Yakuza Studio head Toshihiro Nagoshi warned us at last year’s Tokyo Game Show that Ryu Ga Gotoku: Ishin, the latest period drama spinoff from what western players know as the Yakuza series, would take little advantage of Sony’s new console because it was being made for PS3 as well. “PS4 is cheaper than hardware used to be,” he told us, “but it’s still not cheap, so I decided we’d be letting our fans down if we didn’t also release a PS3 version.”
It shows. On PS4, Ishin’s prerendered environments and slightly wooden character animations mean it looks like a high-end PS3 game, so it’s hardly a showcase for the console with which it shared a Japanese launch date. ‘Ishin’, meanwhile, means ‘reformation’ or ‘revolution’, but a flatly literal translation could be misleading. What the subtitle wants to invoke is the Meiji Restoration period of Japanese political history, which began in early 1868. The game doesn’t take place during the restoration itself, but it’s set in the period leading up to it, culminating the moment the baton is passed from a generation raised in hardship to one raised in prosperity.
That serves as a metaphor for Ishin as a whole, since it seems that Nagoshi and company are reluctant to let go of the old ways. PS4’s Share button features, considered an invaluable word-of-mouth marketing tool by most developers and a key feature for early adopters, are available in only a few specific parts of the game. DualShock 4’s touchpad offers map functionality, Remote Play with Vita works smoothly, and there’s a companion app for on-the-go brawling. It’s a scant upgrade, though, especially given Ishin’s reams of unvoiced text, tutorials that tell rather than show, load screens between areas – albeit brief ones – and clunky manual save system, all of which are jarring presences in a game running on hardware that still smells of its packing materials.
Of course, Nagoshi knows that the new generation is not where the bulk of his audience is, as evidenced by Media Create’s first-weekend figures, with sales on PS3 comfortably outstripping those of the PS4 version. The Yakuza games are mainstream blockbusters in Japan, and their key merits – engaging drama, beautifully rendered and acted cutscenes, gritty art direction, and a deceptively simple combat system – are all designed with a large audience in mind. In Japan, such an audience does not yet exist on PS4. Making the likes of Ishin exclusive to the new platform might help create one, but clearly the bottom line has taken priority.
The story follows Ryoma Sakamoto, a merchant samurai who trained in Edo under master swordsman Sadakichi Chiba and went on to become a lynchpin in the restoration of power from the military shogunates to the Emperor just as Japan was facing imposed westernisation at the hands of Commodore Perry’s ‘black ships’. Sakamoto’s way with diplomacy, and staunch moral values, helped shape the Japan we know today, ushering in the Meiji Restoration and an end to nearly 300 years of insular shogunate rule. During this period, guidelines for government were laid down that remain in place to this day. For his efforts, Sakamoto was murdered by an unknown assailant in December 1867, weeks before the Restoration kicked off in earnest.
Nagoshi’s Yakuza Studio breathes life into the story with all the surplus of charm we’ve come to expect from the series. Characters from the main Yakuza games are cast as historical heroes, with Kazuma Kiryu naturally playing the role of Sakamoto, and appearances from stalwarts such as Shun Akiyama, Goro Majima and Haruka Sawamura. After the first chapter sets the scene – Sakamoto returns to Tosa after ten years in Edo, quickly becomes embroiled in a plot to overthrow the shogunate, but is framed for a murder much closer to home that forces him to flee in disgrace – we then relocate to a bustling, 19th-century Kyoto.
The mise-en-scène is remarkable, but make no mistake: this is traditional Yakuza fare, albeit with a historical twist. Sidequests – or Sub Stories, in Yakuza parlance – reveal unseen sides of Sakamoto’s personality or add further historical colour, such as the sarcastic chants of “Ee ja nai ka!” (“Who cares!”) that were common to protests in that era. Play Spots this time include a variety of period card games, as well as fishing, chicken-racing and karaoke, the latter still a clumsy but amusing rhythm game despite the leap to new hardware. Real-world discount store and series staple Don Quijote appears, too.
One of Yakuza 4’s greatest successes was its four fighting styles, one for each of its protagonists. There’s a nod to that here, despite the single playable character, with Sakamoto able to switch between four distinct approaches using the D-pad. There’s the classic bare-knuckle brawling, swordplay, an old-fashioned pistol, and a combination of katana and gun. Combat itself is as welcoming and undemanding as ever, with button-mashing a perfectly valid strategy and the option to switch temporarily to easy mode after repeatedly failing the same fight. But precision play is rewarded. Learning combos results in a higher hit counter and splatters the screen with blood. Encounters are as violent they always are, but in keeping with Nagoshi’s policy of not promoting wanton murder, defeated opponents usually get up and leg it (after a couple of lines of dialogue in which they realise the error of their ways and resolve to live better lives) or stick around for a lengthy cutscene. The fights that pepper the first few chapters of the main story also continue a tradition of spectacle. One, for instance, takes place in a bathhouse, with Sakamoto and his opponent both naked, their modesty protected only by clouds of steam.
There is no official word on a western release of Yakuza: Ishin, but it would seem unwise to hold your breath. Localisation of 2012’s Yakuza 5 has been rumoured for some time, and despite being a longed-for addition to PS4’s slender software library, a historical epic such as Ishin would seem an even tougher sell than the main series’ modern-day setting. Given publisher Sega’s ongoing risk aversion, it seems that Ishin, like PS3 samurai spinoff Yakuza Kenzan, will only ever be sold in the east. And with its reliance on old-fashioned kanji and thick Kansai dialect, you’ll need a more-than-adequate grasp of Japanese to make it worth importing. But just as Ryoma Sakamoto helped lay the groundwork for Japan to trade on its own terms with the west all those years ago, it would be satisfying to see this bold and thoroughly eastern tale make the journey overseas. Better still would be for the next Yakuza game to be built from the ground up for PS4, free of the all-too-obvious shackles of old console hardware.