Best of 2023: why we’re looking forward to Like A Dragon: Ishin and Gaiden
Not one but two Yakuza games are releasing this year: a long-awaited remake and an interquel that brings back a fan favourite character.
It’s not long ago that the Yakuza series (or Like A Dragon as it prefers to be called now – a very literal translation of the game’s Japanese name) was one of Sega’s lesser known IPs, at least here in the West. At first, many mistakenly assumed it to be just another Grand Theft Auto clone when, in actuality, it has more in common with classic beat ‘em-ups like Streets Of Rage.
Sega’s initial efforts to market it in the West failed to pay off and things got so bad that Yakuza 5 didn’t release outside of Japan for another three years after launch, and only then digitally. Everything changed with Yakuza 0, a prequel title that launched in 2017 and finally saw the series break out of obscurity.
Fans no longer feel like they need to beg Sega for new games. If anything, they’re drowning in sequels and spin-offs, with two such titles due to release by the end of 2023: Like A Dragon: Ishin and Like A Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name.
The first of these isn’t technically a new game as it’s a remake of a Japanese only title from 2014, one that takes the series’ characters and drops them in 19th century Japan.
However, it receiving any sort of Western release is significant since it shows Sega has enough confidence in the franchise to risk bringing a game dripping in Japanese culture to Western shores (though it admits the success of Ghost Of Tsushima, another samurai centric game, helped).
While the change in setting and time period helps make Like A Dragon: Ishin stand out from the mainline games, it still retains all the classic hallmarks fans love about the series: a layered combat system with various violent ways to dispatch mobs of enemies, a bunch of mini-games to be constantly distracted by, and a gritty, intense story juxtaposed with ridiculous and often plain silly side quests.
The combat, in particular, looks to be zanier than ever. Not just because swords and guns, normally optional weapons, are now core parts of your moveset (though you can still choose to fight with your fists the old-fashioned way). Plus, you can equip special cards that trigger special effects and over-the-top abilities, like a Dragon Ball Z style Kamehameha.
The game’s lack of connections to the wider series also means newcomers can jump on board without needing to worry about the extensive lore and backstory of the franchise.
However, the inclusion of familiar characters in new roles makes for delightful fan service for series veterans. Leading man Kazuma Kiryu, for example, is now actual real-life samurai Ryoma Sakamoto, with the rest of the cast filled out with other recurring faces and even one-off characters who otherwise can’t return in the mainline games.
We won’t have to wait much longer for Like A Dragon: Ishin as it’s scheduled to release this February. However, while it’ll certainly whet fans’ appetites, it’s Like A Dragon Gaiden (we refuse to type out the full name every time) that’s set to be the more intriguing game, even though little has really been shown of it so far.
Despite the series switching genres and becoming a role-player with 2020’s Yakuza: Like A Dragon, trading its beat ‘em-up gameplay for turn-based combat, Like A Dragon: Gaiden is returning to the original formula and bringing back Kiryu in the lead role.
It’s a decision that would normally suggest that the shift in gameplay and new protagonist, Ichiban Kasuga, weren’t very popular. Except Yakuza: Like A Dragon was the best-selling entry in the series in terms of international sales and the 2024 sequel, Like A Dragon 8, is confirmed to be another role-player starring Kasuga. Although he’ll be sharing the spotlight with Kiryu as well.
Considering Yakuza 6 was meant to be the finale to Kiryu’s story, it’s a tad disheartening to see Sega and/or developer Ryu Ga Gotoku get cold feet and pull him out of retirement for two more games. Fortunately, Like A Dragon: Gaiden offers an interesting premise, explaining what Kiryu has been doing since Yakuza 6 and providing context for his cameo in Yakuza: Like A Dragon. Maybe it’ll even explain why he’s returning for the next game too.
No gameplay has been shown yet, but in a Twinfinite interview, executive producer Masayoshi Yokoyama confirmed that Like A Dragon Gaiden will contain everything fans would expect from a Yakuza title, but its story will be significantly shorter – about half as long as a mainline game. This may be a tad disappointing for some, but it’s always good to see developers not bloat their product with needless busywork or plot twists to justify a lengthy playtime. Plus, given the series’ track record, you’ll easily lose hours to at least one of the optional mini-games.
The only cause for concern is how Like A Dragon Gaiden approaches combat. Ryu Ga Gotoku’s approach to combat in its beat ‘em-ups has gradually grown more repetitive over the years, with little in the way of innovation even after the two Judgment games.
It’s never been bad per se and has always retained a sense of flair, thanks to the more cinematic heat moves, but hopefully Like A Dragon Gaiden will offer some fresh ideas that keep it from feeling exactly like Kiryu’s last couple of adventures.
The fact that it’s slated for current and last gen consoles also means it won’t be able to take full advantage of modern hardware, keeping us a few more years away from a truly next gen Yakuza experience.
Honestly, though, we’re just excited for more crime thriller melodrama and wacky misadventures. Even after 17 the Yakuza series has always managed to surprise fans by throwing its cast into outlandish and unpredictable situations, from fighting wild bears to infiltrating cults. Whether it’s with Kiryu, Sakamoto, or Kasuga, the future of the series has never looked brighter.
Like A Dragon: Ishin releases for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5, and PC on February 21.
Like A Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name releases for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5, and PC in 2023.
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