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Like A Dragon: Ishin! is a Love Letter to the Yakuza Franchise

Explore the bustling world of 1860s Kyoto and take down your foes in style.



Like A Dragon: Ishin! Review

Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio | Publisher: SEGA | Genre: Action-Adventure
Platforms: Windows, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, PS4, PS5
Reviewed on: PS5

Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio’s Yakuza franchise, now rebranded to ‘Like A Dragon’ in the West, has always been a franchise that knows exactly what it wants to achieve and does so with mixed results. At its peak, games like Yakuza 0 (2015) and Yakuza: Like A Dragon (2020) masterfully mix serious political crime drama narratives with remarkably goofy, enjoyable and high-effort side content with exceptionally fun combat that ties the whole experience together. At its worst, games like Yakuza 3 (2009) and Yakuza 4 (2010) offer frustrating combat that gets in the way of the narrative, and in the latter case delivers a messy and unsatisfying plot with a weak conclusion.

Like A Dragon Ishin!, the updated and remade version of 2014’s Japanese-exclusive Ryu Ga Gotoku: Ishin!, fits so neatly into the first of these two categories that it deserves to be placed in the pantheon of RGG Studio’s greatest achievements. For those unaware, Like A Dragon: Ishin! is a non-canonical spin-off title set primarily in 1860s Kyo (modern-day Kyoto) and features a large cast of familiar faces throughout the wider Yakuza franchise but each fitting very different roles to their mainline Yakuza counterparts. The protagonist physically resembles franchise protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, but his name is Ryoma Sakamoto and his personality is slightly different, albeit not too far away from the Kiryu we all know and love. The same goes for much of the cast, and their relationships with each other are often quite different as a result of this reshuffling.

Rebuilt on a new engine while staying faithful to the original Japanese release, Like A Dragon: Ishin! is an immensely satisfying game for fans of the wider Yakuza/Like A Dragon franchise, offering four unique stances of combat to take down your enemies throughout a lengthy political period drama filled to the brim with twists, tragedies and charming silliness. Completely devoid of performance issues on PS5 and with a level of polish that only occasionally shows a rough edge, Like A Dragon: Ishin! is a well-rounded game with a wide variety of side activities ranging from slightly too repetitive to utterly compelling. Getting lost in the vegetable garden side story for a dozen hours before finally returning to the revenge drama narrative is part of the appeal, and the cinematography, character acting and background music of the main story never fails to captivate as the conspiracies of the world begin to unravel.

Bringing a Gun to a Swordfight

Like A Dragon: Ishin! Ryoma shooting a man with a gun
Image: SEGA

Each of the four styles of combat in Like A Dragon: Ishin! brings a plethora of options to the table when facing the many foes of Kyo and beyond, and each is capable of becoming extremely powerful in its own right. The first combat stance is Brawler and is most familiar to those who have played the Yakuza franchise, featuring a suite of basic combos that don’t deal much damage by themselves but can be upgraded via training to acquire many exceptionally useful Heat Action moves capable of obliterating enemies. Game-changing abilities like the legendary Komaki Tiger Drop can be acquired fairly early and offer a high-risk high-reward style of play that incentivises aggression and learning boss movesets, culminating in a satisfying combat experience for those who want to keep things relatively simple.

The other three styles, Swordsman, Gunman and Wild Dancer, utilise weapons to deal significant damage but are more reliant on equipped gear to really reach the spotlight. The starting sword and gun are not very powerful but can be upgraded using the blacksmith in Kyo, though ultimately this isn’t necessary as better swords and guns are also unlocked by continuing the story and defeating bosses. Swordsman is recommended by the game for boss encounters (though it by no means the only way of overcoming these challenges) and boasts powerful charged attacks that can slice through enemies, while Gunman excels at hitting foes from afar and can deal with pesky ranged enemies without having to close the distance. Wild Dancer combines both of these styles and allows for chained combos that can effectively control crowds, and ultimately any style can be used for the majority of the game based on player preference.

Every combat stance can be upgraded by training with specific characters in Kyo, indicated by green buildings on the map, and this is where the true power of each stance can begin to shine. When a certain style is used enough, it levels up and unlocks coloured orbs which can be slotted into abilities from the menu, in addition to generic grey orbs obtained by levelling up Ryoma which can be slotted into any stance and later swapped out by coloured orbs for optimisation’s sake. This creates a versatile upgrade system with incentives for using all four styles to maximise the number of upgrade orbs obtained. Once the training is completed for a stance and every ability in its suite is obtained, returning to the stance’s trainer will unlock the special ability to upgrade everything a second time, doubling down on damage and speed to forge an even more powerful moveset capable of defeating the most powerful enemies.

Vegetable Garden Millionaire

Like A Dragon: Ishin! city of Kyo
Image: SEGA

As is much of the appeal of Like A Dragon: Ishin! and other games in the wider franchise, the bustling world of Kyo is filled with fun activities. As early as Chapter 1 in the story, protagonist Ryoma can rhythmically chop wood to earn money in an amusing minigame that increases in speed, and once entering Kyo a far wider range of activities becomes available. Series staples like karaoke and fishing are as fantastic as ever, offering a range of samurai songs to sing while making the fishing system straightforward and enjoyable enough to pick up at any time. The dancing minigame is a more advanced rhythm game that can really test the player’s skills, while the brothel somehow manages to perfectly balance out its cheesy fanservice with increasingly absurd minigames that make for a hilarious experience, culminating in a Space Invaders style game so utterly baffling in its silliness that it must be seen to be believed.

All of this feeds into Like A Dragon: Ishin!’s Virtue system, a universal reward system that gives Virtue as a currency when Ryoma completes tasks all around Kyo. Every time a fish is caught, a song is sung or a small lidded pot is inspected for its randomised goods, Virtue can be acquired and spent at certain shrines for major rewards. By far the best way to accumulate Virtue is to immediately invest into the rewards that increase Virtue gain, as when fully upgraded this increases all rewards by 50% and pays out in dividends as the game progresses, but apart from that these rewards can be obtained in whichever order pleases players the most. The most significant Virtue investment is for the game’s Second Life segment, which is by far its largest and most involved optional content.

Second Life involves Ryoma discovering a house in the countryside which is under threat of being lost due to hefty fees, causing Ryoma to move in with current resident Haruka (yes, that Haruka) and grow vegetables to sell them and make a profit. Vegetables can be acquired permanently using Virtue and planted in the garden outside the house, which can be expanded using Virtue in numerous ways to increase size and harvest while reducing waiting times. Inside, a brilliantly fun cooking minigame allows Ryoma and Haruka to bond while chopping vegetables, stoking the fire and flipping fish on the grill at the correct time to grant enhanced bonuses to the consumable food items produced. Further upgrades to the inside and outside of the house allow Ryoma to house up to three cats and dogs found all over Kyo, and the combination of all of these systems makes for a wholesome adventure away from the main story.

While some of these minigames, including the cooking, can get very repetitive over time, the sheer variety is more than enough to provide dozens of hours of entertainment outside of the drama of the plot. Moreover, the world of Kyo is so distinct from the present-day settings of the Yakuza franchise that Like A Dragon: Ishin! feels like a fresh take on the formula rather than yet another iteration of the same idea. There was one issue with the game’s Scarecrow Chateau training ground resetting all progress unintentionally, undoing perhaps ten to fifteen minutes of gameplay, but aside from this annoyance there were no performance issues or glitches present throughout the forty hours it took to complete the story and much of the side content.

Shinsengumi Showdown

LAD: Ishin! two plot-relevant characters clashing swords
Image: SEGA

What really makes Like A Dragon: Ishin! stand out is its inclusion of characters from across the broader Yakuza franchise, effectively utilising its non-canon status to create a wide variety of brand new characters with familiar faces and develop new relationships between them. Mere minutes into the story, the faces of Tojo clan legends Goro Majima and Taiga Saejima can be seen working alongside Yakuza 3’s Yoshitaka Mine and fan-favourite financier Shun Akiyama on a mysterious mission in an in medias res cutscene. There is something innately satisfying about watching characters who never shared any screentime together getting an opportunity to have a fresh start in a different universe, leading to an experience which is enhanced by having played the games in which these characters originally appeared.

Broadly speaking, the cast of Like A Dragon: Ishin! is very well developed, with protagonist Ryoma Sakamoto being a slightly darker yet genuinely likeable rendition of Kazuma Kiryu who prioritises the lives of those close to him and seeks deadly revenge on his enemies. As with the wider Yakuza franchise, the protagonist seamlessly jumps between silly side content and serious drama plot without ever feeling out of place. The early-game side quests range from listening to an excessively talkative old woman and being quizzed afterwards, to helping two children have a proper goodbye before one moves away, to stopping a misguided violent mob appropriating a slogan meant for serious political advocacy. Despite this sounding like a complete tonal mess the result is a well-balanced range of side content that helps to flesh out the world of Kyo and adds to a feeling of existing in a vibrant and living city full of unexpected occurrences around every corner.

Fans of other games in the Yakuza/Like A Dragon franchise will be extremely pleased to see that every mainline game is represented in some way here. All three of the villainous captains from Yakuza 0 have significant roles, while Akira Nishikiyama, Ryuji Goda, Yoshitaka Mine, Shun Akiyama, Masaru Watase, Joon-gi Han and Tianyou Zhao among many others represent their respective games from Yakuza Kiwami all the way to Yakuza: Like A Dragon. While none of these characters are the same as their mainline Yakuza counterparts and it can be a little confusing having to think of them as brand new characters with different names and personalities, Like A Dragon: Ishin! nonetheless cements itself as possibly the single largest piece of fanservice for the broader franchise and does so to great effect. This may not seem particularly significant but it ultimately is a large amount of the appeal given how immensely popular some of these characters are among the fanbase, and the good news is each of these characters gets their own chance to shine in this new world.

Bakufu to the Future

LAD: Ishin! Ryoma walking into the Shinsengumi headquarters
Image: SEGA

As it has come to be somewhat expected by Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, the plot of Like A Dragon: Ishin! starts off fairly straightforward and slowly blossoms into a chaotic yet satisfying mess of political schemes, revelations and revealed identities. Beginning in the humble town of Tosa, protagonist Ryoma Sakamoto joins a local class revolutionary movement with the goal of creating a more equal society, but travels to the city of Kyo following a tragic event to discover the truth and enact his revenge. It’s an easy premise to pick up, and this is the driving motivation for much of the story going forwards. The mystery of the masked killer who knows a unique fighting stance immediately spirals into a grand conspiracy as Ryoma joins the Shinsengumi, a group of elite warriors who are all potential suspects in their own right. From this point onwards, the story becomes incredibly compelling, as Ryoma must discover which captains are friends and who might betray him.

Set in the 1860s, Like A Dragon: Ishin! retells a historical story centred around the Meiji Restoration, but the plot can be followed reasonably well without any prior knowledge. In fact, an in-game glossary icon appears on certain words in spoken dialogue, allowing players to briefly pause and understand the meaning of certain Japanese words such as Bakufu, place names like Tosa and Kyo, and concepts such as loyalist movements. These snippets of extra context are very useful for those unfamiliar with the time period. That being said, do not go into this samurai adventure expecting a purely historically accurate story, as Like A Dragon: Ishin! bathes in its Yakuza identity and utilises much of the ensuing chaos and charming absurdity to tell its own story in a historical setting rather than obsessing over the specific details. This is much to the game’s benefit, allowing for a greater level of creative freedom in exploring these characters and their interpersonal dramas.

The presentation of the story is nothing short of masterful. Every cutscene, no matter how convoluted and ridiculous the story, is beautifully framed and every boss fight is coupled with excellent music that often remixes tracks from other Yakuza games to great success. The fact that one of the most iconic final boss themes from the Yakuza franchise is given its own remix specifically for a boss that doesn’t affect the plot whatsoever is more than enough proof of this dedication to crafting an experience built for the satisfaction of Yakuza fans. On the flip side, the final boss theme is an original piece and one that is immediately iconic upon finishing the game, demonstrating that Like A Dragon: Ishin! aspires to be much more than just brand recognition. Rather than simply being a story written for the sake of allowing Yakuza fan favourite characters to interact with each other in new and exciting ways, the story here has meaningful themes and explores concepts such as revenge and class struggle with reasonable nuance.

Like A Dragon: Ishin! is Fanservice Done Right

Ryoma's Wild Dancer stance attacking enemies with a sword
Image: SEGA

A non-canonical spin-off title rarely needs to aspire to be anything more than simple entertainment, and Like A Dragon: Ishin! certainly achieves this goal with immense success. The variety of entertaining side stories, minigames and returning character faces from other games in the wider franchise all add up to create an experience for fans to enjoy and be satisfied with on a surface level. Watching Ryoma and Haruka bonding in the Second Life quest is heart-warming and nostalgic as it brings back memories of Kiryu and Haruka’s story in Yakuza Kiwami. Watching Ryoma fight Okita Soji directly mirrors Kiryu’s numerous fights with Goro Majima in the mainline Yakuza games. Even the inclusion of the iconic Baka Mitai song in the karaoke bar – and the existence of the karaoke bar in the first place – is designed specifically for fans to enjoy the call-back to other games.

What separates Like A Dragon: Ishin! from other fanservice games and spin-off titles is its ability to be all of this and so much more besides. It tells a story not only about revenge and knowing when to let go, but about political upheaval and the necessity to forge a better world for future generations. Among its ludicrously over-the-top long battles fighting hundreds of samurai in set-piece castles, Like A Dragon: Ishin! has a big heart, and allows its protagonist to feel anger, sorrow, joy, fear and everything in-between. It does not come without flaws, as some dungeons had frustrating enemy placements and the trooper card system is overdesigned and largely unnecessary, but these amount to very little in the face of what is otherwise a remarkable achievement. The tale of Ryoma Sakamoto and his ambition to change the world is a very memorable one, and the high quality on display here sets an exciting precedent as we look to the future of the Like A Dragon franchise.

James is a university graduate based in England whose main hobbies are history, languages, and of course video games. His favourite games are Hollow Knight, Horizon Zero Dawn, and anything made by Atlus or FromSoftware, and you can usually find him on Twitter @sacGOONER63 drooling over these games and many more. You can also read his weekly ramblings about games at if you so wish.