The Yakuza series has been a more Japan-centric way of telling a gangster tale. The linear nature and focus on a particular region of the country provided good stories while the gameplay shined with diverse minigames and hand-to-hand combat. After four games spanning two systems, we take a break from the main series for only the second time on home consoles with Yakuza: Dead Souls. Those outside of Japan never saw the Yakuza game set in the feudal era, but Dead Souls' zombie scenario may already be wearing thin for some players.
Before you begin, the game does a mandatory install that takes up over 5GB of hard drive space. At the very least, the programmers tried to make the load a little interesting by throwing in a montage of each character. It looks nice at first and is more interesting than basic static screens or the chain-smoking Snake in Metal Gear Solid 4, but the scenes are over far too quickly, and the animation sequences loop enough times that you'll be glad when they disappear.
The plot is vastly different from prior games, even though it takes a few cues from Yakuza 4. In April 2011, a zombie outbreak erupted in the district of Kamurocho. While Japan's Self-Defense Force tried to stop it, it was unsuccessful and nearly decimated, forcing the government to quarantine the area. With no hope left, it's up to four characters from the series to save what's left of their beloved district: hostess club and loan company owner Shun Akiyama; the Dragon of Kansai, Ryuji Goda, a man who died during the events of Yakuza 2; Kazuma Kiryu, the main protagonist; and Majima Family head Goro Majima. Each character has his own motivations, and their stories circumstantially come together to form the larger story. Kazuma, for example, leaves the orphanage only because he gets a call about Haruka being kidnapped. Shun accidentally ends up in the middle of the apocalypse, and both Ryuji and Goro end up here due to an ongoing war between their respective families.
Gameplay is split up into two elements, which are split based on the status of your district portion. The calmer areas of Kamurocho are home to the more traditional aspects of the gameplay, namely the exploratory non-combat elements. You're free to roam around the district while listening in on other people's conversations and taking up random side-quests. Some involve wandering the city to collect loans while others have you passing along messages to other citizens. All side-quests provide cash, experience or both. As expected, cash can purchase items or weapon upgrades while the experience levels up your character to increase his health and attributes.
Then there are the minigames, which have varied in type and number over the last four titles. There are typical ones, like arcade machines, batting cage practices, bowling and karaoke. There are also the atypical ones, like interactions at a massage parlor and hostess bars as well as fishing and mahjong games. Unlike most entries in the series, all of the minigames seem to come intact from the Japanese version, so the chances of missing out on content are very slim.
Combat, like the exploration aspects, takes place in the walled-off sections of Kamurocho. You'll fight off seemingly endless hordes of the undead that have a tendency to play possum to lull you into a false sense of security or crawl out of vents and fall from ceilings when they aren't standing around and waiting to get shot. Fighting off enemies gets you experience points as well as items that can be sold for cash or used to modify weapons, but you also have a constantly evolving set of secondary objectives to earn bonus experience. Those tasks are based on numbers — e.g., killing X number of zombies with certain guns or killing X number without the victim spotting you — but they add a nice element to the action.
When it comes to combat in the quarantined zones, the game's signature brawling style is gone. Some bits and pieces remain, such as the ability to pick up objects like bicycles, chainsaws and tables and use them against the undead, but your brawling techniques have been reduced to simply kicking zombies away, throwing them, or knocking them down with non-fatal blows. Dead Souls goes for a big combat shift by letting you use guns as your primary means of offense. Grenades, machine guns, pistols, shotguns and other armaments are the order of the day, and you'll either go alone or with a computer-controlled partner, depending on the mission. Killing enough of your enemies grants you the ability to pull off a special sniper shot, which lets you blow up gas tanks or grenades thrown by your partner to kill off zombie hordes.
Your arsenal is pretty varied, and the same can be said for the enemies. By and large, you'll be up against a regular bunch of zombies that may look different but behave the same. They shamble around at first but try to dart and lunge at you once they sense your presence. Like most other zombie games, there are different types, such as big, lumbering zombies that are only vulnerable in the head; speedy, acrobatic zombies; skilled fighters; and ones that constantly scream for reinforcements. Though you've seen them all before, they are still formidable because they have life bars, which isn't common for basic zombie fodder. The various boss characters also feel reminiscent of powerful monsters from similar games.
The shift from melee attacks to gun combat might make sense against zombies, but the implementation isn't exactly smooth. The biggest factor has to be the controls, which are different from the majority of third-person shooters. In a typical setup, the shoulder buttons on the same level handle aiming and firing while the left analog stick moves your character and the right analog stick handles camera movement. In the default setup in Dead Souls, L2 is used to handle aiming while R1 performs an attack; it feels a bit weird at first but is manageable. Stick assignment, however, remains immutable. The layout for other games is still here for movement, but things like strafing are gone. Instead, you plant yourself firmly in one spot and use the left analog stick to aim at the parts of the enemy you want to hit. The ability to alter the camera movement speed is nowhere to be found, so you're stuck with the default speed. The method is reminiscent of older titles on platforms that only had one stick or d-pad, and it feels archaic here. Unless you can sneak up on zombies, you'll face many that will rush you. While you can handle most of them if you have something powerful like a shotgun, you'll likely get tackled or engage in a button fight to break free if you try to aim for a headshot. The combat system is still OK, as the auto-tracking (when you're firing) is good enough, and the snap-style aiming does its job. It feels like the implementation could've been better for those who want to fine-tune their shots.
There are a few other things that hurt the game. The camera works fine in open areas, but it has problems in hallways and more enclosed areas. It won't shake violently if you're pressed up against a wall, but it will be very difficult to see your character. Despite the fact that there's a map in the upper right corner of the screen, there's no radar to tell you if enemies are nearby. The red marks on the screen could have served this purpose, but sometimes, they are so faint that you'll miss them. Then there are the load screens. The load times are decent, but you would have expected them to be a little shorter considering the mandatory HDD install.
Those elements end up being the most disappointing since the rest of the game works out in its own quirky way. The change in atmosphere from desolate zombie-ravaged parts of town to normal civilization is jarring but slightly humorous since they act like two different worlds even though they're only separated by green metal gates. It gets more surreal when you go into the quarantine zones and rescue storefronts from rampaging zombies only to find each person inside is completely calm and going about their business. The open nature of the game is still here, though it only becomes accessible when you get into the calmer areas outside of Kamurocho and get back into the combat zone for freeform missions.
Despite the less-than-optimal combat system, your AI partners are more than competent as they rarely get in your way and actually help you out of some binds. Luckily, the programmers made the AI stop fighting when they lose energy, preventing you from getting into frustrating escort-style missions. Then there's the real sense of progression within the game as, slowly but surely, the quarantine area expands as the story moves forward, giving you less of an area in which to roam. These little details will make fans stick with the game and deal with a subpar combat system.
The graphics continue the same level of quality seen in the older entries of the series, though it does so with a few issues in tow. Character models carry a great amount of detail, though it is more pronounced with the main characters. You can see the emblem on Goro's eye patch pop out, for example, while the clothing textures on Ryuji are clean enough to see the individual stitches. The backgrounds are vibrant and do their best to evoke the look of the red light district. The animations are also nice, even though a few of the transitions could have been done better when minor characters speak, and the camera work for the sniping moments is well done even when they try to go for something artistic, like the rolling, shaking zoom as the bullet goes for the target.
What doesn't go over so well is the frame rate. It handles well in small corridors and when there's no one around; it even does well when there are plenty of civilians roaming around in the city. Replace those civilians with zombies, and the game suddenly struggles to keep things running at a steady 30 frames per second. It does the same thing when there are heavy clouds of smoke in the environment, and combining both elements makes it run like molasses. This doesn't happen when the zombie swarms are small, but as you progress, it happens more often. Then it reaches the point where you slowly progress through areas to thin the herd and ensure the frame rate drops are less frequent. This seems to go against the more fast-paced combat in many games.
The sound is still top-notch. The music continues the trend of action-oriented tunes while still keeping a few classy pieces for the clubs and a few cheesy selections for the karaoke minigame. The voice work is still done in Japanese with no English option, and the work is still great. The casting hasn't changed for any of the recognizable characters, and their vocal inflections are perfect for the situations. The only gripe is that not all of the scenes are voiced, opting for a stream of on-screen text instead. Other than that, there isn't much to criticize in this area.
Yakuza: Dead Souls is a decent, but certainly not perfect, attempt at taking an existing franchise and retrofitting it with zombies. From a presentation standpoint, the graphics and sound are still beautiful despite some technical hiccups. The odd minigames and general exploration still play well, and the story is told in a way that, while clichéd, has enough to drive you to see what happens next. However, the pacing is broken up badly by the numerous load screens, and the controls aren't that intuitive when compared to other third-person shooters on the market. Some of the more ardent fans of the series might be able to get some enjoyment from the title, but everyone else will be put off and turn elsewhere for their zombie-killing fix.
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