Yakuza: Dead Souls review

What could be a more perfect way to introduce the sometimes shambling, sometimes sprinting, baseball bat-swinging, molotov cocktail-hurling zombies of Yakuza: Dead Souls than to show the black and white, age-old variety on a small television screen in a Tokyo apartment, the fictional walking dead staggering toward the viewer as the real life, full-color equivalent stumbles into the very room? Dead Souls hammers out a single, obligatory “What the hell is going on here?” line of dialogue — the kind far too many other sources of zombie fiction stretch into tedious, cliche expositions — and gets on with the show. The game only pauses the action when you come up from the sewers or out of the quarantine zone for air, and even then your time in a safe and friendly Kamurocho is dwindling as the invasion spreads over more of the city. Dead Souls is all about the zombies — and it’s damn sure going to give you them.

The game divides the story into four interlocked chapters, each one focusing on a different character: first Shun Akiyama, then Goro Majima, Ryuji Goda, and finally Kazuma Kiryu. For an action RPG with a zombie spin, Dead Souls requires at least 15 hours of your time. If you’re interested in all the game’s secrets, just consider my run-through: Clocking in just shy of the minimum, I finished the game with a 21% overall completion. I survived, beat the bad guys, and went home, and I only experienced a small portion of what Dead Souls had to offer.

That said, the game can be played two different ways: Gamers looking for a satisfying zombie fix should stick to the main path, while those bent on exploring can chat up the locals, gain extra experience and cash through substories and leisurely trips around the district, and roam the quarantine zone until their trigger finger falls off. My lone excursion into the quarantine, free of any main objective, had me running wildly through the streets, fending off endless waves of zombies, hitting dead ends, and helping a few stragglers — and those substories made me an action movie star and the patron of a restaurant in need of a good gunslinger. There I spent a few minutes eating some apparently delicious pork and miso soup before trying desperately to find my way out again. A quick look at an old email (one of the handful you’ll receive from a mysterious female researcher) told me which spots on the map were usable exits, and I made a dash for it — after about an hour’s detour, of course. Even with the mini-map and larger, more detailed version in the menu, this ever-expanding section of the city could use more passageways in and out.

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The game actually seems to serve the dramatic difference in play style. After finishing the game, players can begin a Premium New Game, which retains all clear data (minus substory progress and some additional data), or try Premium Adventure, a mode that lets players explore without dealing with the story. Considering how cut-scenes consume about half the play time, those are great options. Although once you see how many zombies, mutants, and prototypes (think super-charged lab experiments) you’re up against normally, you won’t be pining for better action.

The story itself is delightfully cheesy but surprisingly well-executed, due in no small part to the likeable characters. Sure you’ll risk your neck darting in and out of the quarantine zone just to find Shun’s chubby assistant a couple of asprin, and yes, you’ll go toe-to-toe with a total rip-off of the Lickers from Resident Evil and later dish up the best calimari this side of the galaxy, but the story is hilariously good and so well put together that it rivals a grade-A horror film.

As for gameplay, Dead Souls sends more enemies your way than you could count — and that’s why the game does it for you, with a running tally of all regular zombie kills present on the upper right of the screen. The game tracks all other kills (of mutants and prototypes) via in-game achievements, which keep you feeling good about your extermination skills right up through the final boss fight.

The game introduces different forms of zombies (these are your mutants) that react uniquely in combat, and mixed in with the regular undead, they keep the action intense and varied. On their own, their special abilities or behavior feel contrived, but combined with everything else the crisis tosses at you, they manage to skirt above routine.

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Dead Souls doles out generous allotments of ammo and health. You’ll really never, ever run out, and even if you do because of limited inventory or another reason, supply caches litter the city, enemies drop all sorts of goods, and your standard gun comes with unlimited ammo. Some of these weapons are good enough, or can be modded until they are, that you’ll gladly fall back on them in a pinch. Like in Resident Evil 5, you’ll have to switch weapons in real-time. Thankfully, all your inventory needs are handled on the actual menu screen, so you can break from the frenzy to do crucial tasks like healing yourself or your partner.

In certain scenarios you’ll team up with another character — either a minor addition to the cast or a major player, like one of the four protagonists. At first this system seems like a mess. One or two characters die like there’s no tomorrow, and unfortunately, early in the game, the item you need to revive an incapacitated partner is hard to find. Thankfully, by positioning their command on “Back me up,” you’ll prevent them from making stupid decisions and getting themselves killed. For bigger fights, the “Do as you will” command also works, but when you’re navigating tight corridors and closed spaces, forcing a partner to cover you from behind will ensure better survival. However, you won’t get a gameover if your partner or someone you’re protecting dies, and that’s possibly the most useful feature you could ask for in a mandatory co-op segment.

The “Normal” difficulty setting manages to put you in seemingly unwinnable situations and get you out alive with a surprisingly low need for continues, especially once you become familiar with the flow of combat. Aside from a misplaced forklift puzzle that would have been better off disposed, the game never pulls any cheap tricks or leaves you stranded. It often gives you a chance to stock up on items and save before you barrel into an extreme fight, and when you do poorly, it offers you the option of temporarily bumping the difficulty down a level.

The biggest detriments to the game are the weapon controls and the camera. Players can switch on the fly between four methods of weapons combat: shooting blind, shooting while strafing, shooting in-place using a targeting receptacle, and executing Heat Snipe attacks. You’ll realize immediately, through the in-game tutorial, how useless the first type is. If a zombie darts out from the pack, the character moves too clumsily to target it in time. The best proven way to attack is to shoot while strafing, which makes it easy to nail zombies coming from any direction. Shooting in-place with the L2 is dangerous when you’re surrounded, but a decent choice if you have the luxury to pick off enemies from afar. This method also gives you a more precise aim but is not practical in most combat situations. Lastly, the Heat Snipe is good for dealing mass or added damage. By building up your Snipe Gauge, you’ll be able to fire at explosive barrels, gas caps, and even enemy weak points, so visualizing how this ability can facilitate tougher fights takes little work of imagination.

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But oh, the camera. Whenever you’re turning rapidly in multiple directions, or enemies rush you or knock you down, the camera rears its ugly head. Too often enemies will swarm the character and prevent him from successfully getting back up and away from danger simply because the camera won’t adjust the way you need it to. It’s especially frustrating when fast-moving enemies are zipping around the room and you can barely turn quickly enough to aim at them — and even when you do, the jumpy camera, which hugs too closely to the character, will flip you in the opposite direction.

The system needs refinement to make combat easier in hairy situations. Trying to grab melee weapons in a hurry, too, is a futile effort (half the time the character can’t seem to locate the object when zombies are encroaching on his personal space). Thankfully these issues don’t diminish the overall enjoyment of gameplay, and most of the time you can manage without too much of a hiccup. But these flaws can seriously bring down the experience.

What Yakuza: Dead Souls does best is concoct an authentic zombie experience that keeps the pace alive and the zombies never quite dead. Mowing down zombies is more fun than it’s been in a long time, and most of the bosses hit good notes, as well. Relatively free of glitches and high on convenience, even with a fundamentally problematic design with the camera and controls, Dead Souls offers a lot or a little depending on your desired investment — but it’s a memorable ride.