Sega’s hallmark series has long been beloved for its meticulous virtual reconstructions of Japan. How does it fare with its historical spinoff, Ryū ga Gotoku Ishin!
Back in 2015, I downloaded the sampler for Ryū ga Gotoku Ishin! (龍が如く 維新!), and boy, was I immediately blown away! The sights, the sounds, the incredibly detailed if romanticised virtual reconstruction of Fushimi downtown! After buying the game, I expectedly spent way more time playing the mini-games and completing substories than progressing through the main quest, which, by the way, is what usually happens with me with Yakuza’s titles. For video game tourists, just how great is Ishin when it comes to experiencing pre-modern Kyoto? Apart from historical references, does Ishin offer a genuine taste of a pre-modern traveling in Japan?
Ryū ga Gotoku Ishin! is based on the story of Sakamoto Ryōma, one of Japan’s most famous and beloved revolutionists. Born into a family of low-ranking samurais in Tosa (modern-day southern Shikoku), Ryōma achieved recognition as a master swordsman in his youth after extensive training in Edo. Subsequently, he became embroiled in politics in the 1860s after his friend Takechi Hanpeita organised the Kinnoto, a revolutionist party seeking to overthrow the then ruling Tokugawa Shogunate. Incidentally, Ryōma’s youth coincided with the “black ships” arrival of Commodore Matthew C. Perry. This was the key incident that forced medieval Japan to open its doors to the West. Upheaval within Japan then led to the downfall of the 300-year-old Tokugawa Shogunate.
Ishin’s story largely follows the events of Ryōma’s life, with various twists. Foremost among this is that key characters are portrayed by popular figures of the Ryū ga Gotoku series. Kiryu Kazuma plays Ryōma, “mad dog” Majima plays legendary swordsman Okita Sōji, and so on. The story itself was also given an additional plot, one that respected historically “known” events but depicted them in a stunningly different way. On this, I confess I was initially quite confused and put-off by the story direction. (Sakamoto Ryōma assuming a double identity as Saito Hajime, feared enforcer of the Shogunate?) Luckily, the entire saga was well-crafted enough to be coherent and immersive in the end. For those of you into Wuxia fiction, this revised life of Sakamoto Ryōma has a strong Gu Long flavour to it. Permeating every chapter are Gu Long storytelling elements such as an overpowering compulsion for vengeance, thickly layered conspiracies, and how every key character has a dark secret. If you like imaginative retellings of history, you’d probably love Ishin’s story.
All screenshots belong to Sega.
How Great is Ryū ga Gotoku Ishin! for Video Game Tourists?
Before all else, real-life references!
I’d give Ishin full marks in this area. Like other Ryū ga Gotoku titles, especially the PS4 ones, Sega went to exceedingly lengths to reproduce the feel and flavour of 19th century Japan. The developing team obviously also had the intention of showcasing famous landmarks of Heian-kyō (Kyoto), with several key events happening at these locations. Needless to say, each play area is accompanied by appropriate ambient sounds. What complete a market scene better than the distant call of a shopkeeper, and the chatter of kimono-clad pedestrians?
The Mood Makers
Personally, I feel Ryū ga Gotoku games are great for video game tourists because each title contains a wealth of minigames and experiences that are so utterly Japanese in taste. Ishin is no exception, with signature Ryū minigames like karaoke and hostess-visiting all making appearances. That said, I do have to highlight some of the games and associated locations are a tad too modern to be realistic. (Actually, most locations veer towards being too modern i.e. imaginative) Nonetheless, with some suspension of belief, one can still get into the appropriate mood. Just try not to be too historically prudish.
That Historical Japanese Feel
As mentioned, Ishin’s story respects and reproduces several historical events of Sakamoto Ryōma’s life. Associated organisations and characters like the Shinsengumi and the final Tokugawa Shogun appear throughout the game.
In addition to which are also the cameos. For example, Natsume Sōseki, Japan’s greatest modern day writer, has extensive interactions with Ryōma. Commodore Perry himself makes a comical appearance in the middle chapters. Even Tom Cruise reprises his Last Samurai role, sort of, in an extended substory.
These add to the historical feel of Ryū ga Gotoku Ishin! Which I feel is very important for an authentic experience. But, like what I highlighted in the previous section, many of these do often veer towards being too unreal. Again, you have to be quite open-minded in order to enjoy these appearances. After all, history is only the inspiration in this game. It’s all about the action and the ambience.
By the way, Sōseki’s substory led to me (finally) reading Kokoro. See? Video games can encourage reading too!
Give yourself a holiday in pre-modern Kyoto by getting a copy of Ryū ga Gotoku Ishin! today! If language is an issue, here’s the English guide.
Here’s another way to enjoy, I mean, learn from this gangland series.