“How is that possible? It’s literally right around the corner,” cries Ryoma, the beleaguered samurai protagonist of the upcoming Like A Dragon: Ishin remake. Minutes ago, Ryoma provided a lost courier with directions to an address – now, he finds the postie waiting in the same spot, once again lost after trying unsuccessfully to find his destination.
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Ryoma is frustrated, but samurai in glass minka shouldn’t throw stones. In this preview session for Ryu Ga Gotoku’s upcoming remake of its periodic role-playing game, Ryoma’s primary objective – to reach a nearby barracks – lies within tantalising reach. Yet sprawled between Ryoma and his destination lie the dense streets of Kyo’s Fushimi district, along with dozens of citizens waiting to take advantage of the samurai’s goodwill.
It’s easy to get lost in Kyo. The streets wind and twist, and any distraction – Ishin’s gorgeous visuals, for example, or a chance encounter with bandits – can send your navigational skills spiraling. Once Kyo has you in its sticky web, its citizens slink from the woodwork like hungry insects ready to feast on your free time with their litany of problems and trivial troubles to resolve.
Minutes into the preview, Ishin‘s encounters came thick and fast. An aged woodcutter guilt-tripped Ryoma into chopping his logs via a minigame that works him into an increasingly frantic slicing machine. Next, the samurai was tested on his listening skills by a woman whose tedious gossiping had left her with no other audience to tell it to. In other cases, Ishin teased side stories with snippets of overheard dialogue or scenes that proved too alluring to resist: one street was blocked off by what appeared to be a flash mob, while a separate story sent Ryoma running in the opposite direction to the barracks to protect a naive westerner from the cities angry inhabitants. Reaching those barracks started to feel like a Sisyphean task – every time I edged closer, there would be another enticing proposition or absurd chore to send me jogging the other way.
Though Kyo is a physically large city, it’s these events that breathe a real sense of life to the place. Because it’s impossible to guess what you’re going to get from Ryu Ga Gotoku’s zany side stories, they serve as irresistible rabbit holes designed to keep poor Ryoma from getting anywhere. Some are hilarious – like Ryoma sternly lecturing a man about the ridiculous beauty standards he was imposing on women – and others are remarkably touching, particularly one story that tasked Ryoma with teaching two children to say goodbye to each other, as one is moving away.
Likewise, a lot of smaller features in Ishin add to its colour. You can recover health by nipping into local restaurants and sitting down for a meal – pop into certain ones a few times, and you’ll make friendships that kick off whole new side stories. There’s also an abundance of minigames to play throughout Ishin and within a couple of hours Ryoma had become an all-singing, all-dancing samurai with a penchant for chicken racing. The rhythm-based challenges of Ishin‘s karaoke and dancing minigames are a pleasure to score-chase in, while fishing is a welcome change to the rest of the game’s fast-paced thrills.
When Ryoma isn’t helping townfolk solve their quibbles, he’s putting his extensive samurai training to the test. Ambushes in Kyo are frequent – gangs of outlaws loitering on street corners will jump Ryoma often and foolishly. Against poorly-trained fodder, Ishin’s third-person hack-and-slash combat is bloody and frenetic. Ryoma has three weapons to choose from – his fists, sword and revolver – and a combat style for each, along with a fourth style that uses both blade and gun.
Each style has its own set of strengths and drawbacks, so dabbling in all of them feel worthwhile, but my personal favourite was Wild Dancer, the style that uses Ryoma’s katana and revolver simultaneously. Though Wild Dancer lacks the punch of Swordsman and the long-range devastation of Gunman, it’s a flexible middle ground – it almost feels like cheating to weave out of a swordfight to take a potshot at your opponent’s head. A sprawling ability system means you can expect these styles to become even more intricate in later chapters, including one ludicrously silly Brawler move that lets you make fresh orange juice with an opponent’s jaw if you have an orange in your inventory. Yep.
Against Ishin’s longer-form boss fights, combat only improves. When Ryoma finally reached Fushimi’s barracks, his first opportunity for a proper clash came about. Ryoma is in search of the assassin who killed his adoptive father, and believes he’ll uncover the killer’s identity through his rare combat style. Ryoma’s search has led him to join the Shinsengumi, a revolutionary death squad whose captain is trained in that style – the Tennen Rishin.
However, signing up with the Shinsengumi means besting one of its captains in combat – enter Nagakura Shinpachi. Nagakura is faster and stronger than any of the lackeys that Ishin’s third chapter throws at you, and being caught in any of his attacks usually means having to weather the rest of a crippling combo. Because of this, fighting takes on a more tactical flow: you need to show a bit of restraint as you chip down his health bar, as staying on the offensive too long opens Ryoma up to a nasty counterattack. After cutting through nameless bandits without breaking a sweat, it’s a welcome challenge that presses you to the back foot.
After beating him, there’s a plot twist. Though Ryoma’s mystery assassin used a rare combat style, a number of the Shinsengumi’s leading figures have been trained in the same arts. The suspect list for Ryoma’s quest for vengeance grows, and the chapter’s final boss fight with a mysterious Man In White gives you a taste of the bloody politicking that Ryoma’s wading into.
Sadly, that was where our preview ended – but as someone that hasn’t played the 2014 release of Ishin, it was with great reluctance that I set it down. With a healthy mix of absurdist shenanigans and good old-fashioned brawling, it feels like there will be plenty to keep players – and by extension, poor Ryoma – busy when Ishin launches next month.
Like A Dragon: Ishin launches on February 21 for PlayStation, Xbox, and PC.