Five years later, Yakuza Ishin deserves a Western release

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the PS4’s launch in Japan, surprisingly a few months later than its Western launch in a way that was rather emblematic of the shifting global priorities in the games industry. However, unlike our rather lacklustre launch line-up, Japan also got an excellent launch title that has yet to see a Western release: Ryū ga Gotoku Ishin, a spin-off of Sega’s brilliant open-world crime saga better known here as Yakuza. Ishin is Japanese for Restoration, so a potential localised title would be Yakuza Restoration, but we’ll just call it Ishin from here on.

In recent years, Sega have really stepped up the pace of their localisation efforts for the Yakuza series, but with no word on Ishin ever being localised, I decided to buy some Japanese PSN credit and download a digital copy. Naturally, playing an imported version of a story-heavy game in a language you don’t actually understand outside of a few set phrases (“Nani?”) is something of a fool’s errand, which I’ve only done on two other occasions – the Japanese versions of Shenmue and Persona 5. The good news is that playing Ishin years later meant I was at least able to get to grips with the plot thanks to fan translation site

It’s still a limiting experience, also owing to the fact I don’t have much time let alone the will to pore through every nook and cranny and decipher what the hell is going on, but finally playing through it has only given me more reasons why Sega should consider giving Ishin the localisation it deserves.

Now there’s not strictly any yakuza in this title. Rather, the game sees many of the series’ regular characters recast in a Japanese historical period drama, specifically the 1860s during Japan’s chaotic Bakumatsu period. This time period would eventually lead to the eponymous Meiji Restoration in 1868, effectively ending centuries of military dictatorship from the Shogunate and restoring practical imperial rule to the Emperor of Japan.

If all that historical context is going over your head, just think Yakuza but in a costume drama where you can fight like samurai!

It’s perhaps easy to see why a game covering such a very specific period in Japanese history might not be such an obvious sell to an international audience compared to say its zombie spin-off Dead Souls. Yet for Yakuza fans, it’s also very easy to get into.

Series protagonist Kiryu is cast as Sakamoto Ryoma, a real-life revolutionary figure in the movement to overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate. Here he’s also on a quest for revenge after his mentor is assassinated, which leads him to taking a hidden identity and joining the Shinsengumi, the ruling regime’s special police force.

It’s fascinating to see the the faces of series regulars taking these roles, some of whihch just slot conveniently into place. Naturally Ryoma’s mentor is played by Kazama, and an ally you gain on the fringes is played by Date-san.

Ishin isn’t actually the first time the series has travelled back in time, having been preceded by Ryū ga Gotoku Kenzan on PS3 in 2008, yet this story should surely have a greater intrigue for a Western audience. This was at a time when Japan was at a crossroads between its traditional values and Western modernity, so it’s not just that you see a couple of foreign faces, but there’s technology like handguns alongside blades for combat and modern concepts like equality among men, even if it’s a lofty ideal for a low-ranked samurai like Ryoma to shake up Japan’s rigid social class structures.

In practical terms, the setting also adds to the game’s outrageous combat. As with other Yakuza games, you’re often challenged by other thugs on the street or thrown into a lengthy corridor sequence of fights when the story dictates. Only instead of your fists, you also get to fight with a samurai sword and a pistol, with combat styles switched with the D-pad in the same way as in Yakuza 0.

The Bakamatsu period was a violent period of Japanese history, so you can expect many characters meeting their bloody demise. Yet I love that, just like Kiryu, Ryoma has this kind of Batman mentality of not canonically killing his foes, even though you’re pulling off Heat actions that has you slashing chests open and firing a pistol from point blank range.

The other half of Yakuza games is of course its wonderful side activities and mini-games, which Ishin also has in spades. The game is set in the beautifully atmospheric Kyoto, which was Japan’s capital before the Meiji Restoration changed it to Tokyo, but there’s just as much to explore here as Kamurocho.

It may be a hundred years too early for karaoke, but there is a singing bar that follows the same rhythm mechanics, as well as another rhythm game that has you partaking in traditional Japanese dance with a fan. Hell, you can even bet money on chicken races!

Unfortunately, the content I found less accessible are the game’s myriad side quests, which you can either randomly run into or require fulfilling certain requirements. One of the more substantial offerings actually has Ryoma helping out a young woman called Haruka (yes, played by and modelled after the same Haruka we know and love) by doing chores like farming crops or cooking to help make money to pay off a debt.

It’s a charming Stardew-like diversion, yet I’m also finding myself mostly racing through the main plot because my lack of understanding just makes these diversions less enjoyable. The silly side quests the series is known for and which I love discovering have also taken a backseat, unless I manage to run into one by accident, and for the most part I’m only able to complete the ones where you just go through some dialogue then get through a fight to finish it. Nonetheless I was still able to get into a recurring one involving a form of carnivalesque dancing street protest known as ‘ee ja nai ka’, which I was immediately compelled to google afterwards, only to find that the phrase has a multitude of ways it can be translated.

Does this make Ishin ‘too Japanese’ to localise? In my opinion, probably no more than the mainline Yakuza games with its complex yakuza politics and dollops of Japanese pop culture references. They may be different audiences, but if Assassin’s Creed fans love exploring different historical periods around the world, I’m sure 1860s Japan can’t be that daunting for Yakuza fans.

More importantly, the last five years have seen Japanese games come back swinging. At the time of Ishin’s release, the Yakuza series was still very much a niche in the West, with no word on Yakuza 5 ever arriving on these shores. But since then, not only did we get Yakuza 5 on PS3, Yakuza 0 helped bring the series to a wider audience, the early story was retold in Kiwami and Kiwami 2, while Yakuza 6 marked the series’ best launch ever, breaking into the Top 5 of the UK sales charts.

Games set in period Japan are also making a return, first with Nioh but now also the forthcoming Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and Ghost of Tsushima, though Ishin’s historical setting still makes it unique to the competition.

Having been a launch title for the PS4, and actually a cross-gen release also for PS3 (the Breath of the Wild of its time, you might say), it’s fair to say that Ishin might also feel a little dated, with some stiff animation, clunky combat and loading between areas. In truth however, it’s not really much different from the engine used for Yakuza 0, which is arguably the best entry to date, while the Kyoto setting and period dress still hold up nicely.

Make no mistake, Sega’s doing a tremendous job of bringings its Japanese games to the West faster than ever before, and I’m looking forward to the new direction it will be taking with its next big release Judgment. At the same time, we can also see that the company is just as happy re-releasing old Yakuza titles not only to PS4 but also PC. And look, when Capcom can find an excuse to re-release Onimusha: Warlords in 2019, there’s no reason why Ishin doesn’t deserve that same opportunity.

To just take one form of translation of that phrase ‘ee ja nai ka’: come on, why not?