It’s hard to name another series as comfortable in its skin as Yakuza. It shows up almost every year, dripping with confidence and self-tanner, to present the same recipe as always. The setting, the features, and even the quality of the effort matter less than the comforting return of the familiar.
What sets Yakuza apart from the likes of Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty? If anything, it’s changed less than they have. Even the transformations of Yakuza: Like A Dragon, which rebuilt the series’ combat and storytelling, played out against a backdrop that’s barely been altered since the PS2 era.
These games always start slow and ramble on geriatrically at the end. There’s a big mystery to draw you in and a carnie’s treasury of mini-games to play instead of solving it. There’s a lot of encouragement to pick up litter and shop local. There are a hundred little stories with their own morals. There’s a saintly protagonist who dispatches random teenagers with ultraviolent Fatalities. There’s mahjong but they’ll never explain how to play it.
Not every game can maintain that kind of consistency. If you pick up a new Assassin’s Creed, you’ll find that everything you remember has been painted over or swapped out haphazardly by a team that seems to hate the series even more than you do. Everyone who recalls what Theseus’s ship used to look like is long gone. But the Yakuza series never forgets where it came from. Half the ship is still made out of the original wood.
Ishin!, a remake of one of two historical spinoffs, brings the Kamurocho flavor to 19th-century Kyoto. (The earlier Kenzan, a fan favorite that never made it outside Japan, was about Miyamoto Musashi.) The heroes are all famous swordsmen portrayed in movies like Assassination, Taboo, and When the Last Sword is Drawn, not to mention Rurouni Kenshin and Bakumatsu Rock. Everyone’s been recast with the faces and voices of established Yakuza characters, which makes it feel sort of like watching Blackadder or the episode of MacGyver where he hits his head and wakes up in King Arthur’s court.
Identity is the central theme of Ishin! It proposes that reformer Sakamoto Ryoma (a famous guy) changed his name and began “another life” in Kyoto as the Shinsengumi captain Saito Hajime (a different famous guy). In the course of a typically intricate plot, Ryoma unmasks at least five other characters with double identities. Since everyone in Ishin! looks and acts just like a familiar character from the series, they also have a third identity, though it may only interest Yakuza trivia buffs. The cavalcade of stars doesn’t end until the last scene in the game, when a final special guest drops in.
The story centers on the Shinsengumi, a legendary Shogunate death squad that seemed to excel mostly at killing its own members. At first Ishin! appears to relish the company of irredeemable characters—the killers from Sword of Doom—instead of Yakuza’s usual noble mob bosses and virtuous loan sharks. But the force of tradition eventually exerts itself, and by the end even these bloody-minded villains are baring their chests to reveal hearts of gold.
The “sky-blue haori” coat, the distinctive uniform of Shinsengumi captains, is one of the game’s fascinations. Glimpsed in the opening cutscene, it isn’t fully explained until Chapter 3, when protagonist Ryoma auditions for the Shinsengumi by fighting two of their captains, Nagakura Shinpachi (sleeveless guns-out haori) and Okita Soji (bloodstained haori). In Chapter 4, Ryoma attends a captain’s meeting (with all of the freeze-frame, splash-screen, to-be-fought-later guys in attendance) and is finally handed his own coat: “only captains are allowed to wear it, so take a moment to feel proud.” After bringing the bundle of clothes home, Ryoma’s love interest Oryo sees it and confronts him about the group’s evil reputation. It’s only after explaining his motivation for infiltrating the group—he’s not a Shinsengumi guy at heart—that Oryo agrees to tailor it. Finally, at the start of Chapter 5, Oryo presents the coat to Ryoma. He pulls it over his shoulders in one triumphant sweep, in a direct inversion of the classic pre-fight Yakuza shirt rip.
You do feel oddly proud to walk around in that blue coat. Without overplaying their hand, the developers load it up with so much meaning—a symbol of cruelty and power, a disguise, a mark of fellowship—that you feel like Ryoma has taken an irreversible step when he puts it on. I can’t remember the last time I saw a game studio manage that kind of narrative flourish. I think most other devs couldn’t resist turning the coat into an item that gives you +10 strength.
Ishin! has a few of these deft touches. Not enough to recommend it over Yakuza 0 or Like A Dragon, but enough to remind you what sets these games apart. They’re story-first titles that give the narrative team a ton of space to try sophisticated ideas—not just scripting 10 hours of plot, but in a hundred other digressions and vignettes to hide away in the open world. It feels like they have time to perfect the little jokes, like the apprehensive way the camera hovers over Ryoma’s shoulder as he watches someone taste his cooking. Yakuza’s big setpieces are actually the part that feels half-assed.
The game draws heavily on a bank of material from previous Yakuzas—particularly Yakuza 5, which came out just before 2014’s Ishin! As in that game, there’s a cinematic where you stop guys from throwing rocks at a dog (itself a reprise from the 2005 Yakuza), and a substory where you fill in for a noodle shop owner who threw his back out fucking his girlfriend. Both stories are nods to series fans, but they seem to be transporting scenes from previous games rather than transforming them. The slow buildup to Ryoma donning the blue haori, by contrast, shows off a type of storytelling muscle that Yakuza doesn’t usually use and most games don’t have. As much as the series loves to recycle, it can still surprise you.
I doubt I’ll go back to Ishin! to finish its extra dungeons or win the heart of every restaurateur in Kyoto. Like almost every Yakuza game, it exhausts your goodwill with a final slog of speeches and beatdowns and energy pills. But at this point I can’t complain—I knew it was part of the recipe. That’s why they give you a year to recover.
Chris Breault is a writer on the internet.