Like a Dragon: Ishin! is the latest farming simulation from retro game compilation developer Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio. In it, you’ll play as the familiar-looking Ryoma and rebuild a farm and become a father figure to orphan Haruka. There’s also some other things like fights and intrigue, we guess? Read on for our full breakdown.
Confused by Ishin? That’s totally understandable. As Sega continues its unenviable effort of trying to rebrand the Yakuza franchise in the West to its original Japanese name, that’s going to happen, and doing so with a game in a different time and setting compounds the problem. (After all, the Story of Seasons team is still dealing with lingering Harvest Moon confusion!) What you need to know? Yep, it’s the same franchise, and reverting to the original name makes a lot more sense when many of the games have much less of a focus on organized crime.
Ishin is, despite making its Western debut, a remake of a 2014 game with the same general premise and gameplay. Much like the Kiwami releases, this one has seen updates to accompany the remaster, including a move to Unreal Engine 4. This has a number of effects on players’ experience! It looks nice, clearly. It suffers, though, from some of the same problems as 60-frame-per-second films. There’s a lot of detail and great lighting, but with environments that aren’t as cluttered as the modern-day titles, things end up feeling more like a movie set or theme park than a real place as their artifice is more noticeable in higher definition.
Ishin also suffers from a number of technical issues. The franchise’s tactical reuse of withered technology brought with it some of its own problems in the past, but here we saw some different pain points. Sometimes, menu selections just didn’t load and you could still choose blindly to continue but it wasn’t ideal. Playing for a long time at once (which, surprise, we review folk have to do a lot) led to some serious slowdown when loading a scripted sequence or talking to a vendor. It’s tolerable, and we bet RGG Studio can patch many of these issues! But you should know about them going in.
It always takes a bit for a Ryu Ga Gotoku game to open up and get good, and Ishin is no exception. The early hours are a slog that tries to get you invested in the story, and we find this to be way less effective than the open parts that let you opt in to the main narrative when you feel like it. And hey, by doing some of the side activities, like becoming a samurai cop and exposing your mentor’s killer, you can unlock cool upgrades for your farm!
You’ll definitely need to bring along some patience or tolerance for tedium to deal with some of Like a Dragon: Ishin’s substories. One has you listening to very long stories from a talkative lady and answering questions to make sure you paid attention. One has you chop a bunch of logs over and over.
Perhaps the most egregious? Ones that make you keep performing the same fetch quests over and over. There’s a kid who loves vegetables, and he’s endearing! But the number of times you have to push through the same prompts to hand him a veggie? Too high. Similar is the battered defender, who just needs you to stuff his gullet with medicine about 50 times. Still, in some of these substories lies the true charm of the franchise. Ishin even includes a story explanation for why you can find items in pots and why it’s totally fine to take them.
Just in case you want to take a break from the clear core gameplay here of farming just outside of town with your best pal Haruka — and we don’t know why you would — it’s good to get acquainted with the combat system! You can switch between four styles at almost any time. The fist-fighting of Brawler wasn’t our taste, but you do end up using it when you’re surprised without your weapons handy. Swordsman style is probably what you’d expect to see most in a throwback setting, and we found it most useful for one-on-one boss-battle standoffs. Gunman lets you just shoot with reckless abandon, and we used it a lot on low-level fights to finish them before foes even got close.
But let’s use the luxury and prestige of a paragraph break to wax a bit about Wild Dancer. The fourth combat style is our go-to favorite, and works in so many settings. Sure, using a firearm and a sword at the same time is cool, but what makes Wild Dancer so good is its dodge. Ryoma spins and avoids almost any attack, even at close range, as long as you’re paying attention. It’s definitely the one to use against a pack of fighters, but we — admittedly action game amateurs — ran through boss fights untouched in ways we just haven’t been able to manage in other similar games. Wild Dancer? It gets our seal of approval.
Accompanying all of these styles is the new Trooper Card system. You can equip extra effects, like special attacks and healing, and upgrade these cards a lot like a gacha mobile game. We found the effects helpful enough without micromanaging too much, and in the pre-release review period, we couldn’t address how broken those DLC cards might be. So if the system puts you off, it’s probably fine to not mess with them too much and enjoy some minor health regeneration or whatever else shows up by default.
Like a Dragon: Ishin! uses the likeness and mannerisms of fictional protagonist Kiryu Kazuma to play real historical figure Sakamoto Ryoma as he pretends to be a man named Saito Hajime. It’s exactly as confusing as it sounds for both newcomers and returning fans. It’s fun to see familiar faces play the roles of characters in the adventure, but you may need to take notes or check the relationship chart in the menu often. There’s even a “Dragon of Dojima” skin for the protagonist, and equipping it makes things even more confusing.
There are a lot of references to real-life history in Ishin that for sure won’t land with a Western audience, but we’re glad it’s there for the curious. Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio and Sega even implemented a helpful contextual glossary, defining specific terms of the region and era. It’s totally unobtrusive, but when you want some clarity, you can hit the button in the middle of dialogue.
With the old faces playing these roles, its story feels more like a stage play than ever. And we’re no experts, but we get the feeling that the game approaches adherence to history similarly. Many characters have names of real-life people, and those names usually do have something to do with how they’re portrayed. But, and we’re sure you didn’t need us to tell you this, please don’t use this as a serious educational tool. The localization adds a few chuckles, especially when using modern phrasing in this old-timey context. But it works well with the rest of the game’s strange juxtapositions.
At its best when its focus is divided, Like a Dragon: Ishin! is a fun Bakumatsu sandbox. It doesn’t have the engrossing standout minigame like the cabaret or business management challenges of previous titles, and its time period means it also doesn’t pack a fun arcade. But its jack-of-all-trades approach still resonates.
Like a Dragon: Ishin! launches February 21, 2023 for PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, PC and Xbox. It’s developed by Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio and published by Sega. Deluxe pre-orders include early access for players, allowing them to start playing on February 17, 2023.