A zombie apocalypse in Tokyo's red-light district? Be prepared to throw down.
With four games under its
belt, Sega has taken a new approach to its beloved Yakuza series and added
zombies and lots and lots of guns. Yakuza: Dead Souls is far more spin-off than
typical Yakuza game. It’s an awkward transition that’s peppered with great fan
service, but its obtuse control setup aims to hook longtime fans and fans of
zombie action games and ultimately pleases neither. While it falls short of
expectations, it’s still a game with some charm.
As last seen in 2011’s Yakuza
4, you play as four very versatile characters with intertwining stories.
There's kind and charismatic loan shark Shun Akiyama from Yakuza 4, the
one-eyed crazy series stalwart Goro Majima, Yakuza 2= nemesis Ryuji Goda
(returning with an alternate back story) and series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu.
The story is straightforward: a zombie outbreak has occurred in Tokyo’s fictional
Kamurocho district (an homage to seedy Kabukicho). The army and Special Defense
Forces are unable to control them, so they put up gigantic barricades to
quarantine infected areas.
You soon find out that the rest
of Tokyo isn’t sectioned off and fully functions just like it would normally. These
zombie-free areas allow you to visit hostess bars, play pachinko, and reach out
to arms dealers to mod weapons and buy supplies. In other words, it’s initially
business as usual if you’re used to traditional Yakuza games. But as you play
through Dead Souls, more and more of the city becomes infected and closed off,
though you can still sneak out and complete side missions for people on the wrong
side of the quarantine.
Unfortunately, Dead Souls shifts
its mechanics away from the established series gameplay toward those of a 3rd-person
action shooter, and that’s to its detriment. Because it still feels like
Yakuza, but with unnatural gameplay stapled on, it’s hard to stave off hordes
of zombies. The automatically shifting camera doesn’t do you any favors when
you’re fighting in tight spaces against hordes of zombies. Your movements are
just too slow to keep up with the pace of enemies, and it’s a frustrating
Another puzzling design
decision is Dead Souls’ lackluster auto-aim. You can’t move while aiming, and
at times, it points at anything but the zombie that is charging toward you. By
the time you get the target right, you may be avoiding a bite. You can pick up blunt objects around you to
try and clear some space by bashing and swinging, but you still need to shoot those
zombies full of holes. For more dramatic takedowns, a Snipe Gauge fills up as
you fight; when full, it enables you to unleash a destructive Heat Snipe
attack, in which you fire at a marked explosive barrel or fuel tank, via
quicktime event. The catch is that your Snipe Gauge works as a combo, so if
you’re attacked by zombies --not impossible, given the gameplay issues-- you
lose your meter buildup. At certain points in the story, NPCs can help out if
they're not incapacitated, but you'll find yourself trying to bail them out of zombies
swarms quite often.
Traditionally, Sega’s Yakuza
games have a unique hand-to-hand combat system that’s brutal and satisfying. Throughout
the games, you learn new fighting techniques and takedown moves that can be
ridiculously badass. Normally, you’re able to wander around Kamurocho between
main missions, and random street punks or gang members will challenge you to a fight.
The whole fun of willfully accepting these is the knowledge that you'll get to
beat them over and over with anything laying nearby, from a trash can to a
bicycle --and sometimes even a motorcycle if you're lucky. In Dead Souls, you
still have the option to do this, but it takes more time than it would to just kill
enemies, plus the satisfaction of Yakuza’s beatdowns are diluted by the fact
that these zombies will just get up and take more punishment.
Despite the frustrating game
design, the game has a great story and cut scenes filled with moments of humor and
suspense. Kamurocho is still flourishes with a sense of freedom to roam, just
like in prior games, though there’s something grim about the sense of decay and
destruction amidst the zombie attacks, especially if you’re been invested in
years of exploring this world as Kiryu. It’d be like revisiting Liberty City
after a zombie invasion, if you’ve played dozens of hours of Grand Theft Auto
games. Even with a spin-off story that could easily derail the series, it still
manages to tie in the main clans and gangs from previous games. The feeling you
get from watching the story unfold through enticing cut scenes is still there,
and that signature narration lends the game its trademark charm.
In the end, Yakuza: Dead
Souls occupies a peculiar space in the overall canon. As a third-person zombie
action game, it’s awkward and clumsy, and therefore, a difficult recommendation
for gamers looking for a post-Dead Rising quick fix. As a Yakuza sequel, the
shooting mechanics don’t jibe with anything you’ve done in the series since
2006. Yet, there’s still some fun elements with big payoffs for gamers who’ve
invested dozens of hours in Kamurocho. The sum of its parts don’t always add
up, but there’s enough in Yakuza: Dead Souls for those who’ve visited this
world to see how it all ends.