Historical heroes don’t come much bigger than Sakamoto Ryoma. Born in 1836 in Tosa (feudal-era Kochi Prefecture, on the island of Shikoku) to a merchant family that had bought its way to samurai status, he became a master swordsman, an unlikely politician and instrumental in ending a period of bitter feudal conflict in Japan. He was a modernist, enthralled by the scientific advances of the West with which Japan was forming an uneasy new relationship, but who nonetheless adhered to traditional values. They say he wore his kimono with Western shoes. Due in great part to his gift for negotiation, power in Japan was restored to the Emperor from the shogunate in 1867.
But Ryoma never got to see the Meiji Restoration and the political change it would bring, because on the 15th day of the 11th month of the Keio Era, or 10 December 1867, when he was 31, he and his cohort Nakaoka Shintaro were assassinated at their digs at the Omiya inn in Kyoto.
This is where we join the story in Ryu Ga Gotoku: Ishin!, a cross-generation PlayStation spin-off from the series known in the West as Yakuza.
Familiar characters from those games – Kiryu Kazuma, Shun Akiyama, Majima Goro, Haruka Sawamura and so on – appear as ‘actors’, transposed into roles from history. It works better than it really should, and it’s actually not the first time Sega has tried this bizarre approach – 2008 PSP spin-off Ryu Ga Gotoku: Kenzan! transplanted the cast to 17th-century Kyoto.
Ishin! was the best-selling PS4 launch title in Japan after Knack, the latter being bundled with every machine. But its 82,540 first-weekend copies on PS4 were almost half of the PS3 version’s 138,158, according to Media Create figures, a reminder that the series is popular among casual gamers who see its strong storylines, cool themes and accessible gameplay as an alternative to boring TV dramas. The few differences from the PS3 version – mainly cosmetic – have clearly been no temptation to the majority of fans so far.
As the game begins, one of many artfully directed cut-scenes depicts Ryoma’s final evening. A group of assassins enter the inn and decimate the guards downstairs, while their accomplice in first-person ascends the stairs to Sakaomoto’s lodgings. Swords are swung, pistols fired, and we find ourselves face to face with Kiryu as Ryoma before the screen fades to black.
Now several years earlier, we take control of Ryoma. He moves just as in any other Yakuza game, with an engine that has barely evolved in terms of mechanics since the very first outing. But the real step up here is the view. While the Yakuza games have always boasted stunning art direction, seeing the team’s take on 19th-century Japan for the first time on PS4 is truly impressive.
Ryoma’s hometown bustles with kimono-clad men and women ambling to and fro, walking in pairs and in groups, their faces cocked toward each other dynamically as they move and turning to stare as you brush past them. Cats lazing in the alleyways run off with a hiss as you approach; children play with pet dogs at the side of the street. Though much of it seems artificial and only specific shops and characters offer meaningful interaction, the sense of place is remarkable, and makes Ishin instantly compelling.
The first chapter of the game lasts two or three hours, a good deal of which is made up of cut scenes with the sort of fine voice acting and readable facial expressions at which the series excels. Ryoma has just returned to Tosa after 10 years in Edo (now Tokyo) studying swordplay under Chiba Sadakichi. As Ishin! slowly introduces its controls piecemeal, just like previous Yakuza games, the basics of combat are laid out via brawls with disgruntled locals.
The available fighting styles include bare-handed fighting, swordplay and a combination of katana and pistol, each with light and heavy attacks on the Square and Triangle buttons, a sword flourish or open-hand grab/throw on Circle, block on L1 and the trademark contextual Heat Action moves when Ryoma is engulfed in a telltale flaming blue aura. Combat is fairly tight, though hardly a leap forward from previous games; each button tap commits you to an animation that cannot be taken back, requiring some precision, but button-mashers will do just fine. Levelling via XP and a skills tree unlocks new moves and abilities. Vita owners can grind on the go, with a solidly implemented free app that shares a PS4 or PS3 save via PSN and features basic battle sections, item-farming and a selection mini-games.
In the first chapter, the idealistic Ryoma stands up to a group of self-important but thuggish higher-class samurai lording it over his town, and soon becomes involved in a plot to overthrow the shogunate. But without going into spoilers, he is soon framed for murder and forced to flee, with a thrilling battle as he fights his way out of an ancient castle, his name suddenly disgraced. Another lengthy cut scene is followed by a handy save point before a TV drama-style recap offers the “Previously on Yakuza Ishin!” treatment and a new chapter begins, with a new town, Kyoto, to explore – and Ryoma’s thirst for vengeance at boiling point.