The Yakuza series, now known as Like a Dragon, is one of the biggest game franchises in the world right now, but this is a franchise with a long tail. First starting in 2005, the series started gaining worldwide acclaim with 2015s Yakuza 0, the Kiwami remakes and the latest game in the franchise, Yakuza: Like a Dragon.
With such a long history, and many games to dip back into for more Kiwami treatments, studio Ryu Ga Gotoku (Like a Dragon in Japanese) set their sights to remake the “Ishin” game a decade on from its initial (and only) Japanese release to bring the series’ samurai and Edo period spin to a worldwide audience.
At Tokyo Game Show 2022, Crunchyroll News sat down and experienced Like a Dragon: Ishin! for the first time, as well as spoke with the head of Ryu Ga Gotoku and the lead writer on Ishin! Masayoshi Yokoyama about the new game, past Yakuza games and the future of the Like a Dragon series.
Swinging My Sword in Like a Dragon: Ishin!
Yakuza 0 was my entry into the Like a Dragon franchise, which then basically took over my life during the pandemic, stuck at home as I played through all the games which culminated in Yakuza: Like a Dragon and Lost Judgement as they released. The original Ishin! game plays much like Yakuza 0 with the returning styles from the Kiryu-line games, but with a twist: Cards!
These cards can be equipped to gain special abilities to use in battles and are based on characters from past games but Edo-ifed. For example, in the demo, I saw a card based of Ichiban from Yakuza: Like a Dragon. The two cards I got to try out were one that worked like a Kamehameha from Dragon Ball and another that dragged enemies into the middle of a void to make them easier to slash and shoot.
That’s right, I said shoot. Kiryu – sorry, Ryoma – has a gun in the game. It kinda felt weird to use a gun in Like a Dragon, but the Shinsengumi does what the Shinsengumi does.
Outside of the cards, the combat felt like classic Yakuza and Judgment games. For those that have been missing Kiryu kicking ass, well, Ishin! feels like a glorious return to form.
Ryoma statue at Tokyo Game Show 2022 (Photo: Daryl Harding)
Like a Dragon: Ishin! is the first mainline Like a Dragon game to be built in Unreal Engine 4, rather than Ryu Ga Gotoku’s Dragon Engine. Speaking with Yokoyama, he said the reasoning behind this change was due to the Dragon Engine being optimized to make Kamurocho look fantastic at night, but just couldn’t handle the daytime and lighting rigs the team needed for Ishin! This was apparent just from the short walk through the Edo Era town and the cutscene prior. Ishin! looks great, and it still has that Yakuza charm we all know and love, along with the character models which fit the series perfectly.
To keep a load off your collective minds, yes the quirky side missions also make their return. The one that I played had Ryoma explain to kids where places were on an era-appropriate map (Which I have to admit, stumped me a little). While I didn’t get to explore the town further during the time limit, there was some sort of relationship mechanic that came up. Where that leads though, who knows!
Masayoshi Yokoyama on the Like a Dragon franchise
After the demo, I spoke with Yokoyama, the current head of Ryu Ga Gotoku, a writer on every game in the franchise, as well as a producer on the entire Like a Dragon franchise. The round table interview was held the day after Like a Dragon 8 was formally announced at the Ryu Ga Gotoku summit.
The session started with Yokoyama and the table discussing his influences on the games he has helped write. After a discussion about how the dialogue in Bleach helped Yokoyama’s writing for Ishin!, we asked him about any other influences on the Yakuza franchise with Yokoyama revealing Yakuza: Like a Dragon, the previous Yakuza game, was basically his take on a One Piece game.
“I’ve never really talked about this before, so I’m not sure if I should just go for it now, but for [Yakuza] 7 I was really, really inspired by One Piece. To me, Ichiban is basically Luffy. And around him there’s Zoro and Nami and basically the rest of the party, you know? One Piece’s party composition was on my mind so much during writing that it was a massive influence,” said Yokoyama.
“If I recall correctly, even the catch copy for 7 was something like ‘Life is an adventure,’ with the keyword being ‘adventure.’ You can definitely feel the One Piece inspiration coming through there. And, you know, and this is definitely not official, but in my own heart, Yakuza 7 was basically my ideal version of what would be Yakuza: One Piece. That’s how I got the inspiration to make it!”
Moving onto Like a Dragon: Ishin!, we started the discussion on the development of the game. I was curious about why exactly the game would be using Unreal Engine 4 over the in-house-made Dragon Engine. Yokoyama explained it was due to the Dragon Engine not being great for daytime scenes, but going further into the reasoning.
“The engine was born to create a nighttime mecca, so it is more specialized than other engines in expressing the neon district of Kamurocho and other such areas,” explained Yokoyama. “However, in the Like a Dragon series, there were no real daytime scenes, so we didn’t need to develop an engine that could do that.
“When we were developing the original Ishin!, we didn’t even use the Dragon Engine, but rather we used our older in-house house engine. At the time we were working on the original version of Ishin!, we were faced with the challenge of expressing daytime. Sunlight, for instance. Light coming in through windows.”
“I knew that the Unreal Engine was better than the Dragon Engine for the quality of expression. So, when we said we were going to remake Ishin!, we decided to use the Unreal Engine rather than the Dragon Engine because we thought Unreal Engine could express Ishin! more elegantly.”
When asked what engine Like a Dragon 8 and the upcoming Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name games would use, Yokoyama bluntly confirmed both games will use the Dragon Engine.
Yokoyama said at the Ryu Ga Gotoku summit that development was “going smoothly” “due to new production processes.” With so many games in development at once, I inquired what these processes were and how the team at Ryu Ga Gotoku was doing in creating three games at once.
“Hmmm, I wonder. But, well, it’s just a matter of putting all the pieces together one by one. The fact that some games are already at the Tokyo Game Show suggests that things are pretty close to completion, right? As for Ishin!, well, it’s about that time. So for that team, they’re not as busy as they used to be,” said Yokoyama.
“For the most part, everyone has worked on the Like a Dragon series before, so they’re able to go straight in and start developing. In other words, we’re making all three games at the same time. But more specifically, as the story writer, I am in charge of all three games at the same time. I’m involved in the whole thing and basically the barrier.
“So, of course, there are dedicated teams for each game, but there are programmers that just do all the mini-games for all the different titles. It’s a kind of team like that. In fact, it’s a team like that. To put it into perspective, we don’t have a set line between teams, but rather, just like the water in a sponge, we spread to where it’s not wet and work on areas where work is needed to be done and go with the flow.”
Moving back into the franchise as a whole, I asked why the team at Ryu Ga Gotoku moved away from the name “Yakuza” for the franchise and into “Like a Dragon,” a direct translation of the Japanese name.
“The question of whether or not to remove ‘Yakuza’ was discussed at the time of ‘Like A Dragon,’ well (in Japanese) ‘Ryu ga Gotoku 7,’ but since we have been using the name ‘Yakuza’’ for a long time overseas, it would not make sense to remove the ‘Yakuza’’ name completely. If you removed it without warning it would become confusing. So, ‘Yakuza: Like A Dragon’ became the title of ‘Yakuza 7,’” said Yokoyama.
“Then, there was a discussion about whether to put use it again next time and we thought that ‘Like A Dragon’ might already be in people’s minds, so we decided not to use ‘Yakuza’’ this time. We felt that if we could show off the games without ‘Yakuza’,’ we had succeeded as a brand.”
Like a Dragon Ishin! booth at Tokyo Game Show 2022 (Photo: Daryl Harding)
When I pressed on if there was any thematic reasoning behind the change, such as Yakuza not being as prevalent in modern society, Yokoyama enthusiastically agreed. “Yes! Exactly right! We’re talking about the criminal underworld, but not directly about yakuza anymore, so it makes no sense to have that title.”
“We’re like, if we keep using ‘Yakuza’,’ the new game would be ‘Yakuza: Ishin!.’ which wouldn’t make any sense, so that’s why it’s ‘Like a Dragon Ishin!’. It makes more sense,” Yokoyama explained.
After a lengthy discussion on how it’s difficult to make a Judgment game due to having to keep the same continuity as the mainline Like a Dragon franchise, I asked why it took so long for the two games in the spin-off series to appear on PC when Yakuza: Like a Dragon came out on the same day as consoles for its next-generation port.
Yokoyama explained that while the team at Ryu Ga Gotoku wanted the game to be available to everyone all at once, there was a “negotiation process” in place where when the “conditions” were “right” for the game to release on PC, the team made the jump when they were able to.
Looking forward to the future of the Like a Dragon franchise, with the franchise pulling many references from the real world throughout the series, I talked with Yokoyama if we’ll see things like references to COVID-19 in Like a Dragon 8, or if the SEGA arcades in Kamurocho will be changed to GiGO arcades.
“You know, we were thinking about how to handle COVID-19 in the game, but because Like a Dragon 8 will be released in 2024, we were tasked to imagine what would happen in that year, trying to predict what might be in the future. I don’t know if there will be anything special said about [the pandemic]. I’m sure there was something like COVID-19 in the past, but I don’t want to create some kind of, you know, a world where a pandemic dominates,” said Yokoyama.
“To be honest, we are talking now about whether to go with Sega or GiGO right now. We haven’t decided which way to go yet as we have to do something, but I believe we will be keeping the old SEGA Game Center in some form or another. Whether it will come out as the actual store like Club SEGA, or a fictional one, we’re still thinking about it. If we want to go with GiGO, then we’re going to have to talk to them obviously.
That’s because the arcade as a spot will be returning, so you can be sure that new arcade games will be playable.”
Yokoyama confirmed that while the work bringing the arcades to life will be “hard to make,” they’ll be diving further into SEGA’s arcade back catalog for new games to introduce in future Like a Dragon games.
Sticking with real-world parallels in the Like a Dragon franchise, I asked Yokoyama if the team is sensitive to certain topics that may be in the news, or maybe a tragedy that occurred too close to production, like an earthquake. Yokoyama explained that the team doesn’t like to “dwell on the past as such” but if there was a monument missing or a crumbled building then the team may decide to add it to the game.
Though I pressed Yokoyama further on the topic and he gave an example in the promotion of Yakuza: Like a Dragon.
“It depends on the situation obviously. A good example of this would be the Kyoto Animation fire. Around that time, it’s not like anyone told us not to use fire or avoid referencing that spot, but you know, it’s a sensitive topic,” said Yokoyama. “So we decided to tone down like any fire references. We wouldn’t want to poke people about these things that have happened. Like how yesterday the big logo came out and it was on fire. We probably would not have done something like that right around the Kyoto Animation fire.”
“Over time, if there is enough of a gap so that people can watch it and not be reminded of the unfortunate incident, then I will adapt it to that time period. So, yeah, especially as a writer I’m really sensitive to that sort of thing. I try to keep an eye on it,” said Yokoyama
The next game in the Like a Dragon series, Like a Dragon Ishin! is scheduled to be released on February 21, 2023, on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, PC via Steam, Xbox One and Xbox Series. Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name will follow on the same platforms in 2023 with Like a Dragon 8 scheduled for 2024.
Daryl Harding is a Senior Japan Correspondent for Crunchyroll News. He also runs a YouTube channel about Japan stuff called TheDoctorDazza, tweets at @DoctorDazza, and posts photos of his travels on Instagram. He walked the streets of Kabukicho to show his love for Yakuza.