As a Japanese enthusiast’s wet dream, the Yakuza series has traditionally pampered to their every whim. Taking on the role of a member of the famed “Mafia of Tokyo” comes with the many perks one would associate with; hostess bars and arcade machines can be found throughout the Kamarucho district of Japan’s capital. Traditionally though your exploration is interrupted by gangsters who want to use their fists to negotiate your surrender. But what would happen if there was a zombie outbreak in Kamarucho? This is the question that blatant spinoff Yakuza: Dead Souls wishes to address. But as the events unfold, it is clear that this concept was better left on the cutting room floor.
You are given a brief scene that explains that Tokyo is under siege after an outbreak of flesh-eating zombies, before the episodic nature of the game rears its ugly head. Each of the four main chapters puts you in the shoes of a Yakuza character who must contend with the various challenges laid out before them. While the decision to go with Japanese voiceovers with subtitles is one that is certainly forgivable, the narrative itself is all over the place, with no character being remotely identifiable; one character is noticeably shaken by the presence of the undead, his wavering devotion to his assistant that whines all the time is frankly annoying to watch. The rest are a motley crew consisting of a sadistic henchman who loves zombie films too much, a man who hasn’t been seen since the second game that never lets on just why he is back in Tokyo, and the worst legal guardian in gaming history; who are all infuriating individuals for these reasons and more. Things do pick up in the later stages, but the damage is already done.
The conscious decision to remove most of the random RPG like elements and replace it with a third-person shooter perspective is initially a breath of fresh air for Yakuza. You can aim down the sights, strafe along or even run amok blazing the sky as you go. but this soon turns into the shallowest of its ilk and at times perhaps among the worst offenders. Aiming down the sight is certainly a case of trial and error due to the sensitivity, but is perhaps the most connected of the control options. Both randomly shooting and strafe shooting lock onto the nearest enemy, regardless of danger factor.
Much like the ‘survival horror’ genre, there is limited ammunition for some of the guns, yet the rest have infinite ammo. Picking up items in the game world to use against zombies is a great idea, but turns out to be sluggish and ineffective. Sometimes you will even see items attach themselves to enemies or bounce really high after you throw them. There are also issues with scavenging as item slots are extremely limited for a game where hording items is paramount to success. Poor execution is prevalent for things going on around you too: zombies that use mob tactics to leap upon you, special types that frequently get caught up on the scenery and AI controlled partners that are constantly trying to commit suicide, are just some of the many failings.
One RPG element that survived the process was the levelling system. As you rank up, you gain more souls to spend on abilities for both yourself and your allies (if you have them). It is advisable to spend them on yourself as companions seldom ever appear long enough to be of worth. It is empowering to say the least, but most of the perks end up being consequential and too expensive to invest much in. You can also visit a truck that serves as the modification shop where you can buy new weapons, items and upgrades. Weapons require certain items and a small cash sum for upgrades. When you consider the scavenging issue, there is only so far you can upgrade your items before the game forces you to go collecting again. Some of the late game weapons you obtain are fantastic, and the boss battles in particular are a huge treat, but stalking the streets of Tokyo leaves a bitter taste due to poor execution overall.
Despite the invasion, there is actually plenty to partake within Yakuza: Dead Souls. Rescue missions, side quests and other adventures into the infected areas are mixed within the more traditional Yakuza offerings of arcades, karaoke bars and hostess clubs. Pachinko in particular is seemingly endless when you get the ball rolling, with the experience quickly turning into an eternal ordeal. Once you complete the game, you do get the chance to play Premium versions of the game that either take out the entire story or all the extra features, which for those wanting to experience the other features of the game without having to worry about the shambling dead is a huge plus. Having to switch again to “Premium Last Adventure” mode to look at some of the content though is inconvenient and unnecessary though. But none of these features really stands out as well here as they would have in a traditional Yakuza game. There isn’t that sense of immersion of living the Tokyo life of a Yakuza. The extra features feel worthless as a result.
The presence of the zombies in Tokyo leads to another problem. While the locations are certainly varied and dilapidated enough to fit the theme, it is the constant long loading times leading to visuals as lifeless as the zombies themselves that insults the series’ honour. Although it renders lots of zombies of various kinds at any given time, the game is prone to slowdown quite frequently. If it wasn’t for the above average character models and spectacular detail in the cut scenes, there would be nothing nice to say about this game’s visuals. The music is split between chapters and is essentially just a horrible mix of repetitive themes that quickly grind away at your sanity. Oddly, when reappearing in areas unaffected by the undead hordes, there is no music at all; creating a rather uneasy feeling that disaster is imminent.
“The mind-numbingly boring combat against the backdrop of a dated looking engine only served to make playing it a chore.”
One more important thing to note: Don’t be misled by the prospect of co-operative multiplayer. It doesn’t feature here. With no online multiplayer to speak of, and only poorly executed mini-games for those wishing to play alongside a friend locally, Yakuza: Dead Souls feels like a missed opportunity. While it would have made for an infuriating experience, at least the potential to have a human partner would have made it all the more bearable. The only online options available to you are the various leaderboards, though these really don’t make up for not being able to have a wingman at the hostess clubs, or at least your own personal hit man.
Deep in the recesses of my mind, I had a distinct impression that the team behind the Yakuza series had a screw loose by filling its digital Tokyo with zombies. Yakuza: Dead Souls certainly confirmed that, but not for the reasons I was expecting. The story really did pick up quite a lot towards the end, but dreadful first impressions made the going tough. The mind-numbingly boring combat against the backdrop of a dated looking engine only served to make playing it a chore. While I fleeted with the extras, there wasn’t any incentive to progress further. Despite being set in the heart of Japanese culture, Yakuza: Dead Souls is a poorly envisioned zombie based action game. Leaping on this zombie bandwagon may have severely damaged the reputation of the clan.