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Like A Dragon: Ishin Hands-On Preview: Familiar Yakuza Trappings In A Whole New Setting

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RGG Studio's feudal take on its signature franchise is living up to the promise of being an all-star Yakuza game.

Masayoshi Yokoyama, executive producer of RGG Studios and writer of the Yakuza series, said during the RGG 2022 summit that Like A Dragon: Ishin is meant to be the all-star Yakuza game. It's pitched as a game that will feature characters from the entire franchise, music from across the games, and returning actors, and the 20 minutes of hands-on time I had with the game definitely delivered on that promise. But Like A Dragon: Ishin doesn't just feel like simple Yakuza fan service. From what I've played, Ishin features enough of a new story and presents a fresh environment (to a western audience, at least) that it is poised to welcome new players to the massive franchise without completely alienating them.

The preview demo--played at Tokyo Game Show, courtesy of Sega--featured two modes: day mode, which was a more explorative and story-centric introduction to the game's central area, Kyo, and night mode, a more action-focused look at the game's many fighting styles.

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Now Playing: 10 Minutes of Like a Dragon: Ishin! Gameplay

Starting with day mode, I spent my first 10 minutes with the game watching a lengthy cutscene introducing the many characters of Like A Dragon: Ishin. It was certainly a slow start to the hands-on demo, but by Yakuza standards, it felt very apt. While most of the series' entries are action brawlers by genre definition, the heart and soul of any Yakuza game is in its story and characters. The cinematic provided a glimpse at its stoic protagonist Sakamoto Ryōma, and the many captains of the Shinsengumi special police force, including the snarly Takeda Kanryusai (played by Japanese superstar Riki Takeuichi), the rather snakey Todo Heisuke (Tianyou Zhao from Yakuza: Like A Dragon, with Nobuhiko Okamoto returning as the voice actor), and many more.

After the boisterous introductions of the Shinsengumi police force, I was set loose to explore the dirt roads of a fictional late feudal version of Kyoto, called Kyo. The streets were heavily populated: shop owners calling your attention, other people walked and chatted with each other, and workers bustled in all directions with somewhere to be. RGG's talents at creating a location that feels as alive as it does tangible was on full display. This is no surprise considering how well they've managed to do the same for its modern-day counterparts, but translating it to the late 19th century is impressive.

There were many shops I wanted to explore, side streets to walk down, and buildings to get distracted with, but due to my short hands-on time I resisted, and instead hurled myself into patrolling the streets and getting into fights with the many outlaws roaming around every corner.

For returning Yakuza fans, combat will feel familiar, giving the player four fighting styles from the outset, with each one utilizing your two primary weapons: a katana and pistol. On the fly, you can shift fighting styles, which includes dual-wielding the blade and firearm, allowing you to cut enemies in rapid succession and follow up with a shower of bullets. Or you can use just your gun for more distanced attacks; just the katana for more controlled and powerful hits; or neither, allowing Ryōma to go full brawler mode with his fists.

A distinct difference in the combat from other titles was the absence of using items in the environment, like a parking cone, or the fan-favorite bicycle. Instead, the focus was on the weapons you always have on hand, which offered plenty of variety to fit your playstyle or the scenario you were in. For example, one of my encounters involved two bandits with swords, while another had a rifle. Using the katana style was too precise and methodical, which relied on slower dodges and stronger hits. The gun/katana combo, however, allowed Ryōma to perform a faster dodge, spinning out of the action, and giving me the opportunity to shoot the rifle bandit from afar, while rapidly slicing and dicing the other foes around me. Each style has a special ability that charges up over time, which you can unleash with a fantastical display of theatrics, one of which can only be compared to a Kamehameha-like beam of energy that damages multiple enemies at once. Each fighting style's special move also has a callout to a series character, one of them being Ichiban Kasuga from Yakuza: Like A Dragon (it truly is an all-star Yakuza game).

Despite the garish display of swinging swords and firing off a pistol, combat felt rather wooden and clunky at first, and the uncooperative and stiff camera movement certainly didn't make it any easier. I often found myself swinging in the wrong direction entirely, or pulling out my pistol to fire at nothing due in part to the lack of a targeting button. Most woeful of all, when I finally unleashed one of the special movies, it targeted an innocent table with no enemies in its line of fire. As I crossed more enemy encounters, I was able to adapt a little better, which made things feel more fluid, but not as kinetic as I’d like.

Ishin combat in action
Ishin combat in action

Sadly, I didn't get as much time exploring night mode, which was an even more action-oriented segment of the demo. However, what I saw left me eager to spend more time in it. Where daytime Kyo showed the hustle and bustle of the city, night showed off a side of Kyo drenched in warm candlelight and the red glow from lanterns. I can not wait to spend time in it.

Although it was the same area I explored for both times of day, both felt, in a way, unrecognizable from one another due to the distinct mood change. Equally, I also find it to be the biggest differentiation from the modern-day Yakuza games. Karamucho at night is crowded and populated with people to evoke Tokyo's busy nightlife. But in Like A Dragon: Ishin, RGG instead presents a more moody and dramatic setting, where things are quieter and a little more still--that is, of course, until you run into bandits and a ballet of sword swinging and pistol shooting ensues. I'm disappointed I didn't get more time to explore Kyo's night, but the few minutes I had with it left a strong impression.

For the most part, my brief hands-on time with the game showed off the tried-and-true, albeit stiff, combat system seen in other Yakuza games. It works well enough, and there's still depth to the special moves and how the fighting styles level up that I didn't get to explore. I also saw a window into Ishin's story and characters--the franchise's strongest characteristic. But the thing I'm most eager to see, which I didn't get a good look at with the demo, is how well that signature melodramatic storytelling (as well as the off-the-wall humor) will translate to the feudal setting of the late 19th century, especially for a western audience.

Yokoyama-san told me RGG initially believed Like A Dragon: Ishin wouldn't be impossible to localize due to its heavy emphasis on politics of the late Edo era--which is the main reason it never made it overseas despite the rest of the franchise finding success globally. Like A Dragon: Ishin's dialogue relies on Japanese terminology that no longer has context in modern Japanese society, making it incredibly difficult to translate over in a way western audiences could understand. To address this, however, the game will have a built-in encyclopedia of sorts for all terms used to help western audiences understand it better--a system that doesn't exist in the Japanese version, which makes Yokoyama-san believe that the western release of the game is, in fact, a superior version to the Japanese release.

Feudal-era games are far from uncommon in the medium today (Ghost of Tsushima, Sekrio, Nioh, just to name a few), but seldom are they as narratively dense and character-focused as RGG's games, some of which include hours of cutscenes. As a result, Like A Dragon: Ishin remains a unique proposition, and given the fantastic localization track record RGG and Sega has had, I’m excited to see what this new flavor of Yakuza brings to the beloved series.

I'm also interested to see how Yokoyama-san and team will tell a story from the perspective of a person of the law. Yakuza, in the west at least, have featured two protagonists (Kazuma Kiryu and Ichiban Kasuga) that are unflinchingly virtuous despite being involved with criminal backgrounds. This is in contrast to Like A Dragon: Ishin's protagonist Sakamoto Ryōma, who is, from the outset, a member of a force meant to uphold the law. I'm far from believing that everyone is a part of the Shinsengumi as morally balanced--it is a RGG Studio game, after all, which can only mean there's melodrama, betrayal, and comedic shenanigans in store. We'll have to wait to find out more in February 2023 when the game is expected to be released on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC.

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