Image courtesy of Sega

How Unreal Engine helped Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio reinvent Like a Dragon: Ishin! for modern consoles

Mike Williams |
March 13, 2023
Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio has led development for the Like a Dragon (Yakuza) series since 2011. In October 2021, the studio’s ten year anniversary, the studio transitioned to a new structure led by executive producer Masayoshi Yokoyama.
Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio Chief Producer Hiroyuki Sakamoto joined Sega Enterprises Co., Ltd. in 2000 and has worked in game development as a planner. He has been involved in the development of the Like a Dragon (Yakuza) series since its inception in 2005 as a director. Now, he acts as the series chief producer overseeing domestic development and overseas activity.
When Ryu Ga Gotoku Ishin released exclusively in Japan back in 2014, the Yakuza franchise was in a different place. Yakuza 0 launched worldwide three years later, dramatically raising the visibility and popularity of the franchise in the West. Almost a decade since Ryu Ga Gotoku Ishin’s original release, the franchise that was once known as Yakuza is now Like A Dragon and it’s time for Ryu Ga Gotoku Ishin to take a bow worldwide.

Developer Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio has utilized Unreal Engine to give Ryu Ga Gotoku Ishin a full remake. The newly-named Like a Dragon: Ishin! recasts familiar Like a Dragon characters as historical figures from the Bakumatsu period of Japanese history, and the remake gives the studio the chance to show the period in a new light. We spoke with the team about bringing Like a Dragon: Ishin! to life on modern consoles, why now was the right time for a remake, and how Unreal Engine helped in the process.
 

Like a Dragon: Ishin! is a remake of Ryu Ga Gotoku Ishin, a game released on PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 in 2014. What made the team at Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio decide that now was the right time for a remake?

Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio Chief Producer and Like a Dragon series Chief Producer Hiroyuki Sakamoto:
The main reason was actually the Western community; We’d been receiving a lot of requests from Western fans that knew about the title to localize Ishin for quite some time. The secondary reason was the confidence expressed in SEGA’s localization team. Although it might seem like a difficult title to localize given its deep ties to Japanese history, SEGA’s localization raised their voice that they could take on the challenge. The support shown from both sides lead us to begin development.

What was the team's primary goal in developing Like a Dragon: Ishin!?

Sakamoto:
The primary goal with Ishin is one in the same as all of our products: to release a fun, high-quality experience for players. Domestically, Ishin is one of our highest-rated titles, and we wanted worldwide fans to experience it as well, on every modern platform.

Could you tell us how the studio is making Like a Dragon: Ishin! feel like a unique experience, while also proving something familiar to existing Like a Dragon fans?

Sakamoto:
This Ishin is the definitive version to play. The entire game has been re-tooled and polished for modern platforms, plus the cast has undergone some generational changes. In Ishin, characters from the core series appear as cameos. Two of our most popular games, Yakuza 0 and Yakuza: Like a Dragon were released after the original Ishin, so the cast has been updated to reflect an all-star cast of fan favorites from newer games.
Like a Dragon: Ishin! is rooted in real Japanese history, like the story of Sakamoto Ryoma and the Shinsengumi. Can you explain how the team adapts that history while still providing the style and flair fans expect from the Like a Dragon games?

Sakamoto:
The way we see it, there have already been many games set in the Bakumatsu time period with Sakamoto Ryoma, who is a prominent figure of that era. Historical accuracy on its own is not enough. We needed to consider: How do we make these concepts new and interesting?

We thought quite a bit about how we could apply our signature RGG style of narrative storytelling, humor, and tone to a historical setting. We started with studio director Masayoshi Yokoyama’s idea of “What if Sakamoto Ryoma, a man of mystery, actually used an alias to enter the Shinsengumi?” Everything came together from there and we applied Ryu Ga Gotoku flair.

Are there any characters that you feel excited to revisit in Like a Dragon: Ishin!?

Sakamoto:
I’m actually just happy seeing all of the characters traverse time to come together! 

Given that this is a remake, are there any new gameplay features or other additions to the original game that the team wanted to include?

Sakamoto:
One of our biggest changes to combat was enabling Trooper Cards and their Trooper Skills.

One of the highest points of positive reception [in the original game] was the Trooper Cards, powerful skills or temporary power-ups that the player can activate real-time. In the original, this feature was limited to certain areas, but this time around, players can utilize Trooper Skills anywhere in the main story once the feature is introduced. We really cranked it up a notch; there are a lot of new Troopers from previous games and even some special guests like Kenny Omega, Rahul Kohli, Nyanners and more! We hope you call upon these Ryu Ga Gotoku fans to support you in battle with their outrageous abilities.
Image courtesy of Sega
Like a Dragon: Ishin! is more focused on weapons compared to the frantic fisticuffs of previous Yakuza titles. How does this change how the team approaches building combat encounters and overall gameplay balance?

Sakamoto:
What we focused on in the past Yakuza titles was to make sure even the casual players could beat the game if they do some light button mashing. Ishin keeps that in view, but we wanted to allow players more freedom in leveling-up during the game. Therefore we designed weapons and ability level-ups to be characteristic of each battle style, so players can specialize in the styles they like.

Trooper Cards, the card-based skill system, which lets the player unlock new abilities through the acquisition of certain cards, was previously limited to the Battle Dungeons of the original Ryu Ga Gotoku Ishin. This system was expanded to encompass the entire game in the remake. Can you elaborate on why this change was made?

Sakamoto:
The reason we chose to open up Trooper Card usage to all parts of the game is simply because it is fun to use them. We want players to be able to strategize how to defeat strong enemies, so expanding Trooper Card use further enables players to plan out their offense, defense, or utility options. In the end, it’s up to the players on how they want to use them, and I hope that everyone enjoys customizing Ryoma’s kit to their advantage!

Like a Dragon fans really love the mini-games of the previous entries. How is the team approaching the mini-games in the remake?

Sakamoto:
Everything from the original has been restored with the exception of some online features. We’ve also made some additions to the mini-games, which are an RGG staple. Keep a look-out for some new songs in the Utamaruya singing (Karaoke) mini-game that you may recognize…!
Image courtesy of Sega
Like a Dragon: Ishin! is the first game from RGG Studio to be built on Unreal Engine. Why was Unreal Engine the right choice for the remake?

Sakamoto:
By the time we decided to remake Ishin, our team had been researching Unreal Engine, so we were familiar with the engine’s strong points. Lighting was a major point of decision. In Ishin, a game set in 1867, we needed to convey the aesthetic of natural lighting, which was a significant change from artificial lighting, which is more prevalent in our previous games. As a result of comparing engines, UE was the best fit for our graphical needs.

How has Unreal Engine helped the team in reimagining the setting and characters of 1860’s Kyo, where Like a Dragon: Ishin! takes place?

Sakamoto:
Again, it comes back to the lighting. Japanese buildings in the 1860s were architecturally-designed to let in natural light with things like paper doors or illuminate with paper lamps. I think we were able to recreate these types of effects well and hope our players enjoy the effect.
Image courtesy of Sega
Were there any Unreal Engine tools that were particularly helpful during the development process?

Sakamoto:
Absolutely. A number of tools help us streamline processes and even cut down on man-hours worked.

Within the general program, Unreal Insights enabled us to visually check which CPU thread is causing how much of an effect and in turn identify bottlenecks.

For object creation, the static mesh editor lets us intuitively adjust assets while checking the final [level of detail] results instantly with the viewer without going through the [Digital Content Creation (DCC)] tool on the editor. The viewers greatly assisted our character artists who could work on lighting, check detailed information and even access the material and texture, bones and motions that were assigned to each character. This let us significantly cut down on work.

Unreal’s Material Editor was particularly helpful for Ishin as a remake of an older game. Thanks to the high freedom of the Material Editor, artists were able to build the necessary expressions for the remade version, in addition to presenting what was in the original game.

Last but not least, it goes without saying that Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio games are known for our cinematic drama-like cutscenes. The Sequencer tool was great for our designers in that they could easily adjust the texture of each individual cut.

There are many more, but these are the highlights!

Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about Like a Dragon: Ishin! and Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio?

Sakamoto:
You can learn more at the official website and keep up with us @RGGStudio on Twitter!

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