Review: Yakuza Dead Souls

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I’m not what you would call a die-hard fan of the Yakuza series. I’ve experienced very little of what the franchise has to offer: a few chapters of Yakuza 3, and about half the lengthy story for Yakuza 4. So no, I’m not the resident expert on all things Yakuza. I am, however, a huge fan of all things zombie: movies, comics, television shows and videogames. I’ve got a full-sized poster of Dawn of the Dead hanging on my office wall at work that reads – “When there’s no more room in hell . . . the dead will walk the earth.” Not sure what the appeal is. I guess it doesn’t really matter, if it’s zombie related I want to check it out; and when I heard that the developers at Sega were working on this project I just had to take a closer look.

Anyone who’s spent any time with a Yakuza game quickly realizes that the city of Kamurocho is nearly as important as the individual Yakuza characters themselves. Dead Souls is no different. In fact, it might even play a bigger role this time around as you get to see firsthand how the zombie infection turns this once sprawling metropolis into a city ravaged by the undead.

In addition to the reappearance of Kamurocho players will also have the opportunity to step back into the shoes of past Yakuza characters: Shun Akiyama, Goro Majima, Ryuji Goda, and the series’ main protagonist Kazuma Kiryu. Although the cover art might suggest it, this game is not a 4-player co-op zombie feast. Instead, as the game progresses through the 4 chapters, you’ll play solo as each of the main characters to progress the story and complete objectives and side-missions.

The story of Dead Souls, although not the greatest of zombie tales, does have an interesting twist here and there that consistently takes the player back to the opening of the game as a means of unraveling the cause of the zombie outbreak. As each character’s story is completed they meet up with previously played characters from earlier sections of the game. Although it’s fun to see them interacting with each other, where the game really could have made an impact is by including the option of 4 player co-op. Instead, the developers push the player through various - and often repeated - sections of the city, tasked with completing similar main and side-quest stories, while filling literally thousands of the undead with an unending supply of hot lead.

The idea of taking the Yakuza series – known for its over-the-top, but quite functional, melee combat – and turning it into a 3rd person shooter, although interesting in concept, doesn’t necessarily translate into solid gameplay. Each of the four characters use various weapons unique to their personality, but none of them are developed enough to overcome some major challenges the player is faced with from start to finish. To begin with (and this was the biggest hurdle) when deciding to take specific aim on a target players are forced to use the L2 trigger in conjunction with the left stick to move the aiming reticule. Let that sink in for a minute. How many shooters (1st or 3rd person) have we all played that utilize the left stick to aim with instead of the right? I’ve thought about this and my answer is none. Why the developers went with this decision is beyond me but it’s one that you’re stuck with and must absolutely adapt to in order to survive this game. I liken it to suddenly, and inexplicably, being forced to wipe your backside with the opposite hand you’ve come to know and trust; the first time out will likely end in disaster.

Unfortunately, the mechanical problems of Dead Souls don’t end with a wonky aiming system. Instead, they are compounded with one of my most hated gaming mechanics (see the ABOG Discussion) - the finicky camera. An unstable camera is usually enough for me to immediately stop playing a game. Because Dead Souls resides primarily in the large, open streets of Kamurocho, the camera functionality isn’t completely unforgiving.  However, toward the latter half of the game, many sequences take to the indoors and much smaller spaces where the camera literally ceases to function.  The Quality Assurance testers of Yakuza Dead Souls should have raised every red flag they had and notified the developers to remove any instance of narrow alley or small room. Navigating through them was difficult enough, having to take out hordes of zombies or, worse yet, confront boss battles in these same settings became near impossible. Add to it the crazy aiming mechanic and you’ve got yourself a recipe for total meltdown.

On a positive note, the Yakuza series has always had a knack for creating attractive looking cut-scenes, and Dead Souls is no exception. I feel strongly that for this console generation, the Yakuza series knows how to render accurate and extremely detailed facial animations and appearances. Unfortunately, playing a videogame solely for the next cut scene isn’t much fun, and doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Die-hard fans of the Yakuza series may or may not be excited for Dead Souls. The developers took a franchise known primarily for melee-centric action and shook things up by replacing it with a less than competent shooter. Fans might appreciate revisiting the city and its inhabitants, much like seeing an old friend who’s been away for awhile. But they’ll quickly realize that their “friend” has changed from that reliable, clean cut guy they’ve known for years, to a heroin addict who stinks of the sewer and refuses to wear pants. OK, my analogy might be a bit overboard, but you see where I’m going with it. Sometimes change isn’t always a good thing and, with Dead Souls, Sega should have stuck with the formula that has made the series so appealing in the first place. Even players new to the franchise and excited at the prospect of having another opportunity to head shot endless waves of zombies should look elsewhere to get their guns off. Yakuza Dead Souls is mostly dead on arrival.