‘Like a Dragon: Ishin!’ Can't Stop Interrupting Itself With Nonsense

The Yakuza formula may be simple, but this Meiji-era remake shows that its ingredient ratios are delicate.
Two samurai stand with crossed swords, faces strainining with effort as they press their blades against one another
screenshots courtesy of Sega

In its cutscenes, Like a Dragon: Ishin! plays out like a moody and violent samurai revenge film, setting its tone from the start with an explosive nighttime police raid seen entirely from first-person as combatants are cut down in sprays of blood and amidst a cacophony of shouting, gunshots, and ringing swords. In quieter moments, it is full of rooms of dangerous, ambitious men taking stock of the declining Tokugawa shogunate and the rising tide of chaos that is poised’ to engulf it at the end of the 19th century. They are all trying to calculate both what vision for a new world they want to bring about and how richly they can reward themselves in the process.


Then the cutscenes end, you take a few steps down a busy city street as the camera lurches gracelessly with every press of the sticks, and then you’re pulled into a scripted dialogue with a woodcutter who needs you to play a wood-chopping minigame, for which the game pays you in the currencies of money and “virtue”. Then you get another dozen steps down the street and yet another group of random crooks comes rushing at you in need of a beating, which you give by mashing the same handful of buttons in a loose order until they all lie defeated. You walk a few steps, turn the corner, and there’s another group of bandits who rush to fight you. You look on the map: you have about 15 blocks of this before you get to the next place you are trying to go. A cutscene will play, and you’ll probably be sent back the way you came, so you can do all this again.

Now you could apply this description to any game in the Judgment or Yakuza series, so I’ve been trying to figure out why I have liked those games and find myself, after about 14 hours, struggling to get through each chapter of Ishin.

A blue-jacketed Samurai swings a sword against a crowd of enemies in a marketplace while raising a pistol above his head.

It comes down to rhythm. It’s true that you can’t across Yakuza’s venerable Kamurocho setting without getting into a few fights, but the random encounters don’t feel anywhere near as smothering as they do here. Likewise, odd little narrative asides in Judgment, for instance, happen infrequently enough to be a charming diversion. Just when you are thinking you might be getting tired of the grim crime drama, a goofball comedy detour lightens the mood. When you’re getting tired of combat, you find that you can sort of thread the needle between a few groups of enemies to a fast travel location and zip over to your objective without engaging in needless fisticuffs. When you get to that mission, it might involve doing something other than fighting.

Ishin, by contrast, is always interrupting itself with nonsense. It almost seems to delight in sending you from one end of its maps to other, and the maps themselves are full of winding choke points where you might get stuck in a series of random battles unfold before you have passed through. On a single cross-town voyage you might hit three side stories, tiny narrative tripwires strung between you and the main plot. Perhaps this is just what happens with a remake of an older game in the series when its formula has been considerably refined since 2014, in which case it’s just regrettable that this latest version is not a more comprehensive remake.

Especially because there is such an arresting setting and pitch for this game: your character, Sakamoto Ryoma, learns that the man who killed his mentor is one of the leaders of the shinsengumi, a paramilitary arm of the shogunate that operates both as a violent street gang and as a state police organization, and joins up with them to hunt his quarry from the inside. It’s an irresistible premise, but in some ways the strength of that main story works against the game here. The version of the game that exists in the cutscenes is all high-stakes, tension, and urgency. But the game you control dissipates that, as if it can’t quite give you even a hint of the same atmosphere that the narrative setpieces are drenched in.

A group of blue-coated Shinsengumi captains stand at attention, gazing at something out of grame.

Maybe this issue gets better as you get deeper into the game, but as fascinated as I am by the main story unfolding across Ishin’s cutscenes, I’m doubtful this is a game I will or should stick with. I don’t really want to play more of this game, I just want to know what is going to happen in the next set of cutscenes.