Like A Dragon: Ishin!: The Kotaku Review

Like A Dragon: Ishin!: The Kotaku Review

In the opening chapters of Like A Dragon: Ishin!, a samurai becomes an exiled criminal after his father is assassinated in front of him. A year later, his brother offers him safety and power in exchange for his loyalty. All he has to do is turn a blind eye to the powerful lords who could have orchestrated their father’s murder. You and I both know it’s what our father would have wanted. Instead of bickering like this, we could be changing history.

“Sorry,” Sakamoto Ryoma tells his brother, who also happens to be the leader of the royalist faction, Takechi Hanpeita. “But I can’t see the bigger picture like you do.” His words are self-deprecating, but his tone is defiant. Like A Dragon games — formerly known as the Yakuza series — are not simple power fantasies about being the strongest or most influential man in the city. Like its modern predecessors, which feature characters surviving the crushing pressures of capitalism, the power fantasy in Ishin is about being courageous enough to live by your personal values. Even if it means standing up to powerful institutions — or people you love.

Japanese history with a Yakuza twist

Ishin is an action RPG that tells a story set in Edo period Japan using members of the Yakuza cast. You’ll see familiar faces return as Japanese historical figures, and if you know that history, half of the fun is trying to see how much they follow — or deviate from — their real-world counterparts. Here’s a bit of historical context: Japan was in some deep shit when the Americans rolled up and said, “If you don’t open your borders to free trade, then we’ll burn Tokyo (Edo) to the ground.” Japan signed some treaties to prevent that from happening, but everyone in Ishin is still understandably concerned about those belligerent westerners. And many of them are prepared to start a civil war in order to “save” the nation.

Sakamoto Ryoma (who is both an actual historical figure and, here, is “played by” series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu) has to decide if he’s one of them, or if he’s prepared to carve his own legacy. He accomplishes this by taking on the name “Saito Hajime” and joining the Shinsengumi, a real-world police force that currently harbours his father’s killer. While their job was officially to protect members of the ruling government, historians generally agree that they were bloody assassins who murdered and tortured political dissidents. Hajime’s willingness to become one of their captains only increases the tension between himself and his brother.

The Kiryu from the modern Yakuza games had always been fiercely independent from institutions, so it was somewhat jarring to watch him become a literal cop in Edo Japan. But Ishin lampshades the Shinsengumi’s reputation by having characters react negatively to Hajime’s police uniform, and by showing scenes of members committing extrajudicial murder for power and profit. As I watched the subtle power plays between the Shinsengumi captains at their cinematic meeting, I realised why the developers chose to give Kiryu a secondary historical role.

These scenes are clearly designed to imitate the big, dramatic crime boss meetings in modern-era Yakuza games where the most serious political conflicts go down, resulting in wonderful parallels that draw a line between the secret police of Ishin and the organised crime groups of other games in the series. It’s a creative decision that complicates the lionized western depictions of samurai, who in reality were often “violent landlords.” Hajime recognises that all cops are bastards, but he’s willing to become a bastard in order to infiltrate the organisation that killed his father.

Kyo: A dated but beautiful world, filled with character

The game engages with big political questions on class conflict and national sovereignty. But most of the time, you’re playing as a guy who’s here to kick arse and sample delicious street food. Most of Ishin takes place in Kyo (modern-day Kyoto), and it’s a treat to explore an Edo-era city through a video game. You can perform dances at a theatre, bar hop your way across the city, and beat the shit out of the sad sacks who think they can harass innocent people with zero consequences.

Here’s the caveat though: Ishin is a remake of Ryū ga Gotoku Ishin, released only in Japan for the PlayStation 3 and 4 in 2014, and it shows in its lacklustre graphical fidelity. Water can be too shimmery, and hair can look like plastic in some real-time rendered scenes. Most of the time, it doesn’t feel like it matters because the small artistic details in the clothes and props look so damn impressive. I found myself gaping at the beautifully indulgent backgrounds any time that a cinematic took place in a tearoom. The designs are filled with heart, but you’re still playing with graphics that look last-gen.

Screenshot: Sega / Kotaku
Screenshot: Sega / Kotaku

This city is far smaller than the sprawling metropolis of Yakuza’s Kamurocho district. Ishin compensates for the lack of scale by trying to make some interactions with the city feel more intimate. Instead of running off to your next street brawl after paying your bill, you can form relationships with some of the town’s oddball proprietors. Immediately after I purchase some drugs from the apothecary, for instance, he asks Hajime to test a new concoction that winds up taking out most of his health bar. The udon restaurant owner tells the samurai that the secret to making great noodles is pretending that he’s having wild, passionate sex. The fisherman by southern Fushimi hasn’t caught a single fish in five years, and he needs your help to deceive his wife.

Unlike the other samurai game that most people are probably more familiar with, Ishin gives its protagonist a rich personal life that feels firmly rooted in Kyo. When the city burns down, it actually hurts to watch the bright flames engulf the local market. I wasn’t fighting samurai and wandering criminals out of misplaced pride. I was doing it out of love for a place that started to feel like a second home.

[review heading=”Like A Dragon: Ishin!” image=”” label1=”Back of the Box quote” description1=””A samurai walks into a bar and says ‘ouch’!” ” label2=”Type of game” description2=”Historical samurai soap opera with open-world elements.” label3=”Liked” description3=”Fantastic characters, cinematography, writing, beautiful background details, fun NPCs.” label4=”Disliked” description4=”Inconsistent storytelling, imbalanced combat, graphics not up to par.” label5=”Developer” description5=”Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio” label6=”Platforms” description6=”PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC” label7=”Release Date” description7=”February 21, 2023″ label8=”Played” description8=”Rolled credits and played a third of the side content, fully upgraded my perks.” ]

And I had to love it a lot, because the combat has never been a high point for the series. I wasn’t getting into fights because I enjoyed them. I did so when I needed money badly, or because I wanted to clean up these lawless streets. Ishin goes back to the fast-combo street brawling of its predecessors. Here’s how it’s different: Instead of using anything that you can grab in your environment, your main weapons (styles) of choice are your fists, your swords, and your guns — which you can switch between at any point during battle encounters. Unfortunately, the styles aren’t equally balanced.

Fists, swords, and guns

I abandoned the Brawler style as soon as I obtained a sword. As its name implies, fighting enemies with your fists provides paper-thin defence and practically no offence. When I was forced to engage in a story-mandated street brawl, I was constantly dealing chip damage. While Brawler was the only style that allowed me to smash enemies’ faces in with environmental objects, the rule of cool didn’t make up for how long fistfights could become. I understand that this is a Yakuza game, but this style could have been left out of the game entirely.

Swordsman was my bread-and-butter for most of the combat in Ishin. Hajime is such a great samurai that his sword is capable of blocking spears, bullets, even fireballs. Plus, the brutal finishing attacks are some of the most delightfully choreographed among all the fighting styles. Swordsman will never disappoint or hurt you — except for when certain button combinations don’t properly register during fast-paced combat. But it remains the most reliable style for both offence and defence.

Screenshot: Sega / Kotaku
Screenshot: Sega / Kotaku

Guns aren’t just a powerful weapon in Ishin; they’re a symbol of how quickly the feudal aristocracy were forced to modernise in order to keep up with western powers. But in practice, there was only one reason for me to use the Gunman style: when I was facing a firing squad that my sword couldn’t reach. The massive defensive penalties just weren’t worth it otherwise, especially for the fights that took place in narrow city streets (most of them). I’m spoiled by how overpowered guns are in western franchises, but they feel overbalanced in Ishin. Enemies also took five years to unload their bullets into me. Yes, guns were far shittier in the mid-nineteenth century. But I wanted them to be better. I didn’t want guns to incur distance penalties, or for enemies to take so long to line up a shot. But maybe that’s an expectation that arose from American gun fetishism. Guns are just another weapon style in Ishin, and few gaming experiences were more humbling than being killed by a polearm while I was trying to put enough distance between Hajime and a particularly difficult boss to unload my bullets into them.

Wild Dancer combines the sword and the gun into a single fighting style, and the result is more delightful than it has any right to be. This style is your main counter against crowds: You smack around a singular enemy with your sword, and then you spin around and unload a storm of bullets at the end of the combo. Little does Hajime know that in a few hundred years, his spiritual descendant Kiryu will live in a Japan where stricter gun laws prevent such carnage from occurring in public streets. For now, there are few cooler sequences than slashing an enemy before putting a bullet in his chest.

The trials and tribulations of Kazuma Kiryu (and Saito Hajime)

But none of this violence exists in a vacuum. While Hajime is a lone vigilante for most of the series (and the very beginning of Ishin), he mows people down as a uniformed captain of the Shinsengumi. This terrifying secret police squad doesn’t just kill former members for deciding that a warrior’s life isn’t for them — some captains are shown looting innocents or trying to limit the number of officers on the scene in order to increase their own monetary reward. Ishin doesn’t spare you from the street conversations about how brutal the Shinsengumi are. I admit, it’s not great for the leader of the rebel faction to cosy up to corrupt government officials, and it’s understandable that Hajime would choose a different path. But maybe Takechi had a point about his brother joining up with the cops?

The first half of Ishin is great about conveying the dark side of the Shinsengumi. That even if its individual members are honorable, their organisation is inherently dangerous to ordinary citizens. I still get chills when I think about one mid-game scene. When faced with the reality that his job requires him to kill, Hajime says: “So I should stop thinking and be a sword.” His fellow captain corrects him, but doesn’t stray from the core truth of it. “Be a warrior,” he says with the air of a knowledgeable older brother who had gone through the same inner conflict. “What greater value could you have?” It was hauntingly dehumanising, and wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a mainline Yakuza game about organised crime. Saito Hajime, the man who brings fresh vegetables to a little boy outside of the Shinsengumi compound, deserves better. But his allegiance to cold-blooded murderers is the price of his quest for justice.

Screenshot: Sega / Kotaku
Screenshot: Sega / Kotaku

Which is what makes it so jarring when the second half of the game becomes a triumphant Yakuza-esque drama about personal honour and the power of friendship. The writers built up a masterful narrative about how the organisation subsumes the individual, and then refused to commit to its logical conclusion. Kiryu (whom Hajime is based on) doesn’t purposely kill people! Even when they’re shitbags who deserve it! But the captain of the Shinsengumi does, and I wish that Ishin had spent more time exploring the conclusion to an arc that the writers had built up so diligently over the course of dozens of hours.

The game starts feeling as if it’s racing to hit a number of major historical plot beats of the Meiji Restoration before the game ends. The ruthless and paranoid Shinsengumi captains turn into trusted allies too quickly. The shogun is too eager to give up his power and acknowledge the equal rights of all citizens. The way that things ultimately resolves with the game’s main antagonist is perhaps the most unsatisfying narrative decision of all, though I won’t trudge too deep into spoiler territory here.

Where fact meets fiction

Which is a damn shame, because the way that Ishin weaves Yakuza intrigue and historical drama had me frantically searching Wikipedia pages on Japanese history while playing the game. I don’t mean that this game is unapproachable for players who don’t know that history. I mean this as praise for the depths of Ishin’s historical worldbuilding. What makes video games into an art form? Sometimes it’s a work’s ability to make us more curious about the world around us. And I was ravenous for knowledge about Japan’s industrial revolution while playing, and after playing the game.

But it’s fine if you’re not as enthusiastic about history as I am. This game is a remake of a Japan-only title, and the developers took the opportunity to add historical tooltips that explain locations and factions that characters throw out without any explanation or prelude. I like the concept. In practice, I wish that the localisation team had added more information about the various characters and historical events referenced.

I can also understand why they didn’t. Ishin’s dramatic storytelling works best when you’re willing to be open-minded about its creative liberties. This game takes a lot of them, and some of the reveals feel more clever if you’re in on the joke.

In one delightful moment, my historical knowledge was used to mislead me, as the game both conformed to and subverted my expectations of what I expected a character to do based on her actions in actual history. Games often reward players for knowing their lore, and it was exhilarating to be punished for it. I’m not saying that you need to have a dozen Japanese history tabs open like I currently do. But playing the game while knowing the history gives you a unique experience.

However, not everything about the original plotline of Ryu Ga Gotoku: Ishin (2014) has aged well. The ratio of male to female characters is even more abysmal than in the recent Yakuza: Like A Dragon. I understand that Ishin is a remake of an older game. But some of the characters have been updated with newer faces from the last title in the series. I think that if the developers could turn a blue-haired Korean gangster into a Japanese Shinsengumi spy, then they could have genderbent some of the major characters in order to give women more prominent roles. The female characters that Ishin does have, however, are still typecast as incredibly self-sacrificial. In a series about arsehole men with big egos, I’m so starved for a massive bitch. Don’t expect nuanced portrayals of women. You’re not about to get them.

I cheered at the moments of Anglophobia in this game. Hell yeah, Japan should beat back those arrogant Europeans who just want to make a shit-ton of money off East Asia. The game is not shy about telling you all the reasons why the British and Americans suck, or how much ordinary Japanese people have suffered because of their involvement in the economy. But we can’t choose which historical context matters. It felt jarring to hear Hajime give a nationalistic speech about the future of Japan, all while he was wearing his sky-blue police uniform.

You know what happens as a direct result of the Meiji Restoration and Japan’s rise to international power? The colonisation of Taiwan and Korea. The horrific genocide against Chinese civilians. Empires demand resources, and modern Japanese history is inextricably tied to wider Asian suffering and bloodshed. It was the reason why I had hoped that Hajime would leave the Shinsengumi before the end of the story. Being part of violent institutions has never suited Kazuma Kiryu. It doesn’t suit Saito Hajime either.

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