Review: Yakuza Dead Souls

As the West awaits with anticipation for localisation news on Yakuza 5, Sega's Dead Souls is the most recently available portal to the video game world of Japanese mafia. With a story arc unlike any other in the 8 year old series, is this departure to a zombie apocalypse likely to interest established fans, or be more attractive to those with a taste for survival horror?

Return to Kamurocho

Those familiar with Yakuza 3 and 4 on PS3 will be immediately at home with Dead Souls' setting, being the vibrant city of Kamurocho. As the story plays out entirely in this location, the vast majority of other external areas found in previous Yakuza titles do not feature this time around.

The city however is partly locked down by the Military, owing to an outbreak that transforms the cities occupants into flesh munching zombies. Four protagonists play an equal part in terms of game time, each with their own sub-stories and intentions. As you might expect, Kazuma Kiryu returns as the lead character, to fight alongside 3 others from past Yakuza games: Sky Finance's Akiyama, the crazed Majima, and from Yakuza 2, Ryuji Goda. What confused me initially in the trailers for Dead Souls was the apparent and stark differences in the game environment, which seemingly switched from a zombie infested apocalypse to regular Kamurocho city life. The exclusion zone within the city, being huge reinforced barriers, keep the infected areas separate from the otherwise normal side. This allows the uninfected zones to maintain the mini-games staple of past Yakuza titles. The batting cage is there, Club Sega, hostess bars and of course the massage parlour. Yes, even the annoying cry baby is back! Along with the many and varied sub-plots & side missions, these mini games keep the recent open world essence of Yakuza alive, which was very welcome in a game that seemed to stray so drastically from the established Yakuza lineage. With variety such as this, life has never been spicier!

Cut-scenes throughout the game follow the Yakuza tradition of exceptional quality and outstanding cinematics. Dead Souls is a fully fledged entry to the series, not just a random half-baked spin off. Of course the dialogue remains throughout in Japanese with sub-titles, which I do not find an inconvenience in the slightest. To me, this arrangement just adds to the overall feel and captivation of Yakuza. The engrossing story will keep you engaged for sure, and with a main campaign of around 10 hours, you can be assured Dead Souls is a worthy addition to the series.

Kill 'em Dead

Besides the obvious story deviation in Dead Souls, there are two further elements that differentiate this from other Yakuza games, being combat mechanic and random interruptions.

While Dead Souls retains the unlock-able level up abilities, inventory management and side quests, gone are the street level interruptions for combat as you travel the map, and the melee fighting system that comes with it. Strictly speaking, melee combat does appear in the game, but this is for such a brief period that it is hardly worth mentioning. The main combat focus this time is unquestionably gun-play, which does have both positives and negatives. On the plus side, this shift of emphasis shows the versatility of the Yakuza engine and is on the whole very rewarding and robust.

The controls however can be quite confusing and takes practice to become competent with. For example, the camera can be difficult to position and control fluidly, until you master the mechanic. When roaming, the left stick controls character movement, and the right stick the camera position. Switch to an over-the-shoulder zoom for accurate shooting however, and the character stops moving altogether and the left stick then becomes the camera control. It took me some time to become fully accustomed to this, and I could well understand if camera control became a frustration for some. Being a fan of Yakuza games since the beginning, I was willing to perceiver and over-come the control limitations myself, yet I could understand if those approaching Dead Souls in a more casual manner would be less inclined to do so.

Weapon variety is good, ranging from hand-guns to sniper rifles, shot-guns to assault rifles. Each type can be modified at the gunsmith to improve damage, accuracy and magazine capacity. On occasion within the story, vehicles and their weapons are available, again something unusual for the Yakuza series. "Heat" attacks make a welcome return and provide some great kill cinematics for you to enjoy. With each "normal" enemy kill (of which there will be plenty, given the vast zombie hoards!), the player's heat gauge increases, which eventually triggers an environmental kill ability. If the associated "heat snipe" quick-time event is successfully completed, the following massive explosion via gas canisters or floods from fire hydrants can wipe out a group of bad guys in a flash. And by quick-time, I really do mean "quick" time. Playing on the hardest difficulty, these heat snipes can be hard to pull off, as the event timers run out very quickly. It's a test of reaction time to hit 1 of the 4 PlayStation action buttons, with the hardest of all being in the later boss battles. You need to be sharp!

As the game progresses, you are aided occasionally by other story characters, which provide co-op heat snipe abilities and some basic team control functions. This makes the game feel somewhat less of a "man versus the world" affair to being part of an over-arching story line that everyone is trying to survive.

Enemies are again reasonably varied, ranging from infected mafia and general populous, to end of level "prototype" bosses that offer a much greater challenge. Bosses become harder to defeat as you no doubt expect, but be prepared to face the mother of all bosses come the end. Stock up on ammo and health ahead of time is all I can say!

Yakuza: Dead Good

Dead Souls wins for me on almost all fronts. Fans of the Yakuza series will appreciate the continuation of defining elements that makes Yakuza what it is. Shooter fans will enjoy the satisfying yet sometimes tricky "blast 'em up" mechanic. Fans of the un-dead get to see their favourite genre realised within an established, polished and historic environment.

Please, Sega, the English speaking world needs Yakuza 5!