Like A Dragon: Ishin almost made me cry, then I raced chickens to dry my tears
Yakuza fans, this one's for you
Above the Berlin Samurai Museum's gift shop and flanked by ornate helmets of fearsome warriors of a bygone era, I played a few hours of Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio's remake of historical Yakuza spin-off Like A Dragon: Ishin this week. The original was a Japanese-only release back in 2014 on the PlayStation 3, but what a fever dream it was to be dropped into Chapter 3 of the story and let loose on an Edo period Kyoto as none other than Ryoma Sakamoto (multiverse Kiryu). I almost cried, I raced chickens, I caught a big eel, and I've come away with a warm fuzzy feeling inside.
From what I've played of the game's earliest portions, it's Yakuza through and through, to both its benefit and detriment. I don't expect it to convert those who dislike the series, but if you're a fan or a newcomer, it's looking like it'll both be a celebration of its cast, and a remake that feels like an old-school spin on the excellent Yakuza 0. In other words, the perfect introduction point to this mad, but beautiful action series.
Until I'd sat through some lavish cutscenes, I hadn't realised quite how well Yakuza's all-star cast lends itself to the shogunate. Legendary clan captains like Yakuza 0's Kuze (or KUZEEEEE!!, as he's better known) brood in their hakamas, interjecting with gravelly barks as dust gently falls on tatami floors. Kneeling replaces arms slung back on velvet chairs. Sliding doors adorned with delicate motifs replace the blink of printers and panes of glass. Still, business etiquette is upheld across generations, as characters old and new hash out their strategies with a familiar charged energy. I'd say the late-Edo period will likely make for better back-stabbing, though (in every sense of the word).
Watching your favourite characters from across the series jab each other in historical cosplay has a miraculous feel to it. Some have been resurrected from the dead, while others are completely fresh on the block, but seeing faces old and new go blade to blade (or blade to gun barrel, in some cases), playing off and against their established Yakuza rivalries is a real thrill - and the magic of Ishin's swordplay means you're able to see how two titans either collide or snake around each other with a playful malice.
Without spoiling too much, I tango'd with Taiga Saejima (or Nagakura Shinpachi as he's known here), which taught me the importance of switching fighting styles on the fly. There are four to choose from: Swordsman, Brawler, Wild Dancer, and Gunman. When fighting regular thugs, it doesn't matter a great deal which you opt for. But when up against a man-mountain, I found Wild Dancer (as hoped) was great for twirling out of the way of Saejima's hefty swings and chipping him with quick slashes of a katana, while whipping out the ol' Gunman helped pepper his health bar down from a distance before he got too close for comfort.
It's too early to make a judgment on Ishin's combat as a whole, of course, but I wouldn't say it felt all too different from your classic Yakuza brawling. If anything, the entire time I spent with Ishin felt most similar to my experience with Yakuza 0 in the game's aesthetics, mood, and even in Ki- sorry, Ryoma's movements. This is good, because 0 is – in my humble opinion – the bestest RGG game.
The game trades the glitz and the grub of Kamurocho's neon-lit streets for a quieter, scrappier Kyo, RGG's take on early Kyoto. I like how its dusty main street captures the buzz of a growing city, transporting you back to a time before basslines and the bop of arcade machines leaked onto pavement. Traders hawk their wares from open stalls and entice you into parting with your hard-earned Ryo (old Yen, innit) with descriptions of ancient rice balls that'll have you learning a thing or two about 1800s palates. Take time to explore its side streets and this is where you'll discover quaint temples or sudden cuts to the quirky or the tearjerking.
I genuinely had no idea what emotional battering awaited me as I stumbled across two best friends called Miho and Shinta. Miho had just told Shinta she was leaving home, as her father pushed her to hurry up from afar. But Shinta didn't take the news too well and ran off in anger. Miho told us to deliver him a simple message: "Thanks". Later, I found him in a corner by a temple, quietly contemplating why he'd sprinted off in a rage. And in typical Kiryu (sorry, Ryoma, I'm just going to roll with it) fashion, I took the time to separate his feelings into something a little more manageable and convert a crisis into a learning opportunity. We talked through the sitch, which helped him realise that he'd like to meet with Miho one last time and say goodbye properly. Dear reader, my lips twitched and my eyes welled up as that final reunion took place. I very nearly bawled my eyes out in front of respected journos as Shinta shouted, "I'll write you letters all the time! For the rest of my life until I'm an old man!", as the twinkle of piano loosened my tear ducts even more.
As is the way with Yakuza, emotional chin-checks are followed up by the wildest sucker punches. I took my psychic damage to the chicken races, where I combed through chicken stats and placed bets on the fittest fowls. Somehow, I won my first bet, after which the fella behind the counter dispelled my emotional fragility with perhaps the greatest compliment I've ever received: "Not just anyone can look past the feathers and into a cluckers soul!"
Not long after, I bought some bait and yanked a big eel out of a river. Then I helped a nice lady out, who taught me how to do some traditional fan-dancing as I gyrated and timed my button clicks to fill cone-shaped bars. Who do you think I am? Of course I belted out Baka Mitai in a singing parlour. Kyo may not be as dense as Kamurocho, but that doesn't mean it loses any of Yakuza's ability to distract in the best way.
In some of my final moments of the demo, I bumped into Haruka (Kiryu's adoptive daughter) who – after some story stuff happened – introduced me to "Another Life", a farming mini-game where you must plant and cultivate produce, trade with merchants, and expand your lovely little home. I rotated some sweet potatoes in my allotment, which you'll be pleased to hear. All I know is that it's likely an all-consuming retreat for those who want to escape the difficulties of samurai life.
But perhaps more than my own experiences, those of the other journos I spoke to provide a perfect summation of my brief stint with Like A Dragon: Ishin. They all had different stories to tell, about how they'd bumped into and met all sorts of interesting characters I hadn't encountered, or spent most of their time befriending the fella behind the bar who ran the chicken racing joint. And isn't that what the series is all about? It may be familiar territory for fans and likely won't convince those who aren't into Yakuza to take another dip here, but boy, I can't wait to get a palanquin back to Kyo when Ishin releases in full on February 21st.