In contemporary fiction, few things can slow the relentless pandemic of a zombie takeover, where lifeless hordes routinely proliferate in exponential numbers. Similarly, the undead have overrun gaming; shambling their way into the shooter, survival horror, and even music-rhythm genres. Not long ago, players might have assumed the Yakuza series would remain free from the scourge of the walking dead. After all, the franchise’s customary seriocomic exploration of Japanese underworld life was been persistently propelled by feuding mobs rather than any mention of cannibalistic ones.
Yet the recent release of Yakuza: Dead Souls for the PlayStation 3 trades the series’ characteristically gritty tone for a decidedly livelier adventure, fundamentally swapping fisticuffs for the frequent use of firearms. While those who have followed Kazuma Kiryu’s exploits from the onset may be disappointed by the title’s direction, those seeking a quirky interpretation of Armageddon should appreciate SEGA’s oft-amusing title.
Accompanying the radical shift in design, Dead Souls’ introduction provides a prolonged tutorial of the game’s new mechanics. Tasking the affable Shun Akiyama with chaperoning his secretary Hana through Kamurocho’s ravaged streets, the title prologue exhibits little of the Yakuza series’ captivating characterization. Thankfully, once the title weaves returning protagonists Kiryu, Ryuji Goda, and Goro Majima into the plotline, Dead Souls’ impetus become evident: it’s fascinating to observe how each of these resilient men contend with the apocalypse while managing the lingering vestiges of an intense turf war.
Expectedly, the introduction of zombies into the Yazuka universe thwarts the title from ever becoming too serious. Beyond bits of gratifying backstory and the juxtaposition of treacherous outdoor locales contrasted against the sardonic safety of bars, onsens and arcades, Dead Souls delivers a steady procession of impish errands. From eavesdropping on an amorous couple to encouraging a character to dress in drag, the game’s playful attitude helps offset the inclusion of clichéd foes and clumsy mechanics.
Although courting hostesses, score chasing in Boxcelious variants, augmenting your arsenal, and buffing out each character are all diverting elements, Dead Souls’ combat can seem a bit lifeless. Pugilistic possibilities still exits, but swinging pylons and bicycles is more effective at driving back the undead, rather than actually killing the encroaching hordes. To effectively exterminate zombies, players employ a wide range of handguns, stotguns, rifles, grenade launchers. For gamers accustomed to the precision offered by premium third-person action titles, Dead Souls’ execution will feel problematic.
Two separate, but equally substandard, options for aiming exist. Players may hold down the left shoulder button to strafe, allowing each character to automatically fire on any foe that are facing. In execution, this method removes much of the nuance and challenge of shooting, allowing players to mindlessly hammer away on the fire button and overpower whole sections of the game. Alternatively, holding down L2 brings up a crosshair, bequeathing the precision necessary for headshots. Regrettably, this method prohibits movement, recalling Resident Evil’s contentious ‘stroll or shoot’ dichotomy.
A couple of elements help uplift Dead Souls’ action. Boss battles counterbalance a limited number of low-level enemy types with creatures undoubtedly inspired undead-inhabited titles such as Left 4 Dead and the Resident Evil franchise. Unlike the game’s core combat, these fracases are consistently challenging and entertaining, often requiring players to juggle simultaneous duties. Yakuza’s Heat Snipe mechanic permits players to initiate zombie-annihilating QTEs, offering an agreeable change of pace from plugging away at individual enemies. Periodically, gamers also have access to formidable hardware such as tanks. Some machines can even be tweaked- allowing for say, a pitching machine to be outfitted with grenades instead of baseballs.
Visually, the game’s thoroughly modeled characters, restaurants, arcades, and massage parlors are only undermined by the occasional framerate drop as well as the sporadic unsightly interior. Dead Souls’ obstinate camera seems to favor dramatic tension over a functional perspective on the action, occasionally displaying an ungainly view on the action. Thematically, seeing Kamurocho’s once-bustling boulevards awash in tragedy might be a poignant experience for series veterans.
Whereas the skirmishes in previous Yakuza entries once rivaled the series’ absorbing amusements, now the respites for rounds of UFO Catcher, darts, bowling, and karaoke overpower the game’s combat. As such, what was once Yakuza’s virtue has now degenerated into Dead Souls’ fundamental flaw, sullying the game’s entertaining and often, wonderfully outlandish storyline. While a purchase might be the proper way to thank SEGA of America for localizing this unlikely title, even hardcore Dragon of Dojima devotees may want to wait for a drop in price.