Review: Yakuza: Dead Souls
This is the curious question posed by Yakuza: Dead Souls. We all know certain areas of Japan to be a bit odd to our western eyes. Maid bars, pachinko halls, and hot springs are but a few examples of the cultural oddity that is urban Japan. It seems you can’t turn a corner without seeing something bizarre, so Sega are running an experiment to see if supernatural horror can get a rise from the inhabitants. After some lengthy time with Yakuza: Dead Souls, it seems like the answer to this experiment is a resounding “No”.
Segas latest entry in the Yakuza franchise is a bit of a departure from the gang culture of past titles. The gangs are still there, as are their rivalries, but Dead Souls adds in hordes of zombies into the mix, much like Read Dead Redemption did with its Undead Nightmare add-on. The game follows the full timeline of the outbreak, and the four protagonists who must survive it. Large sections of the city get quarantined off, separating the normal city from the plague town. As the game progresses, more outbreaks occur, and more and more of the city is given over to the zombies.
The first thing that grabs you here is the graphics. Sega has done a great job here, with the district of Kamurocho incredibly visualised. The designers clearly did their homework, and the world looks and feels like a living, breathing place. Its occupants share this attention to detail, and the characters you meet are wonderfully visualised, each with a strong unique identity. You play each protagonist in turn, and each have their own motives and personality, and the animators have done a great job making each character feel unique. The cutscenes in particular are fabulously directed, and there’s plenty of them to see over your journey.
Sadly, visuals alone do not make a game. Once you get down the the gameplay, the dazzling veneer begins to fade. Gameplay in Yakuza comprises of two main sections, dealing with zombies, and pratting about in the uninfected zones. Both modes control reasonably, but big awkward issues get in the way of the fun. Prime among these is the frankly pitiful aiming mechanics. Fine aiming is a nightmare here, with the controls mapped awkwardly. You can also head track with fine aiming, which is a good idea in theory, but trying to lock this onto a specific zombie is near impossible.
The auto aim does a much better job at targeting appropriate foes, but removes your headshotting power, turning some encounters into bullet spamming fests. Heat Sniping is a useful tool, allowing you to target oil drums, or trigger huge destruction around you, and recharges slowly enough that you don’t use it as a crutch. Each character can equip different weapons, shotguns, SMGs, etc, but if your ammo runs out there is always a bog-standard pistol with infinite ammo. This pistol saved my bacon more than once, when the absurdly limited inventory blocked me from collecting SMG ammo without realising it. The menus for item management are OK, but each item needs about three button presses to move or use, meaning lots of time spent rearranging your pockets. Many of the weapon upgrades require loot that is only dropped by zombies, forcing you to cart around a lot of dead weight in your inventory if you want to improve your arsenal.
Roaming the infected zone comes in two flavours, story driven, and free exploration. The story missions see you pushing through scripted paths, with events and bosses occurring as you progress. Free exploration allows you to wander as you like, killing zombies, gathering loot, and rescuing people and businesses. As you progress through the story, this zone grows larger, swallowing up entire areas of the clean zone.
Many of the sub-missions involve roaming the infected zones, and most of them are quite amusing, such as helping a couple of perverts rescue a supposedly naked woman. Ultimately, most of these side missions feel a bit like busywork, and the rewards never feel too great. Loot opportunities only get worse when you venture back into the uninfected areas.
The clean zones of Yakuza are far more in line with previous titles. You trigger most of the story missions from here, and many of the minigames live here too. A lot of the previously noted “Japanese oddness” can be found here. You can visit restaurants, bars, gambling clubs, amusement arcade, bowling, golf courses, hostess clubs, hot springs, massage parlours, batting ranges, even karaoke. There is no end of things to do out here, and you can easily lose hours to some of these minigames. Most are quite fun to play, but some of the more Japan-centric games could use some more explanation, particularly pachinko and shogi.
The only thing that can stop you here is your cash flow. All of these activities cost money, ranging from dirt cheap to wallet bustingly expensive. Chief offender here is the hostess clubs, where you talk and dine with a number of girls. Visits here are ludicrously expensive, and to do well, you need to spend hundreds of thousands of Yen, on food, drink and gifts.
My main concern with the game answers my leading question. The two primary zones never seem to interact with each other. The zombie outbreak may as well be in a different town if the attitudes of the civilians are any indication. They just don’t seem to care! As the infection spreads, this disparity only gets worse. Once, I was standing two feet from the barrier wall, and you overhear someone talking about going to karaoke later. My jaw hit the floor. There are ravenous, contagious hordes behind this wall, surely there are better things to do with your time?
This was no isolated incident either, as I encountered this kind of scene dozens of times. Even the people left in the infected zones don’t seem to care. As you take back shops from the hordes, which amounts to little more than shooting everything outside and un-blocking the door, the shop will return to blissful normality. Even the hostess clubs do this, and the girls don’t even comment on the horrors outside, preferring to chat about Chinese cuisine. Did all these people not notice the zombies? Do they think it’s a normal Friday night? Do they simply not care?
Ultimately, Yakuza: Dead Souls identity crisis and control issues are what cripple it. The fine aiming is far too finicky, and the auto aim removes too much of the challenge. When it works, it’s certainly fun, but the fighting is ultimately quite shallow. You find that the indifference of the citizens ultimately rubs off on you. Why should you care about the zombies, when there’s clearly more fun to be had in the karaoke bar?