It’s good to mix things up every now and again.
The seedy neighborhood of Kamurocho, which is inspired by the real-world Tokyo vice district known as Kabukicho, is a staple of the Yakuza series. (Yes, I know we’re calling it Like a Dragon now. Let me ease into it.)
You visit this area in all eight mainline games, and as time chugs forward over the course of each installment, you’ll see how the city evolves. A spot to rent lurid DVDs morphs into a cat cafe. The bowling alley where Kiryu won a live chicken in his twenties becomes a swanky gym by the time he’s in his forties. The poky vacant lot surrounded by shabby shanties in the prequel Yakuza 0 becomes the Millennium Tower throughout the rest of the series. And so on.
To love Yakuza is to love Kamurocho. But the most immediate delight of Like a Dragon: Ishin is being transported to an entirely new environment. Set during the twilight of the Edo period, just before Japan opened its borders, the man we all know and love as Kazuma Kiryu now goes by the name of Sakamoto Ryoma. (Well actually, he’s in disguise and using the false name of Saito Hajime. Just go with it. It’s Kiryu.) Framed for a murder he didn’t commit, Kiryu/Ryoma/Saito hightails it to Kyo, 1867’s version of the city we know today as Kyoto.
And much like its modern-day counterpart, Kyo is an impeccable jewel box of a city, with elegant traditional architecture, crooked and narrow streets, sparkling streams, and serenely swaying trees. True, there are no hostess clubs, slot car racing, or arcades in Ishin’s resolutely old-timey setting. But even this nineteenth-century riff on Like a Dragon has more ridiculous minigames than you can shake a sword at — there’s chicken racing, fan dances, and a brothel with a shoot ‘em up inspired minigame. And, naturally, karaoke.
In my two and a half hours with the game’s third chapter, I barely scratched the surface of all there was to do in Kyo. I spent an inordinate amount of time fan dancing, too often mesmerized by Ryoma’s graceful movements and intense expressions to get the timing right. I assisted a bumbling western tourist with a beguiling Major Armstrong mustache. I also helped a scantily clad Ryoma hone his katana at the blacksmith’s forge. (This is not a double entendre.)
Jaw-dropping action, soapy drama, and weirdo humor have helped elevate the Like a Dragon series from a cult hit to an international smash. But virtual tourism has always been a foundational element of Yakuza’s appeal outside Japan, and Ishin is an embarrassment of riches in that regard.
Combat in Like a Dragon: Ishin also strikes a satisfying balance between the new and the familiar. You’ll have four different fighting styles to choose from, similar to Yakuza 0, which Ryoma can swap at any time by using the D-pad. They include:
- Swordsman — Deliberate and powerful two-handed sword strikes
- Gunman — Long-range attacks
- Wild Dancer – A versatile stance that pairs a blade and pistol
- Brawler - The familiar Yakuza fighting stance, lets you hurl nearby items at foes
If you’re inclined to approach Yakuza combat with an all-out offense, as I am, you might feel a bit wrong-footed at first. You can get away with flinging tables at small-fry street bandits using the Brawler stance, but you’ll need to get a handle on Swordsman and Wild Dancer in order to succeed in boss fights, which demand frequent dodging and parrying.
Fighting is more deliberate in Ishin than elsewhere in the Like a Dragon series, but still feels approachable and thrilling, with over-the-top finishers and flashy combos. What’s more, if you get caught with your guard down, you can dip into your inventory at any time to scarf some food or medicine.
Like a Dragon: Ishin retains the loopy fun of the series’s modern-day installments while transporting the charismatic cast of thugs we know and love into a captivating new setting. Yakuza diehards have been clamoring for years to get a western localization of this 2014 spinoff, and so far Ryu Ga Gotoku’s latest remake certainly seems to be worthy of all that hype.
Like a Dragon: Ishin comes to PlayStation, Xbox, and PC on February 21, 2023.
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