GAME REVIEW: Like a Dragon: Ishin

Title: Like a Dragon: Ishin / Like a Dragon: Ishin Kiwami
Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio
Publisher: SEGA
Release Date: February 21, 2023
Available on: Playstation 4, Playstation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Microsoft Windows
Reviewed on: PC via Steam 
Price: $59.99 for the base game. $69.99 for the Digital Deluxe Edition

Introduction

If you asked a Yakuza fan what they wanted most since the western release of Yakuza 0, there was only one true answer. “Bring Ishin to the west!”

The original version is widely considered one of the best games in the Like a Dragon / Yakuza series, running in what is widely considered to be the best engine the franchise has had yet: the engine which ran from Yakuza 5 through to Yakuza Kiwami 1. With a cast of fan-favorite characters, and what was spoken of as one of the best stories in the franchise, it was a crown jewel international fans couldn’t play. 

Until now. 

Photo Credit: SEGA

Like a Dragon: Ishin is not quite a remake, not quite a remaster. It falls into a gap between the two. In essence, it’s a 2014 game running in a modern engine. Some things have been changed (not always for the better), but it is a similar experience to the original in most respects. So far, so good. 

However, this is also a game which is severely impaired by poor performance, abusive DLC and anti-piracy measures, and detrimental changes. 

Plot Synopsis 

It is 1866, and Japan is fractured. The nation is on the edge of a civil war, deeply divided between those who support the shogunate and those who wish to see the emperor restored to power. Japan faces the threat of invasion for the first time in centuries. 

On the cusp of enacting a coup, Sakamoto Ryōma’s adoptive father is assassinated. Ryōma is suspected of the crime. As he flees the local government, he only has one clue as to who really killed his father: the assassin’s unusual sword style. 

This will take him to the heart of historical Japan, and deep into a web of conspiracies, as he fights for vengeance.

All of the historical figures are “played by” characters from the Like a Dragon series. Sakamoto Ryōma is portrayed as long-time series lead Kiryu Kazuma, for example. 

Because the story is an important element of the series, I’ll avoid any spoilers. This installment features one of the better stories the franchise has to offer. 

Analysis

Gameplay

Like most entries in the series, Like a Dragon: Ishin is a brawler. With a collection of weak attacks, strong attacks, grabs, parries, and flashy special attacks called heat moves you’ll punch, slice, or shoot your way through thousands of enemies. 

But that’s not the whole story. Like a Dragon: Ishin is also an open-world game, inviting you to explore a shrunk-down recreation of historical Kyo, saving cats and dogs, singing karaoke, and solving every problem in town.

This contrast is what makes the series special. There is always something to do, and you can never tire of one game mode: there’s always something else begging for your attention. 

The brawling is the meat of the game. You have four fighting styles to choose from. 

Photo Credit: SEGA

Brawler: While you can unlock some of Kiryu’s iconic attacks, this is not his Dragon Style. It’s a faster, scrappier style that asks you to stay in extremely close, dodge or parry all attacks, and pelt enemies with blows when they overcommit. While that sounds fun on paper, it does so little damage that it’s hard to find a place to use it. You can set up some heat actions via grabs, but unless you’re hoping to knock everyone down with the franchise staple counter the Tiger Drop, it borders on useless.

Swordsman: A style with high defense and powerful attacks, but limited mobility. This is the “samurai” style you picture if you close your eyes. It is best suited for one-on-one duels; in a melee you’re likely to be overwhelmed. While the limited mobility is an interesting risk and reward, it is a little too sluggish even for some duels.

Gunman: Armed with a six shooter, you can blow them all away. With the right equipment this can be the most powerful style in the game, stopped only by armor on late game enemies, but mobility is non-existent. 

Wild Dancer: With his sword in one hand and his gun in the other, Ryōma becomes a blur of motion. While this does less damage than either swordsman or gunman, wild dancer strikes so often and so fast that you quickly make up the difference. Due to its ability to take on multiple opponents at once, as well as its high damage and high mobility, this will become your workhorse style. But not for the reasons you’d want it to be (see below).

As you fight, you gain XP. Ordinary XP is gained per enemy you take out. Style XP is gained per hit while using an individual style. Advanced abilities are gained by seeking out teachers across Kyo. 

While some of the changes introduced hurt the combat in this game, it’s easy to pick up, difficult to put down, and has a somewhat high skill ceiling. Or, at least, it feels that way at the beginning. As you progress through the game, more and more problems drag the experience down (see Negative Changes below).

Side Activities

Another Life: Most games have a side campaign significantly more fleshed out than other activities, and feature characters who don’t interact with the main story but receive significant character development. In this case, it’s Another Life, a simplified farm sim. Ryōma saves Haruka – another version of the girl that Kiryu adopts in the main series – and works with her to save her family’s farm. 

Growing crops asks you to play a Resident Evil 4-style briefcase minigame as you place all of your fruit and vegetables on a grid. You don’t need to worry about seeds. Once they grow, you harvest and start the process again.

Inside, you have a Cooking Mama-like minigame. Chop your cucumbers, fry your fish, and keep your oven’s fire blazing. You also have the requests, one of your most reliable sources of money, where you help Haruka fulfill orders for crops, fish, food, and other items. 

Photo Credit: SEGA
Photo Credit: SEGA

In addition, you can adopt pets and collect eggs.

It’s enjoyable and relaxing. I’d love to see it expanded on, and be a little less simplified. 

Karaoke: One of the series’ most famous side activities, now with two extra songs new to this version. One of them is among the most difficult yet, as you deal with both the most distracting video possible and a beat that changes wildly. 

This is one of the best song lists in the series. Unfortunately, the brush you hit the beat in time to sometimes lags or suddenly rushes ahead. Other times, hits are marked as misses. 

Buyo Dancing: Much like Haruka’s dance battles in Yakuza 5, only now Ryōma is the one dancing. Charming, though the input indicators sometimes delay.

Udon Shop: Customers will demand their udon in various styles. You must memorize their orders (each possible dish mapped to a face button), and hit them in time. 

Courtesan Games: A series of minigames (including drinking without tipping the bowl, rock paper scissors, and an arcade shoot-em-up) as Ryōma attempts to impress a courtesan. 

Chicken Racing: A heavily simplified version of the chicken racing from Yakuza 5. Instead of raising your chicken, and always backing them, you simply watch other chickens race. It’s purely RNG, and even the chicken with the best stats can lose. The charm and the drama has been lost.

Gambling: All of the series stalwarts are back: Cee-Lo, Cho-Han, Koi-Koi, Oicho-Kabu, Poker, and everyone’s favorite: Mahjong. While not a gambling game, shogi also returns.

Battle Dungeons: We’ll discuss this in depth later. Battle dungeons are a series of caves filled with enemies. While you may be issued various goals, it always amounts to fighting to the other end. If your goal is to 100% the game, you will spend hours here farming for crafting materials. 

My ultimate criticism is all of the side activities are simple. There’s nothing that pulls me back in like the Hostess management sim in Yakuza 0 or Yakuza Kiwami 2 (which I will sometimes start up just to play one more round), or the hunting and taxi driving in Yakuza 5. While Another Life is charming, I wish it had as much to it as similar side campaigns. But I also recognize it is one of the earlier attempts at a campaign like this. 

The History

Like a Dragon: Ishin’s portrayal of history is at its best when it introduces a historical figure you may not have heard of, establishing an (exaggerated) aspect of their personality via their Yakuza character, and making sure you know the most important part of their story. Nearly every named character is a real person, and this is a pulpy window into an important period.

The game’s portrayal of history could be improved by making sure you know the necessary context. The glossary which can be accessed whenever a certain word appears in dialogue is a wonderful feature. This mainly extends to story beats, especially in side content. Beyond that, you’re on your own. Why is it important that Yamamoto Yae opens a school? You wouldn’t know from the game. 

Photo Credit: SEGA

The game’s portrayal of history is at its worst when it throws away interesting events from history, replacing it with something bland. The real Earnest Satow and Sakamoto Ryōma met at least once, and Ryōma didn’t take him seriously; they immediately had conflict. Instead, the fictional Satow and Ryōma are immediately friends. 

This particular thread is at its worst in two cases where women would protect their future husbands from assassination attempts. In one case, the woman is removed from the story. In the other, the most famous part of the story – when a woman stole an assassin’s spear to defend her future husband – simply doesn’t happen. 

We’ve lost wonderful, dynamic moments in history and replaced them with nothing. 

Visuals

While the game generally looks great – and environments are gorgeous – there are also reminders you are by and large playing a game from nearly a decade ago.

This is most visible in the characters. Characters with the most prominence have smooth animations and highly detailed textures. Secondary characters have received a texture upgrade, but sometimes have janky animations. Minor characters look much the same as they did in 2014.

Photo Credit: SEGA

Performance 

At release, performance was remarkably poor. Stuttering and slowdowns were common. Sometimes effects failed to load. 

The question was not, “Will it run well on my machine?” 

The question was, “How bad will it be for me?”

All but shader issues extend across all platforms. The only difference, really, is that PC players have more options to peek under the hood and try to rectify the problems themselves. 

After the 1.04 patch, performance is moderately poor. Problems appear less often, and are less extreme. Some sequences still have noticeable slow-down and sometimes halts when loading a cutscene (I have personally observed this happening during revelations and, once, when opening a pot). Fewer effects fail to load or implode (I have not seen hair, or entire characters, glitch out into TV static since the patch).

Photo Credit: SEGA

Regardless, serious issues remain. It has crashed since the patch. Sometimes heat actions will freeze the game for a long moment.

If you are still experiencing problems, or are playing the release version, the following will help if you’re on PC. 

Force the game to run in Directx 11. Most people who tried this and reported back have had some issues solved at once, and the remaining issues (such as effects failing to load and slow down) become less extreme. For stability, I tend to run the game in Directx 11. 

If you have remaining noticeable issues, reduce the FPS to 30. In my experience, that eliminated most remaining visual problems. This won’t be a solution for every player, but I will take the stable frame rate over variation. All story cutscenes are 30 FPS. 

After these two steps, performance increased considerably. Not well enough to say it ran well, or even entirely stable, but I trust most effects to load and trust the game not to crash.

The Grind

Like a Dragon: Ishin suffers from extraordinary grinding. 

If you are only interested in finishing the story, this will not seriously affect you. Most bosses drop weapons sufficiently strong enough to carry you through to the next guaranteed drop, and sub stories will provide sufficient gear. 

But if you plan to 100% the game, or even only make it to the secret boss, one category of completion is among the most intense set of requirements in the series. Most of the categories are perfectly doable, and far more fair than other entries. But crafting all items is a mountain to climb.

This has been made less onerous as of the 1.04 patch, which boosted the chance of enemy drops. However, this only boosted the chance from “frustrating” to “wearying.” 

As an example, three endgame materials are Eye of the Dragon, Dragon Whisker, and Dragon Fang. The only reliable farm is to run the dungeons’ final boss. Prior to the patch, I had gained about 1 of each via the dungeon. After the patch, dozens and dozens of runs later, I gained about 6 of each. This is a massive leap in the right direction, but still far too slow.

Photo Credit: SEGA

Why is it like this? 

The dungeons were balanced to be a completely different experience. In the original game, they only took minutes per run, with wildly powerful troopers that helped you boost through them even faster. They were also balanced to be run quickly on your PS Vita while you were out and about. 

Now most dungeon runs take 10-15 minutes each, even if you’re cheesing as hard as you can cheese. The crafting item drop rates were not designed with this bloated runtime in mind, and even as dramatically increased as they are now, it still feels wrong. 

Crafting materials, however, are not the only grind in town. 

The second most odious grind is money. Money will be restrictively tight on a “story only” run, and still moderately tight if you complete all of the side content. 

Prior to the 1.04 patch, it was possible to farm astonishing amounts of money from the chicken races. However, that loophole has now been closed.

The best in-game source of money is now either (literally) farming at your homestead, or playing chicken races the intended way (hoping for Lady Luck to wink at you, and save scumming when she doesn’t). Both of these options…will take awhile. 

As someone who loves to slowly work toward true 100% for all RGG games, this is nonsense I will accept. But many other completionists may want to only get so far as the secret boss and stop there. 

Changes from the Original

As alluded to, this game is not wholly faithful to the original. We can broadly separate these changes into beneficial changes, neutral changes, and negative changes. If you’d like to learn about all of the changes in greater detail, including some I simply don’t have the space to discuss, please read this article from The Story Arc. It covers nearly all of the changes. 

Beneficial Changes

Most of the changes to the smith are a mercy. First and foremost is the new travel location just outside the smith’s front doors. Not only is this a location you’ll visit regularly, this means there’s now a fast travel spot in each of the cardinal directions of the main map. 

Now you can view the entire crafting tree at once. Previously you could only see the upgrades for a specific weapon. In the original game, seals placed on weapons were permanent. Now they can be swapped freely. The entire process has been streamlined; in all but two ways, these changes are beneficial (or at least lateral). 

Photo Credit: SEGA

Unless there is a minigame inside a building, all buildings can be entered without a loading screen. You are also now free to save anywhere. 

The new photo mode is a gift, and makes taking screenshots of the environment a breeze. Having a full suite of Ryōma’s stances works well, and there are many, many color grade options.

Neutral Changes

Some actors have been replaced with other characters from the Like a Dragon series. Personally, I’m quite happy with the changes. Some changes are simply due to likeness rights expiring, and others are to bring more recent characters into the story. The new actor’s performances often take an entirely different direction from the original’s. Some will prefer the previous performances, others will prefer the new ones.

Negative Changes

One change cascades across the entire experience, making the game considerably worse. This game nerfs most combat styles. Wild Dancer, Swordsman, and Brawler have had the maximum speed reduced. With that loss of speed, Swordsman loses utility and Brawler becomes nearly useless. 

Gunman loses its ability to run and gun. You are essentially locked in place. This could be an interesting change in another world, making you weigh the risk and reward before you break out the style, but it essentially makes Gunman unusable unless the enemies are a considerable distance away. 

Some heat actions have had their inputs and damage greatly reduced. 

Altogether, this makes battles against difficult opponents simply annoying, makes some of the Ultimate Challenges a roll of the dice to complete, and, worst of all, means you’ll spend most of the game playing Wild Dancer. Wild Dancer suffered the most from nerfs: reduced speed, reduced damage, reduced efficacy in its heat actions. Despite that, it’s still the most viable style, even if you often feel something is missing as you play it. Even if it sometimes feels as though you’re swimming through jelly. Unlike Yakuza 0 or Lost Judgment, you will not be switching styles on the fly for the one that works best at the moment.

There are already PC mods that restore the original Ishin’s style upgrades. They run beautifully at their intended speed, and several of the challenges move from “impossible without luck” to “harsh but fair.” They do not impact performance. It’s a shame that any of these changes were made.

The second worst change is that, like recent entries in the mainline Like a Dragon series, enemies have a singular health bar. It makes it difficult to judge attacks, and is far less dynamic than the layers of health bars.

All bosses feel fragile and go down far too quickly. If you stay on the attack, bosses wither.

Every game in the series has a secret boss battle. Each one is a test. In Yakuza 4, the secret bosses are essentially an item puzzle. What items do you equip on which characters to make it a fair fight? In some, the secret boss tests your abilities. In Yakuza 6, he tests your patience. 

In the original Like a Dragon: Ishin, this boss is considered one of the toughest to take down in the series. This couldn’t be less true about him in the new version. In the first part of this two-part boss battle, he went down so quickly I thought it was a trick. In the second part, thanks to some inventory mismanagement, I forgot to equip healing items before starting the fight. I still won on the first try. 

There are few satisfying fights in the game. Unless you purposefully hold back, you won’t see most of a boss’ moveset, or meaningfully engage. Difficulty as a whole has taken a nosedive. 

There are two negative changes to the smith. In the original, item quality was determined by a minigame. In this version, it’s determined by consumable hammers. The highest quality hammers are rare, so getting high level items and weapons becomes a game of rationing out your low level hammers to reach quality items by the end of an item tree. I would be kinder on this system if they didn’t sell DLC consumable hammers which instantly max out a single piece of gear. 

Second, you have far less freedom in applying seals (a bonus that can be attached to weapons or armor). Originally, you had freedom to put most seals on most equipment, and could deconstruct an item to put its unique seal on another item. Players had significant freedom to mix and match the qualities of weapons and items. Now, it’s much more tightly controlled and most seals only have mild effects.

Photo Credit: SEGA

At the end of this section, we reach the most controversial change. The changes to trooper cards, and their addition to all combat. Originally, trooper cards were much more specialized, and could only be used in dungeons. Now they provide flashy – some say “anime” – powers.

Personally, I found them easy to ignore. As discussed, bosses melt when you attack them. Using trooper cards will simply speed you past playing the game at all. At that point, I simply chose not to use them. I’d prefer an option to turn them off entirely for future playthroughs, but they’re not required for clearing the game.

Only the dungeon is correctly balanced for their use, and they’re all but required to get through the dungeon levels quickly. But I also had fun chaining cards together, and carefully assembling squads for the most benefit. When I had a reason to use them, the cards can be fun. It just so happens that the original game had it right all along: they’re most useful, and most fun, in the dungeon.

Abusive DLC

You might be tempted to think that the DLC packs at least provide a significant number of rare items for the price.

Most of the items in the two Upgrade Materials Kit can be farmed in literal minutes, even prior to the 1.04 patch. The Sword kit only includes regular item drops and a rare upgrade hammer. The Gun kit only includes regular item drops, a rare hammer, and a singular Dragon Whisker. Above, I mentioned the pain of farming these. For $2.99, you can reach 1/20th of the way to having as many as you need to craft the most powerful sword in the game. It’s practically encouraging you to pay $59 just to have the farm over that much more quickly. The fact that Dragon Whiskers spawn at about half the rate as the other Dragon materials feels suspicious.

The Ryoma Growth Support Kit offers three XP items of each kind (15 in total). It’s encouraging you to pay to win in a single player game. Worst of all, these items can be purchased in bulk from a late-game vendor. You’re paying to win by paying for an easily obtained item.

In previous Yakuza games, these DLC items would apply to all save files (and they were often free bonuses). 

Now these DLC are only available once, on one save file, and you will be prompted to save after picking one up.

This is unacceptable in a single player game, and the way it encourages people to spend hundreds of dollars is even worse. 

The hardest difficulty is also paywalled behind a $4.99 DLC. This DLC, at least, applies to all save files. 

Abusive Anti-Piracy Measures

The worst “feature” in Like a Dragon: Ishin is Denuvo Anti-Tamper, an over-reaching DRM system. It checks against itself regularly, dragging performance down as it clogs your machine’s processes. 

Many of Ishin’s abhorrent technical failures should be blamed on Denuvo, but it’s far worse than that. 

Denuvo requires regular online check-ins and will refuse to start the game (or if you’re in game and your internet turns off, refuse to allow you to enter buildings or load cut-scenes, as some have reported). It seems that it’s requiring a check-in at least every 24 hours (and likely more, based on my testing). 

This makes Like a Dragon: Ishin a de facto always online game; that is simply unacceptable for a single-player game. 

Final Score: 1 Out of 5 Stars

Rating: 1 out of 5.

The abusive DLC, the Denuvo implementation that leaves it a de facto always online game, and the performance problems that still persist after the latest patch (more than a month after release), make it difficult to recommend Like a Dragon: Ishin. These are fatal flaws.

Don’t attempt to play the game if you live somewhere with an unreliable internet connection. I once lived somewhere where I often had to fight tooth and nail for a stable connection, and playing this game would have been impossible. 

If the above didn’t exist, would Like a Dragon: Ishin worth playing? Yes, but that is a qualified yes. It’s the only release of Ishin we’re likely to receive in the west, but the gameplay suffers from minor to intense problems that drag the entire experience down. While I love most of the refinements to smithing and I personally love the new cast, the detrimental changes to combat are a loadstone around the game’s neck. It would score better without the DLC, performance, and anti-piracy situations, but it is far from perfect (or even the best version of Ishin).

This is frustrating. Buried beneath the abusive practices, the performance problems, and the misguided revisions is a game well worth playing. But in the end, it’s unlikely this version of Like a Dragon: Ishin will ever reach its full potential. Potential which is maddeningly just out of reach. 

Photo Credit: SEGA

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