By Kris . March 26, 2012 . 12:31pm
Mechanically, Yakuza: Dead Souls isn’t a very good game. It focuses on gunplay that, quite simply, isn’t all that much fun. At first, you might find yourself trying to use L2 to stop, carefully aim at every zombie you pass, and shoot them in the head using the Metroid Prime-style one-stick shooting mechanics. You’ll be shooting zombies in the head and thinking, "This is okay! Sure, there are a lot of zombies to shoot, but my pistols have unlimited ammo. I’ll just shoot through everything in every room, and move along on my merry way!"
This is foolishness, and in a couple of hours you’ll see why. The game will start throwing rooms full of zombies and mutants at you. Mutants will seem strangely familiar if you’ve ever played Left 4 Dead. For instance, the Meatheads (oversized musclebound zombies who are only weak to shots to the head), Crybabies (ladies who cry and scream to attract other zombies), Fatties (whose vomit sends zombies into a rage), and Monkeyboys (the speedy bastards who jump on you and drain health). Things get overloaded to the point where the game’s framerate will get choppy, trying to accommodate everything on the screen. Unless you’re foolishly patient and very good at killing zombies and the overly-strong mutants, you’ll need to run. By the time they introduce Aggros (fast and powerful without many weaknesses) into the mix, choosing flight over a fight will be in your blood.
Fortunately, Dead Souls is designed around the idea that you’ll spend a lot of time running. When you press R1 to fire, you’ll (kind of) lock onto an enemy in front of you. This is a handy way to clear the path between you and an exit, but it’s not always foolproof. Monkeyboys have an annoying tendency to jump onto you while you’re running and slow you down, and considering that zombies in this game run almost as quickly as you do, this will often result in you getting surrounded. When you’re playing as the suave moneylender, Shun Akiyama, who generally fights with two pistols, getting out of a group of zombies can be a pain.
"But wait!" you say. "Fighting enemies up close and personal is the fun part of the Yakuza series! Why can’t you just punch, kick, and curbstomp all of those zombies out of the way?" Well, unfortunately, with the increased focus on gunplay, the fisticuffs have been reduced to a mere shadow of their former glory. You can kick zombies back, but even when using L1 to focus on an enemy, it’s unwieldy. Despite my most earnest efforts, not even the close-quarters upgrades (purchased with Soul Points granted for leveling up) gave me anything near the level of the combat found in previous games. However, I have to give credit where credit is due: the melee is helpful for knocking down the goddamn Monkeyboys for some free shots when there are no other enemies around. Sure, it takes about four knockdowns to beat them if you don’t have a shotgun, but it’s much more helpful than just trying to draw a bead on them while they’re moving.
Bosses aren’t much of a spectacle either. Coming off of the Yakuza team’s other recent shooter–the brilliant Binary Domain–it’s disappointing that the bosses in this game are about as underwhelming as boss design gets. They’re big, bullet-sponge enemies with giant glowing weak spots. The first one you fight looks almost exactly like Resident Evil 2′s "Licker," who crawls on the walls and ceilings. This wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t have to sit through unskippable cutscenes before fighting them. The first boss has about five minutes of chatter between the nearest checkpoint and the beginning of the fight. Considering it took me three tries to beat it, I was not too happy with the ten extra minutes of wait time.
Speaking of wait time, the game’s main district, Kamurocho, is divided into two sections: the quarantine zone and the infection-free zone. While the infection-free zone is mostly a place to pick up sub-mission requests and restock on bullets and health-restoring energy drinks, it’s (unfortunately) also the only place where you find save points. This doesn’t sound so bad until you realize that you have to get from one side of the quarantine zone to the other, killing hundreds of zombies along the way, just because you need to save and meet a friend for dinner or something. There is a checkpoint system in place, but that’s only tied to your deaths, and will not save your progress. Your only option is to escape the quarantine zone, which often changes the locations at which you can exit.
On a more positive note, while Dead Souls infuriates me at times, it still exudes the traditional Yakuza charm. This is enhanced by the fact that it just so happens to include one of my favorite NPCs of all time as a playable character: Goro Majima.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Yakuza series, Goro Majima is a one-eyed, mentally unbalanced psychopath with a tendency to beat his subordinates with umbrellas and baseball bats. He also occasionally likes to get into rooftop knife fights with the closest thing he has to a best friend: Yakuza’s protagonist, Kazuma Kiryu.
When the game’s second chapter opens on Goro Majima, he’s laughing at a zombie movie from his extensive collection. He looks up from the screen and notices that zombies have begun to swarm into his room. He does what any insane mobster would do: grabs a shotgun, blows the nearest zombie’s head off, and grins at the idea that he gets to shoot the undead with reckless abandon. Shortly afterwards, he smacks a 20-foot-tall rock-covered mutant in the face with the butt of his shotgun. Couple this with the fact that his default weapon is a powerful-wide spreading shotgun, and sense of danger or urgency that one would assume would pervade a zombie infestation is gone.
The great thing is, that lack of concern isn’t exclusive to Majima. While following the main storyline (for most of the characters) tells a grim story of kidnapping and betrayal, the game’s numerous side missions just sort of treat the whole thing as a nuisance. While in the quarantine zone, you’ll occasionally be asked to clear some zombies out of the entryway of a business. Do so, and the business will open back up, despite the walking dead and the abandoned tanks nearby. The people who run and fill Kamurocho’s Club Segas and gyudon places are either devoted, insane or both, but they’re always very friendly.
Even bowling alleys, karaoke parlors, and host clubs stay open in the midst of the infection. As is expected of the Yakuza series, these provide some little minigame diversions from the zombie slaying, and it’s humorous to woo a host or play arcade games while ignoring whatever important, presumably-time-sensitive mission the story wants you to do.
Similarly, the characters you’re supposed to do sub-missions for are pretty nonplussed about the whole zombie apocalypse thing. One mission of note involves a movie director who has run out of money and want to use the infected Kamurocho for cheap special effects and Majima for his pro-bono star. Naturally, Majima is very excited that he gets to be a hero in his own zombie movie and is willing to perform some life-threatening stunts for him. There’s another mission with guy who’s sure that the people around him will die because they fall into various horror movie clichés, but is too amused to do anything to prevent those deaths. A lighthearted surrealism surrounds the entire game, and each hilariously bizarre event (often involving Majima) seems to be placed in the right spot to keep you going when you’re almost too frustrated to keep playing. Being able to play as Goro Majima just accentuates the weirdness.
Food for thought:
1. While I generally play Yakuza games for the story, in Dead Souls I enjoyed the comedy of the non-story-related sub-missions much more than the main story’s melodrama. Weird.
2. You can definitely feel some of the DNA of Binary Domain in this game. On occasion, you’ll be teamed up with a teammate who you can give orders to, but because Dead Souls’ zombies are much simpler to fight than Binary Domain’s robots, the teammates don’t feel quite as important.