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Yakuza: Dead Souls review

One question kept haunting me as I plugged further and further through Sega’s recently released Yakuza: Dead Souls: Where exactly did things go so very, very wrong?

The Yakuza series has always been known for its quirky assortment of gameplay styles and mechanics. In the space of a few hours, you could easily go from narrative-heavy cutscenes to action/RPG-style random encounters to minigames built around activities like playing Pachinko or dressing up and training a Japanese hostess. Dead Souls sticks to that script while adding a new wrinkle to the mix: the zombie apocalypse. On paper, it sounds like a glorious mish-mash of quirk built from the ground up to, if nothing else, at least please fans of the series.

Here’s the problem though. I’m a fan of the series. And I am very much not pleased.

And now for something completely different…

Dead Souls offers up a spin-off story, meaning that the dire turn of events depicted in Kamurocho’s undead outbreak isn’t exactly setting the stage for the future of the Yakuza series. Unsurprisingly, the look and feel of the game falls fairly close to last year’s Yakuza 4. The story unfolds over multiple acts, and each new act introduces a playable protagonist complete with his own unique abilities and quirks. The arrival of the zombies triggers big changes in the open world district of Kamurocho, so while you’re basically running around the same environment, it still manages to not feel like a straight reproduction of Yakuza 4‘s locations.

All of this is good news. That’s not all for the good news, either. The open world in Dead Souls is divided up into action zones and social zones. The former is all about combat, and it’s also where we start running into some of the game’s fundamental problems. There are secondary quest-like activities to complete in the zombie-infested areas, but the more traditional Yakuza-style minigame activities are largely saved for the social zone, realized in-game as the area outside the zombie quarantine.

There are all sorts of things to do in Dead Souls once you put your guns — yes, it’s all about gunplay in this game — away. Some of it is patently ridiculous, but it all makes sense in the context of a Yakuza game. There’s card- and machine-based gambling. Bowling. Darts. Table Tennis. Fishing. A batting cage. Hostess wooing. It’s all here for fans to occupy themselves with between rounds of ever-so-tedious zombie combat. Zombat?

Bullet to the head

From a purely presentational perspective, the Sega dev team behind Dead Souls really nails the zombies. Not only do they lurch around like you’d expect them to and dart quickly in your direction when you don’t, they are also legion. Take a zombie out, and two others (or more) will spawn out of the woodwork in its place. They won’t spawn infinitely, but they may as well do so. Even committing to wiping out all of the zombies in a small self-contained area can take many minutes of your time.

That’s just talking about the run-of-the-mill walkers. Dead Souls also takes a page from the likes of Left 4 Dead with its “special” zombies. There’s a big, hulking brute whose only weak point is his head. There are short, helmet-wearing walkers that dart around and leap at you to close the distance. There are weeping lady-zombies that scream when disturbed, attracting more zombies to your location. None of these are particularly threatening in any major way at first, but the challenge spikes considerably when the groups you encounter become more varied at later points in the game.

While all of this speaks to quality design, Dead Souls falls apart entirely around poorly realized combat mechanics and a camera that actively resists you with every step taken. The core of the combat is familiar in some ways, even though the series-standard melee brawls are replaced with a strong focus on gunplay. You’ll earn skill points as you level up and spend them on improving various abilities. It’s the actual mechanics of combat that get in the way.

The character you’re controlling will automatically take aim and shoot at targets directly in front of him when you press the attack button. Holding down the L1 shoulder button slows your movement to a walking pace while locking the camera into a pulled-in over-the-shoulder perspective. You can also hold down L2 to bring up a moveable set of crosshairs for more precise target acquisition, at the cost of freezing in place.

Mechanical failure

Unfortunately, these controls are not nearly as responsive as they could be. Zombies will come at you from all directions, but your actual ability to turn this way and that is constantly hindered by an auto-targeting feature that has a mind of its own, and one that more often than not refuses to cooperate with what you’re actually trying to do.

Even worse is the camera, which insists on orienting itself to the character’s perspective rather than your own. It doesn’t make any sense either. There’s already a button for locking the camera behind your zombie hunter. The absence of true free look on the camera is baffling; you can pan around, but the view will always snap back to a level plane if you try to angle the camera up or down.

This setup worked fine in Yakuza 4 with its focus on melee combat — a standard element in the series as a whole — but it doesn’t lend itself well to the more ranged combat approach of Dead Souls, especially since battles play out in the open world rather than the discrete arenas that popped up in previous games.

It’s a real shame. Combat is one of the fundamental components in Dead Souls and it is flat out not fun. There’s an elaborate upgrade system and a variety of weapons to choose from, components of all types to obsess over collecting. However, when it comes time to whip out whatever instrument of death you’ve put so much time into developing… the entire experience fizzles. Some spectacularly over-the-top boss fights are fun once you get to them, but the grind of getting there will leave many players dizzy and wondering just where things went so wrong, as I did.

Conclusion

Fans of the series can go ahead and bump the score on this review up two points, if such things are important to you. A longtime Yakuza lover will have an easier time accepting the monumental shortfall that is the game’s combat for the bizarre and oftentimes wacky story that Dead Souls presents. Overall though, this is a lesser game in the series and a lousy introduction to what makes the franchise so popular. Fans should take a look, but everyone else should turn to something other than Yakuza: Dead Souls for their zombie fix.

Score: 5.5 out of 10

(This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3 on a copy provided by Sega)

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