Preview: 'Like a Dragon: Ishin!’ brings an old formula into the past

Players can choose from four different fighting styles that have their own strengths. Using the Swordsman is straightforward but fairly slow and defensive while the Wild Dancer uses the sword and gun. — Sega/TNS

The Like a Dragon series is no stranger to spinoffs and fresh takes on the series. It’s been through a zombie apocalypse and a story focused on the other side of the law. It has revamped its combat system and introduced new main characters.

The upcoming entry offers yet another approach to its style of storytelling, but the series formerly known as Yakuza takes place in 1866. Like a Dragon: Ishin! follows the exploits of Ryoma Sakamoto, who is on a mission to avenge his master after a mysterious assassin kills his mentor and gets him in trouble with the authorities.

Ryoma flees and his investigation into the killer leads him to Kyoto. The only clue to his master’s murderer is that the assailant used an unusual sword style called Tennen Rishin. Ryoma has to explore the city’s districts and navigate its political world, which includes the Shinsengumi, a special police force.

It’s one of the more fascinating periods in Japanese history, and fans of anime such as Rurouni Kenshin should be familiar with the era. It’s a period when Japan was opening to trading with the West, and that created turmoil among several factions. Suffice it to say, Ryoma’s inquiry is one of many dramas that become embroiled into bigger conflicts.

Ishin! is actually a remake of a 2014 game that was only released in Japan. The developer, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, is using the Unreal engine for a project that has more action elements than the more recently released entries. That means players will be button-mashing as Ryoma fights brigands, thugs and other ne’er-do-wells that wander the streets.

Players can choose from four different fighting styles that have their own strengths. Using the Swordsman is straightforward but fairly slow and defensive while the Wild Dancer uses the sword and gun. It’s balletic and shows off Ryoma’s agility but players will need to dodge instead of block an attack. Brawler is focused on hand-to-hand combat and allows Ryoma to use poles, boxes and other environmental tools he can get his hands on. Lastly, the Gunman style lets Ryoma shoot people relentlessly. The attacks are fast but don’t really do much damage.

Ishin! plays more like Yakuza 5 or Yakuza 6 as Ryoma wanders through Kyoto and battles aggressive gangs that cross his path. As he advances, players will be able to upgrade his skills in each of the styles. Compared to more contemporary games such as Sifu, the beat-’em-up mechanics aren’t as refined, but the series doesn’t hang its hat on combat.

Instead, Like a Dragon excels in its minigames and side stories. I ran across a few of them, most of which centred on making money. Players can bet on chicken races. They can also play a number of parlor games or even Shogi, but those distractions would suck up too much time. If players delve into those pastimes, Ishin! will take longer to finish.

The one non-moneymaking minigame I found was Buyo, which has Ryoma performing a fan dance with the interactions based on a music-rhythm game. It’s a fun diversion and players are introduced to it through one of the many side stories. Ryoma ends up saving the dance teacher who invites him into her studio for lessons. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the singing minigame in the short time I had with the demo.)

Although it’s set in the past, Ishin! still manages to maintain some of the wacky and heartfelt stories that Ryoma falls into. I ran into a poignant one where two children fight because one of them is moving away. Ryoma acts as an intermediary between the two. It goes to show that though the times have changed in this entry of the Like a Dragon franchise, some types of stories endure no matter what century you’re in.

Like a Dragon: Ishin! is scheduled to release Feb 21 on Xbox Series X and Series S, Xbox One, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4 and PC. – Bay Area News Group/Tribune News Service

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