The latest game in the Yakuza franchise is loads of fun. Seriously, after over 30 hours, I still haven't had enough.
Yakuza: Ishin!, much like one of the previous Yakuza games, Yakuza: Kenzan!, is not a direct sequel in the series, but instead takes the cast of the Yakuza series and places them in a historical fantasy "what if?" sort of situation. This time, it's the late Edo period with series protagonist and bad-ass, Kazuma Kiryu playing the part of famed revolutionary, Ryoma Sakamoto, and captain of the third unit of the Shinsengumi, Hajime Saito.
Right from the start the subject matter of the game is so perfect I was surprised that the creators hadn't made this game sooner. With the political turmoil of late feudal Japan, the personal conflict, conspiracies and betrayals, honor and friendship – all regularly reoccurring plot point in the previous games – the various familiar Yakuza characters slip into their historical roles perfectly, making me both excited and already emotionally invested in the story from the get go.
The developers have obviously taken a fair bit of license with how things actually went down – for one thing, Sakamoto and Saito were definitely NOT the same person – but the game seems well aware of that and basically says "just go with it" and takes you along for the ride. Of course therein may lie the first hurdle.
The Shinsengumi is perhaps one of Japan's most famous and romanticized historical warrior organizations. Most Japanese people will have at the very least a general understanding of who and what they were about just from general media exposure. This makes getting into the game and seeing the creators' Yakuza interpretation all the more interesting for someone like me. But someone who has no knowledge of the political state of Japan at the time or the significance of some of the characters that make an appearance may find getting into the game somewhat difficult.
Aside from the main storyline, Yakuza: Ishin! is jam packed with all sorts of activities. Mini games, random battles, character relationships, in-game achievements, and side stories galore – the game offers a mountain of things to do between story points and find and doing these activities come so naturally in the normal gameplay that it's hard to stop and try to focus on the story.
The Yakuza series developers have always been good at this sort of "padding by entertainment" and in Yakuza: Ishin! they've brought their A game. At one point all I needed to do was run from one location to another to progress the plot, a simple task that would take less than a minute in real time. The trip ended up taking over 2 hours with all the activities and discoveries I found on the way. The thing is, if those side activities hadn't been fun, I would have ignored most of them and gone straight ahead with the plot. But most of them were enjoyable and all of them were at the very least entertaining.
This is perhaps the second hurdle of playing a Yakuza game: Any long-time fans will likely have no problem with this sort of mish-mash of side activities that seem to have no bearing on the story at large, but newcomers may find them confusing or disruptive to the tone of the overarching plot.
After 8 Yakuza games (10 if you count the Black Panther games for the PSP), the developers at Sega have the combat formula fairly well refined. The combat is quick and responsive making the numerous random battles easy to get in and out of.
Yakuza: Ishin! takes place during a time when Western culture and technology was beginning to bleed into Japanese culture so there is the element of different fighting styles similar to the Yakuza: Kenzan! sword style system, but with guns to spice things up. This new addition fit quite seamlessly into the game and I quickly found myself regularly switching styles mid combat for some dazzling moves.
Note: While guns, swords and other quite lethal weapons are used in the game, quite true to creator Toshihiro Nagoshi's anti-kill-willy-nilly stance, no one actually dies in the game – despite taking punishment that would drop a bull elephant – unless the plot requires it.
Sadly, Yakuza: Ishin! is not 100% voiced. The movie scenes as well as the majority of story scenes are voiced by the regular Yakuza cast, but the side activities and non-vital scenes go the regular Japanese method of having characters express the emotion of what they're saying through grunts and other verbal noises. I don't see this as being a deciding factor for people in choosing whether to play the game or not. Still, some might find it an annoyance.
Speaking of movie scenes and story scenes, much as is the staple of Japanese games, the story scenes of Yakuza: Ishin! are long. Whether you mind this or not will likely depend on your emotional investment in the story. Again, I don't see this as a deciding factor for anyone, but just in case someone was wondering.
I played the PS4 version of the game, and it was gorgeous. If there was a downside to the advancement of technology it was that some of the rougher edges were more prominent than they probably would be in the PS3 version of the game.
The stiffness in character models – something I'd never really given too much thought to in previous games – was much more noticeable this time around. Not so much as to lessen my enjoyment of the game, but enough to pull me out from time to time, especially during the less active scenes. Next gen is spoiling me.
Boiled down to a single word, Yakuza: Ishin! is "fun". The setting and story are engrossing, the various gameplay elements are entertaining and time consuming in a good way. The historical subject matter is also interesting enough for someone like me who only has basic background knowledge of the Shinsengumi and Ryoma Sakamoto that even after putting the controller down, I wanted to look into and find out more about the actual historical figures and what really happened. I wouldn't exactly call the game "educational" in this sense, but I certainly know a lot more now than I did when I first started playing.
Additionally, the free PS Vita app is a definite must for anyone who also owns a Vita. The app lets you get a lot of the level grinding, upgrading, and money collecting out of the way when you're on the go to let you focus on the important things like chopping wood, making noodles and dancing.
Yakuza: Ishin! is currently available in Japan for the PS3 and PS4. No word on an international release (dammit). Considering the previous game, Yakuza 5, still has no international release date, hope is slim.
Kotaku East is your slice of Asian internet culture, bringing you the latest talking points from Japan, Korea, China and beyond. Tune in every morning from 4am to 8am.
To contact the author of this post, write to cogitoergonihilATgmail.com or find him on Twitter @tnakamura8.