The Western release of Like a Dragon: Ishin is a curious proposition. It's a remake of the 2014 spin-off of the core series and, like the original, relies on intimate knowledge of the mainline series for its experimental elseworlds narrative to land. And yet, Ishin is a completely original story that has the potential to serve as a good entry point for newcomers looking for something standalone.
Those who have been onlookers to the Yakuza fever that has swept the gaming landscape over the last few years will most likely recognize many of the characters in Ishin from fan art, trailers, and gameplay videos. However, the versions featured in Ishin are not the characters we know and love, but variants living in a different era. That might sound like a peculiar turnoff, but at the same time, much of what makes the franchise charming and its characters endearing is also still present.
Like a Dragon: Ishin is set during the turbulent late Edo period in Japan's history, which saw the end of the infamous Tokugawa Shogunate's 200-year reign. Ishin's protagonist Sakamoto Ryōma, who is physically identical to the series' main character, Kazuma Kiryu, is involved in local political turmoil that results in the assassination of his mentor and father figure.
Hellbent on finding the shadowy killer, Ryōma's search brings him to the Shinsengumi, a special police force of the declining Shogunate. Evidence suggests that the assassin lies among its members, and Ryōma goes undercover to infiltrate their ranks. As those with experience with the mainline series will no doubt attest to--and be drawn toward--this is a typical premise for a Yakuza game, as it places our hero on a righteous path in which he must walk through treacherous territory.
For newcomers, taking a detective plot akin to Judgment--another Yakuza series spin-off--and setting it in this incredibly interesting time period is a potent mix that may prove to be attractive. Either way, the narrative is compelling, and based on what I played it effectively kept me wanting more.
The Yakuza and Like a Dragon games are all remarkably well-told detective stories, combined with the exploration of familial dynamics and development of earnest friendships, and in the 45 minutes of the campaign I played, much of that was represented. I was putting together the puzzle that would help solve the whodunnit mystery with the small crumbs of information I had learned in that time. This is going to be a red-string-on-corkboard kind of game, and some players may even decide to build out that display in real life to help them track the mystery.
I also couldn't help but chuckle at its absurd elements--another series staple. The Like a Dragon series has a passionate following largely for its blend of intense drama with lighthearted comedy, and in Ishin that concoction has all the charm that fans of the series have come to expect, with both drama and comedy deftly weaving together to bring its story to life. That combination also works its way into brawling gameplay, which is largely in-line with the mainline games that preceded it albeit with much more sword and gunplay this time around.
In combat, there are four stances that Ryōma can assume. Swordsman and Gunman are self explanatory; the former has the player wielding a katana and the latter a revolver. Wild Dancer sees Ryōma wielding both, while Brawler is only fists--the upside being that the player's hands are now free to pick up objects to utilize as weapons.
The default stance, Swordsman, is the one I initially attempted, though when facing off against the preview's first boss, I found myself struggling. The series definitely has its own flavor of combat that takes some getting used to, and I found that my opponent moved too fast to give me the opening I needed. The same went for Gunman; it's too inaccurate to be effective in a fast close-quarters brawl.
Wild Dancer, however, is where I came into my own, sacrificing my ability to block to be rewarded with a much quicker dodge. Like the name of the stance suggests, attacks in this form are wilder than when you're just wielding a sword or a gun on their own. The precise attacks of those previous forms are replaced with big swings of the sword, a godsend when locking on isn't an option. I was able to quickly get in a few blows, and when my opponent launched a counter-attack, I was rapidly able to get out of the way, before swinging my sword to break his stance. I followed up a few slashes of my katana with a shot from my revolver, which often knocked him off his feet and left him open for a finishing move. What was proving to be a troubling fight my first few attempts was now an even matchup, and I ultimately bested my adversary in short order.
As I found my footing, I was able to experiment more with the harder stances. Once I understood the benefits and drawbacks of each form--and got back into the flow of Like a Dragon's rigid movement--I played around with the different options during my second confrontation and came out on top without having to rely on just Wild Dancer. I even gave Brawler a shot, which is easily the most difficult of the four stances to be effective with.
There were a few encounters I had with run-of-the-mill bad guys as I moved through the environment, and this is where the game's comedy really came into play. One specific interaction had a trio of bandits charging at me with their swords before I unleashed shots from my revolver with infinite ammo. The swordsmen couldn't get past my wall of bullets, and while my lack of combat creativity didn't net me a particularly high rank once the smoke cleared, it was worth it for the hilarity of the moment.
While most should have a blast with the combat and story of the game, what might prove to be more divisive for newcomers are side activities like karaoke and dancing minigames. Though seemingly throwaway distractions in the series, side activities are usually quite involved and incredibly fun--if you've existed on the internet in the last few years, you'll no doubt be familiar with the Baka Mitai phenomenon, which is proof that you may find these activities more meaningful than you think. Additionally, they are meant to flesh out the world of the game as you go through, so I am keen to see if the full experience's characters and story really sink their teeth into me like this preview suggested they might.
Like a Dragon: Ishin has all the elements of the other titles in the franchise, but is doing something fun with its world and characters. It's newcomers that might have a tougher time jumping in, but the promise of its story and the variety of its combat I saw in the preview make a compelling opening argument for why Ishin could be a great gateway to the series for them.
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