It's been a long road to get Like a Dragon Ishin to come to the West. A spin-off from Sega's Yakuza series set in feudal Japan, Ishin was released on PS3 and PS4 in Japan almost a decade ago and fans have been begging for a localisation since. Thankfully, we finally got what we asked for; not so thankfully, it still feels like a game of the PS3 era.
Like a Dragon Ishin takes Yakuza's familiar faces and character models, throws them into a feudal Japan setting full of samurai and geisha, and adds the mix of heavy story beats and silly sidestories we've all come to know and love. And the story starts with one Samurai's journey home.
You take the reins as Ryoma as he returns to Tosa to catch up with friends and family after a period away. Of course, it doesn't take long for Kurosawa-inspired duels to take place in the city streets, letting you get to grips with the combat. There are four styles to choose from, and Yakuza veterans will be familiar with this aspect.
It's not all about fisticuffs this time, however, and each stance wields a different combo of weapons: from just fists to sword, gun, and sword and gun at the same time. These stances are used in different situations. If you're being mobbed by a group of nefarious ronin, then you'll want to use sword and gun for swift dodging and AoE attacks. One on one? Then using the sword stance will give you the traditional samurai duel experience of blocking and parrying.
And you'll find yourself in plenty of combat as you pitter patter through medieval Kyoto. Roaming gangs of some kind or another are eager to pick a fight and Ryoma is willing to take them on. Most enemies have swords, but some have guns you'll need to dodge. Slash away, build up your heat meter and press triangle to perform a special action for extra damage. It's classic series combat but in a different time period.
Like all good Yakuza series games, it takes two to three hours for the tutorials and onboarding to be done with. Ishin is, however, a slow burn even by Yakuza standards. A lot of time is spent sitting on bamboo mats talking to your allies, likely so players can understand the historical world they've dived into, as opposed to the bright and familiar lights of modern-day Kamurocho.
The story is delivered well, but as noted, it does take a while to get going. When it does, you'll find backstabbing and over-the-top action, but with a little more of a grounded stance than the rest of the games. There're still light-hearted moments, but the wackiness is dialled back in favour of doing the setting justice, with various clans and factions at each others' throats.
Once the novelty of being in feudal Japan's dirt streets and wooden houses wears off, you'll find all of the usual Yakuza sidestories to spend your time on. Fancy making friends with a stray dog? How about starting another life as a farmer and growing crops? What about becoming a dancer, fisherman, or slicing cannon balls in half with your sword? Beyond the main story, there is hours upon hours of humorous content to spend your time on - and that's if you doing get hooked on poker in the gambling house.
In fact, there are so many sidestories and activities, it almost puts modern Yakuza games to shame. You can while away the hours on everything but the main story missions. The weapon and equipment upgrading and crafting also plays a pivotal role in the game, and you'll want to keep an eye out for rare materials so that when you visit the blacksmith, you can make your favourite sword even more powerful.
In this respect, Ishin plays far more like an RPG than the other Yakuza games you've played before. Weapon upgrades, for example, are essential to progress because the game is hard - really hard. Stocking up on food and medical supplies before fights is a must, otherwise you will die otherwise. Especially in boss fights, which can go on for half an hour.
With all of this said, Ishin is likely to divide the fanbase to a certain extent. It's a spin-off from the Yakuza series, but it still maintains all of the quality and gameplay aspects we've come to know and love over the years. The issue, though, is that it's a remaster of a game that was developed a decade ago and first saw the light of day on the PS3.
Interactions, movement, and conversations are clunky. Combat seems incongruously unwieldy for a game released in 2023, and you'll find yourself regularly attacking or blocking in a not-intended direction. And despite the gorgeous graphical upgrade, it just doesn't hold water with 2020's Like a Dragon.
Don't mistake these issues for meaning the game is "bad" because many series veterans will overlook these niggles after waiting for a Western release for so long, but these grievances certainly hold the game back, and it's far from being the best the series has to offer. Again, how much the historical setting gels with you will dictate how you personally rank it, but there's no escaping that Ishin feels more like a Kiwami than a modern Yakuza or Judgment game.
Overall, Like a Dragon Ishin is a great game. It gives Yakuza fans a new and unique setting to explore, has more realistic and slow-paced combat, and more mechanics and sidestories to spend time on than other entries. At the heart of it, Like a Dragon Ishin still feels like a PS3 game with nice graphics, but how much that matters to you will depend on whether the setting grabs you.