted with the optional farming and fishing mechanics, happy to take half an hour to tend to my farm and make some money. 

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A dense, rewarding experience

Like a Dragon Ishin screenshot with edo-era japan citySega

Like a Dragon: Ishin is packed to the gills with things to do, people to talk to and fights to be had. This makes for an engaging world that might not be the biggest, but it’s certainly one of the densest. This allows the setting to breathe life into itself. It’s a space Ryoma could feasibly exist in, which is the highest compliment you could give a game with open-world characteristics. 

The smaller scale of the Like a Dragon: Ishin makes everything more palatable. Its pacing runs at a nice clip, and you’re never left bored by any of the activities you choose to engage with. However, the PC port does suffer from some technical issues, down to its Unreal Engine 4 implementation, which also plagues other titles. Unfortunately, this detracts from the experience, but it’s likely that you are not going to see these issues replicated on a console. 

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The verdict – 4/5

Like a Dragon: Ishin is the best title from RGG Studio since Yakuza 0, and remains true to the studio’s well-worn formula. A new setting, characters, and plot all intertwine to create a cohesive open-world experience that you could lose countless hours in. Whether that be interacting with the locals, farming, or taking down the entire Shogunate itself.

Reviewed on PC

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