Published on March 27th, 2012 | by Cameron Woolsey
Yakuza: Dead Souls Review
Developer: Yakuza Studio
Platform: PlayStation 3
Release Date: March 13, 2012
I have been one of the few reviewers out there who have supported SEGA’s under-appreciated Yakuza franchise. Though they felt dated, the games featured exciting gameplay, rich story and good character development. I gladly stood by the series protagonist Kazuma Kiryo through every decision, good or bad (even the time he wore that bright red Hawaiian T-shirt). However, I struggled with Yakuza: Dead Souls. In an odd and jarring tangent, the Yakuza Team decided to hell with crime drama, let’s go shoot some zombies.
Anyone who hasn’t lived in a cave for the past few years know that zombies in entertainment got its second wind some years back, calling forth dozens of zombie-influenced games, movies and TV shows to audiences worldwide. Jumping on the undead bandwagon, the Yakuza Team infuses the walking dead into a game franchise that was primarily designed for steady plot progression and underworld crime violence. The result is far scarier than you think, and not in a good way.
Yakuza: Dead Souls is not the first time the team attempted something different with the old franchise. In 2008, a spin-off, and the first Yakuza on PS3, called Ryū ga Gotoku Kenzan!(Like a Dragon Arrives!) took the familiar characters and transported them to Edo period Japan in the year 1605. The concept was unique and mostly done as a “what if?” kind of scenario. Dead Souls is another “what if?”, bringing zombies into the world of Yakuza. However, unlike Kenzan!, the game is inserted into the regular game canon, beginning right after the end of Yakuza 4. It’s unlikely that fans should count this part of the overall story canon, but since the game continues the stories of the characters, while also detailing a prior forgotten character’s fall from grace, whether or not a zombie uprising will fit into the next proper installment of Yakuza is anyone’s guess at this point.
Yakuza: Dead Souls stars four of the most popular protagonists of the franchise. The main protagonist Kazuma Kiryu makes his return, along with the money-lender Shun Akiyama, introduced as a playable character in Yakuza 4, Ryuji Goda, the Dragon of Kansai and antagonist in Yakuza 2, and my personal favorite, the off-the-wall “Mad Dog” Goro Majima, whose special brand of insanity has graced every Yakuza game. Like Yakuza 4, the game is split into multiple chapters, each one starring one of the characters. And again like Yakuza 4, the game starts with players taking control of Akiyama, who was going about his daily money collecting and lazy meandering, when zombies first make their appearance.
It soon becomes clear that a good portion of Kamurocho’s citizens have become the walking dead, and the cause behind it is unknown. Each character makes their own assessment of the zombie invasion, from possible gang warfare to lab-bred monsters, and each goes into battle with a different goal, from rescuing a friend to (good ol’ Majima) just killing zombies because it’s fun and hey, what’s a giant shotgun for if it isn’t used to slaughter undead hordes?
The primary issue I have with Dead Souls is with the horrible controls. For the past five games, the primary game mechanic for taking down enemies was close-range brawling and, though not perfect, the controls worked very well and helped create the sense of dirty street fighting. What the Yakuza Team did with Dead Souls is jury rig that system to accommodate mostly gun play. The result is just a mess. The key to fighting with long-range weaponry in a third-person game is a working camera system. Where the past Yakuza games allowed players to lock onto enemies to create some camera control, Dead Souls requires that the player move the camera into the correct position. And that would be just dandy if it worked at least most of the time, which it doesn’t, turning every battle into a nauseating test of patience. On occasion players can pick up objects and swing them about just like the good old days, but even that feels awkward thanks to the fact that fire and attack are both mapped to the R1 button.
Players can tap the L1 button to center the targeting reticle on a zombie’s head (if you have it upgraded), the camera doesn’t always move correctly to get behind the character. At times it would violently snap to the wrong angle, or just not function at all. The first-person view mode can be used for precision aiming. Oh wait, no it can’t, because the the aiming is done with the left analog stick and aiming with it is about as smooth as driving over an ice patch on cheese wheels.
The best way to keep the camera steady is to strafe and fire, which doesn’t require accuracy as weapons held will automatically auto aim and nearby threats. It’s frustrating and close to game breaking when trying to break free of a group of zombies and you can only guess that the direction you move in doesn’t lead to more zombies, mutants or a brick wall. It gets especially difficult against special zombie types known as mutants, some of which move quickly and can knock over your character in one hit. I’ve cursed my way through many fights against the fastest mutants who have the ability to knock your character down the second he gets back up. And since some of them or actually faster, running away to gain a little distance is a chore, as stopping to awkwardly turn and aim to fire takes so long that these enemies are able to cross any distance you try to put between them and your character.
There are multiple forms of mutants, some of which seem to be directly influenced by games like Left 4 Dead. The Cry Baby is like the witch, but instead of fighting when spooked, she just summons more zombies from the sky (really). Meat Heads are tank-like abominations that move slowly but can hit like a truck–the head is the only weak point. The faster variety of mutants include the Monkey Boy, a small, zombified skater, and the Aggro, which can move fast and use martial arts moves. The latter two are the kind you have to watch out for the most, as they are the ones I described in the previous paragraph.
There are many different weapon varieties from small arms to much bigger and “blastier” guns. Handguns are the weakest but come with unlimited ammo, so they’re good against weaker forms of zombies–one in the head and they’re dead (-er). There are multiple types of guns. For example, handguns can range from the classic 9 mm, to dual-wielding, to a high-caliber hand cannon that is able to take out most regular zombies in one hit. More powerful weapons come in the form of shotguns and machine guns, though their power is balanced by their need for the player to carry around crates of ammo.
When killed, mutants drop raw materials, such as polymer or blocks of steel, that can be used to upgrade weapons and gear and the mod shop. As zombies become faster and stronger, the need for better weapons becomes essential, as does protective armor. On rare occasions a special item is dropped that can be sold for a good chunk of change, which can be used for upgrades, ammo, or consumable items. Killing zombies grants experience points, and at each level the player’s character gains more health and is given Spirit Points which are used to upgrade skills and abilities.
Despite the many glaring issues I’ve discussed, the game isn’t completely unplayable. There are many times when everything seems to work right and some of that classic Yakuza style shines through and impresses. But these moments fit uncomfortably between boring story segments, frustrating battles, and paint-by-numbers boss fights. If needed, players can still take a break with many of the game’s little amusements. Side quests can be hunted down and completed. Or players can go hit some baseballs, golf, chat up some ladies at a hostess bar, play Mahjong or try and grab some goodies with the UFO catcher at Club SEGA. Needless to say, it isn’t a good sign that I’d rather play a crane-based meta game than the actual game itself.
Yakuza: Dead Souls isn’t terrible, but bad camera control and shooting mechanics make it difficult to enjoy in long stretches. I feel that this game was built merely to cash out on the zombie craze. Sure, we can all sit back and say, hey, shooting zombies is fun, and for the most part that’s certainly true. However, Dead Souls is a game that doesn’t have a reason to exist except to appeal to the “what if?” question, one that probably didn’t need an answer.
Perhaps I wouldn’t be as disappointed if Dead Souls was actually designed well. Since that isn’t the case, it’s difficult for me to recommend to any fan of Yakuza or zombies. In the end, if you want to shoot zombies or play Yakuza, there are better zombie games, and there are better Yakuza games out there to consider.
+ Some classic Yakuza moments…
– …that just don’t show up as often as we’d hope
– Poor, sad, nauseating camera
– The same as above, but this time for controls
– Predictable story
– Not a good Yakuza game
– Not a good zombie game