Yakuza Dead Souls review: A spin-off, but not a departure
14th Mar 2012 | 16:00
Yakuza has always been a scattershot series, overwhelming with details and delights, bringing them to boil, and hoping the best rise to the top. Authenticity and density. That's been the ethos in four main games, and it's the same here. Besides zombies, of course. So, what does happen when zombies get involved?
It's a question many fictional universes ask when they want to stir the pot (or when they run out of ideas), and Dead Souls gives a typically Yakuzian stab at answering it. It's a spin-off, sure, but not a total departure.
You play shady loan shark Shun Akiyama, besuited and scowling, but actually quite a decent bloke. Along with construction company owner 'Mad Dog' Goro Majima, mean former yakuza Kazuma Kiryu, and the legendary Ryuji Goda, you'll save the once heaving, now brain-hungry hub of Kamurocho. But not before comedy moments and touching raports - like the beautifully observed relationship between Akiyama and his overlarge returning secretary Hana.
Perhaps surprisingly, the whole 'dead thing' is the worst part of Dead Souls. Its implementation is more than an afterthought, but the idea itself is a shamble in the wrong direction. Streets are wrecked and vacated, the vibrant charm of the world literally chewed up and spat out by hordes of brain-eaters. Linear sewers and concrete facilitates are the worst of it. You can't play minigames. You can't buy a burger. You can't explore at leisure. Isn't this where the series' very appeal lies to wide-eyed Westerners?
There are, thankfully, bustling quarantine zones where people are slightly more alive, and tangles of streets offer attractions at every turn. It's the Yakuza you love: hundreds of NPC's loudly sharing snippets of conversations, billboards for movies, soft drinks and tanning salons spanning the skyline, restaurants, theatres, bars and shops. The open world is a mere playground compared to the Sahara-sized sandboxes of games like Just Cause, but Dead Souls makes up for it with a packed hub and a bunch of interiors.
Why not partake in a spot of Englishman-baffling pachinko? It's like pinball got knocked up by Peggle and gave birth to 200 ball bearings. Guide them into holes to win tokens and play again. The analogue darts game is better than most retail releases, and you can celebrate a bullseye with a sharp shot of branded brandy. There's a batting cage to practice your baseball swing, and a totally unfair crane game where you can win plushies. (It's rigged.) Crucially, QTE karaoke and hostess bars return, too.
It's a haphazard range of gameplay possibilities, some meaningful and others completely not, and it's the same throughout. Outside safe zones there's more than one way to approach combat. You can run-and-gun, or stand and pop off rounds with Resi-style tank controls, or use a slow and purposeful plod reminiscent of Dead Space. It's brain-splattered pick-and-mix.
And the mechanics keep on piling up. You can pick up bikes and posts to batter enemies. Or chain enough headshots and you'll earn a Heat Snipe, which targets the most explosive thing in the area - cars, inexplicably placed red barrels - and, well, blows it up, which clears crowds quickly. This can be powered up with a buddy. Occasionally an NPC joins you, who'll follow commands and provide extra firepower. The extra management is fiddly and, annoyingly, and you'll lose progress if they die. You can even build up skills - bettering hand-to-hand skills and unlocking lock-ons. These RPG trappings extend to shops, which can be invested in, and weapon crafting with looted material. It adds several layers to otherwise light combat.
Clearly there are disembodied tongues firmly in disembodied cheeks, but combat's been done better elsewhere. There are fewer zombies than Left 4 Dead, and fewer methods of dispatch than Dead Rising, but different enemies do bring variety (if a little shameless cribbing). The Witch - sorry, 'Cry Baby' - sobs in a corner and attacks if you wake her, while the mattress-armed Tank charges recklessly. Not brilliant, but satisfying enough.
Ultimately, the zombie sections are to be stomached while you wait for better bits to load.