games / Reviews

Like a Dragon: Ishin! (PS5) Review

March 27, 2023 | Posted by Marc Morrison
Like a Dragon: Ishin! Image Credit: RGG Studio
The 411 Rating
Community Grade
Your Grade
Like a Dragon: Ishin! (PS5) Review  

Before I start the actual review, let me get this off my chest first, the changing from the “Yakuza” franchise name to “Like a Dragon” is supremely stupid. Even if there aren’t any traditional Yakuza in this game, there is a functional enough organization that could serve as a Yakuza stand-in. If they really wanted this name change to happen, they should have done it in 2015 when Yakuza 0 revitalized and reintroduced the franchise to a Western audience. They shouldn’t do it when they are 7 games into the franchise! With my rant over, the review can actually start.

Ishin is a bit of an odd game when you look at it. On the one hand, it’s a historical game that is fairly rooted in some factual underpinnings but also it’s still a Yakuza, sorry, Like a Dragon game. It has plenty of goofy stuff going on but this is a pretty interesting spin on an existing franchise.

The basic setup has you playing as Sakamoto Ryoma, a swordsman who has just come back to his hometown. He hooks up with his surrogate father and brother in a plan to overthrow the caste system in the town but the father is quickly killed by a mysterious assassin. The blame is placed at your feet and you quickly escape, only to resurface in a new city under an assumed name. You eventually join the Shinsengumi, which is like a quasi-military/mercenary force that is trying to keep the peace. You know the assassin is in their ranks so you are trying to hunt him down while also keeping up appearances.

I’ll start with actually the worst system in the game: the combat. While it’s not “bad” by any means, it feels weirdly laggy and underpowered. Like with past games you have four different stances and they are as follows:

Melee/hand to hand is generally considered the weakest stance but it does have its uses. In this stance you only fight with your fists with no weapon, though you can unlock a set of skills to use weapons later on, though it doesn’t generate any stance experience. This is the stance for countering/reversals though as it’s unlocked from the start and requires only loose timing to do it. Get attacked, throw the guy off balance and then follow it up with a few very weak punches. Rinse & repeat.

The sword is what they want you to use a lot of the time, but I didn’t. It’s good for one-on-one encounters but pretty bad for groups of enemies. It’s good for enemies who do guard a lot since it has a guard break move, but it requires very specific timing for counters that I never got down reliably. It also has more targeted attacks, requiring you to hold another button to do certain actions, which felt awkward.

You can straight up pack a gun in this game and that is pretty alright. The regular shots are somewhat weak but you have an infinite number of them, so you can just keep pressing the square button forever. You can also equip special ammo that does certain effects on enemies, like eating their armor, lighting them on fire, stunning them, etc. The real downside to this stance is that if an enemy is close, there isn’t a lot of defensive options for you.

Finally, there is the Wind Dancer stance which is a combination of the sword and gun. You mainly attack with the sword but can do shots with the gun, in your offhand, for more damage. Like with the regular gun, there isn’t a lot of defensive uses with this stance so fighting a really aggressive enemy won’t go well. This is the main stance though for clearing out groups of enemies, since you’ll be twirling around with the sword and shooting the gun in your combos.

The problem with combat is that two of the stances, melee and the sword are pretty weak, Wild Dancer is situational and the gun is extremely overpowered but some enemies are immune to it. Like, I think the game wants me to be using the sword for most of the combat scenarios but it just sucks. I’m not talking the starting sword either, I put a fair amount of points into the sword skill tree, and I have one of the best swords in the game and I still barely did damage to most enemies. The awkward moves and setup for them really didn’t help either.

Honestly, I pretty much just used the gun for most of the combat encounters, except in the specific instances when I couldn’t. The gun is so overpowered and cheap that it just makes regular combat encounters, not necessarily a cakewalk, but far less frustrating than with the sword or fists.

The experience system is actually kind of a neat concept, reminiscent of the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X. Each stance has a circle of stat upgrades and skill unlocks with empty nodes to fill in orbs. Each stance has a specific color orb, green is Wind Dancer, the gun is yellow, etc, and you gain orbs from using the stance more. So if you favor using the sword, you’ll gain more blue orbs to slot into the empty holes, to unlock more moves/get stronger.

You also have a character level, which rewards neutral grey orbs. These are orbs that can fit into stance, as long as they are connected along the path. The neat thing is, is that this isn’t permanent. You’re meant to eventually swap out the grey orbs with the normal colored orbs, and then you get the grey one back to be put into a slot further along the path, or even a different stance altogether. It’s pretty intelligent of them to let you have some flexibility within this leveling system.

Moving onto the side stuff, there is the usual Yakuza/Like a Dragon mini-games here only now it’s with a more low-tech vibe. There is still karaoke only now the songs aren’t full of heavy metal guitars or dance music. There is dancing, shogi, poker, chicken racing (a great way to earn money) a battle arena, and even a type of baseball mini-game where you slice cannon balls with your sword. There are close enough analogs to most of the side stuff from the normal game. There are two fairly big diversions though for you to spend time with.

The first activity to spend time on is what they call Another Life. This is basically a farming/life style system where you can plant veggies, cook food, sell your goods and even hang out with some pets, once you acquire them. The main goal here is to earn enough money to repay back a loan that the young woman who runs the farm has, but you don’t expressly need to use farm money to pay it back. Money you earn from the farm is put into your pocket, which can be a help at the early start of the game. The farming system is basically just about maximizing your placement of your seeds on the field, but the cooking is a bit more involved. There are a few mini-games associated with it but they are all pretty easy once you get the hang of it.

Here is the other big problem with Ishin, a LOT of the UI is clunky as hell. I’ll give you an example, let’s say you want to cook the Spicy Miso Seafood Hot Pot, it’s a mid-difficulty dish to make, requiring cutting of veggies, grilling of fish, pouring of oil, and blowing on the fire to keep it hot. That’s all fine, but to make another one, you have to bounce back into the menu, select it, and then do it again. You can’t just make multiples of food at the same time, it’s always one at a time. You have no idea how much of a timewaster this becomes.

Another good example is that you constantly have to bounce back to the “Second Home” (farm) to do anything there in the first place. There is a menu option that displays your farm info but you can’t actually do anything from it. There’s only one spot in the main city map to be able to even go to your farm, so it just becomes a slog of having to use a taxi to get to the docks, to reach the farm boat, to be able to get to the farm and do your work. It reminds me a lot of when you had to restore the Villa/get money from Assassin’s Creed 2, you constantly had to go back there and run to the money box or architect to do stuff. And you know what Assassin’s Creed did, they fixed it in Brotherhood. This is something that probably should have been addressed with this remaster to make it less cumbersome.

The last really big thing to mess with is the whole Battle Mission system. If you played the recent Crisis Core port, or original Crisis Core, this may seem familiar to you. These are a series of missions where you go through generic cave/mine environments, beating up generic enemies and completing generic goals. Stuff like “Defeat the enemies”, or “Reclaim the stolen money box”, etc. These are very bite-sized combat missions, usually no more than 10-15 minutes but they reward you with money, and more importantly, crafting materials. You can earn a ton of stuff by grinding out these missions, which gradually get more difficult the higher you go.

Along with doing battle missions are the Trooper Card system. Basically, you eventually get your own company of soldiers to control, which take the form of cards. You can have up to three cards equipped, per stance, for up to 12 cards, at least usually. The cards themselves can bestow offensive or defensive active and passive upgrades. These range from dealing direct damage to an enemy, restoring your health, slowing down time, letting you deal more damage and so on, at least for the active abilities. Passive abilities are more in-line with increasing the effectiveness of your troops, like the amount of times you can use them, restoring small bits of health, increasing defense and so on. Some of the active abilities require your heat meter but most of them don’t and once the system is unlocked, you can have cards equipped in most of your fights.

You don’t actually have to engage with the card system if you don’t want to, though. You’re free to just not equip any cards and go at it alone, but really, why would you? Some of the cards provide extremely useful bonuses, so pick which ones help you out the most and use’em. From what I’ve gathered, the Trooper Cards were in the original game but you couldn’t use them outside of the Battle Missions, so letting you use them all the time, is a welcome change.

The last real big change in the game is the addition of a Virtue system. This is tied to your overall playing of the game. Basically, you get virtue points for doing tasks, whether it be farming, gambling, spending money, beating up thugs, crafting weapons, etc. You name it, there’s likely a virtue points bounty for it. You can spend virtue points in one of two main ways, there is just a shop that sells you items for virtue points. Want a Platinum Plate? Trade in 16,000 Virtue points for it. The other way to spend points is by visiting shrines and buying passive upgrades to your farm, your kitchen, your troopers, etc. Like, you can’t just buy a better fishing pole with real money, but you ca buy a fishing pole upgrade with Virtue points. Past Yakuza games have had similar systems like this, like “Eat at a restaurant 10 times” or “Open 5 safes”, which usually netted you experience or money. So I saw this Virtue system as more of a codified upgrade to that system more than anything.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
On the most fundamental level, Like a Dragon: Ishin! Is still a great game. It has plenty of stuff for you to do, if anything, almost too much, the story is solid, it’s a unique settings and so on. But the deficiencies in the UI and combat being somewhat dire do bring it down. It becomes less a game about skill and more a game to be tolerated, especially when the foes get really tough. But if you pack enough healing items in the game, you’ll likely survive most encounters.