Yakuza: Dead Souls Review
With four North American releases to its name, the barrier for entry to Sega’s narrative-heavy Yakuza franchise is intimidating. As an amateur Japanophile, I’ve always felt like I would find something to love in the under-appreciated series, but I’ve been afraid of jumping into the middle and feeling like I was missing something. While the zombie-infested Dead Souls may be a bizarre change of pace for those who have followed the series since the beginning, it provides a light-hearted point of entry for curious new players.
Previous Yakuza games focused on the hand-to-hand brawling skills of protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, but Dead Souls’ supernatural twist calls for a new emphasis on gunplay. This element is the most likely to drive away new players and franchise veterans. Though characters turn, run, and dodge quickly by survival horror standards, most of your shooting will be done via an auto-aim system that is disturbingly similar to early Resident Evil games.
Technically, you can aim manually – but the process is archaic and robs you of the ability to move. You’ll only want to use this technique when you’re required to shoot specific body parts to take down one of Dead Souls’ special mutants or boss monsters. A lot of these creatures are suspiciously close to monstrosities from other games – for example, the Crybaby is functionally and visually a lot like Left 4 Dead’s witch. Originality issues aside, each new zombie type adds variety and helps mix up the long stretches of fighting regular undead.
As annoying as the controls might sound, don’t let the negative impressions of the first hour pull you away. Once Dead Souls gets going, you’re given enough ammunition and powerful weapons to effortlessly blow through hordes of zombies, even with the awkward controls. Despite the questionable controls, the game is pleasantly forward-thinking with other gameplay mechanics. The leveling system is wonderfully fleshed out, allowing you to unlock new melee moves and bonuses that constantly increase your effectiveness against the undead. Upgrades carry across characters, so you never feel like you’re starting from scratch when you move forward with the story.
Yakuza: Dead Souls hides a funny and sometimes surprisingly touching script beneath its unpolished exterior. From the loan shark with a heart of gold to the insane, movie-obsessed mobster, each of the four playable characters has hilarious quirks and likable traits. They also bring their own interesting motivations for diving into the zombie plague. For example, grizzled ex-Yakuza boss Ryuji Goda had a hand in the creation of these monsters and approaches hunting them down as an act of honor and reconciliation, while Goro Majima just wants to psychotically play out scenes from his favorite horror flicks.
Cutscenes can run a little long in Dead Souls, but they’re often filled with fresh, amusing takes on a genre that’s already been spoofed to death and back. One side mission has you joining a group of perverted men desperately hunting down an allegedly naked woman in need of saving. In another, you encounter a handful of clichéd zombie movie characters and get to predict the order they’ll be killed off. I was consistently surprised and happy at how much every plot point paid off, no matter how ridiculous.
The biggest complaint about my time in Dead Souls is how much backtracking is required. By 10 hours into the lengthy game, I found myself frequently being sent back and forth across long stretches of zombie territory. I was able to learn the city of Kamurocho very well, and that familiarity makes it all the more interesting to see how the locale changes as the disease spreads, but I still would have gladly accepted a reliable form of fast travel.
For all of its problems – and there are plenty – I couldn’t help but smile through most of my time with Yakuza: Dead Souls. The clever script provided many laugh-out-loud moments, and the monster variety and leveling system made me feel powerful even against hundreds of opponents. Like a slightly more presentable Deadly Premonition, Dead Souls mimics B-horror movies. It has a blemished, blood-soaked face that’s going to scare off some gamers, but there’s a lot of heart and fun to be found by those willing to dig beneath the ghoulish surface.