Dead and loving it?
Toshihiro Nagoshi's Yakuza series (Ryu ga Gotoko in their native Japan) has steadily built a fanbase on Western shores, their mix of brawling arcade combat, boss fights and kooky cultural peculiarities, to witness via mini-games and exploration, has been the key to garnering a cult status in the West. They were assumed to be, by some, titles destined to stay within the confines of the Japanese market, but thanks to each entry's reasonable success the franchise continues to be deemed a viable product for us gaijins.
So, with the central storyline of reformed yakuza Kazuma Kiryu, the Dragon of Dojima, having spawned four core titles, as well as several spin-offs (including a film by Takashi Miike) SEGA look to have asked the question of how to fill the gap between instalments. What's de rigeur at the moment? Zombies? Bingo!
Zombies have had a great comeback of late, from the updated films of Romero and Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, to the comic book-cum-hit TV series The Walking Dead, this phenomenon has gained momentum post-2000 and hasn't bypassed the field of gaming. Capcom's Dead Rising and valve's Left 4 Dead were at the forefront of the revival, reminding all and sundry just how fun it was to cut through swathes of the undead without a shred of a hindrance of guilt, the latter title still a solid benchmark for how to offer sandbox gore in the third-person perspective. Take into account Rockstar's zombified spin-off top Red Dead Redemption, a move that not only proved profitable for the satellite game but also swelled sales of the original, and it's easy to see why Yakuza, a series which was built on third-person combat with multiple enemies, would take a playful sidestep.
The story is what you'd expect from such a crossover of ideas; Kazuma Kiryu is still saintly running the Sunshine Orphanage in idyllic seaside Okinawa, one of his young charges Haruka is in trouble and needs his help, and the fictional Tokyo district of Kamurocho is being hit by an epidemic of zombies. The narrative is split though, to follow four characters: Kazuma, the series protagonist; Shun Akiyama, a suave loan shark; fan favourite Goro “mad dog” Majima, the snakeskin jacket wearing, eyepatched lunatic; and Ryuji Goda, the “Dragon of Kansai” from Yakuza 2, complete with mechanical arm.
The shock comes in the form of the change in core gameplay SEGA have implemented, shifting attention to gunplay markedly. An extremely generous auto-aim allows for shooting almost unsighted if you haven’t moved the camera around quickly enough. If you find you want to pick your shots you can change to a familiar over-the-shoulder view, but infinite ammo for pistols makes this less necessary in the early stages. The switching of the aiming to the left stick, when previously it was for movement of character, feels a bit clunky, and the combination of a less than stellar camera, tight corridors and multitudes of zombies make for uncomfortable bedfellows.
The initial chapters are a breeze, the unlimited ammo and scarcity of the tougher zombie variants mean shooting blind into areas with twin pistols is a simple tactic. However, as the game progresses, you'll need to pick your shots more as the rampaging cannibalistic throng can be unforgiving if you find yourself cornered. Get pinned to a wall and you could find yourself in an animation loop of their attack and your fall, unable to roll out of the situation or complete the reload animation to make your gun of much use.
The more you kill, the more experience points you'll collect, which will inevitably lead to you levelling up, extending your health bar, and earning Soul points to be used to learn new abilities. The aforementioned auto-aim for instance has an early Soul Points enhancement, allowing for automatic head tracking of enemies close by with the press of L2. This results in kills galore, and a chance to practise the ever satisfying skill of the head-shot, delighting in the popping of these humanoid blood balloons from a safe distance.
You can also use Sniper Mode, a gauge that fills as you attack more enemies and can be called upon to unleash spectacular feats of precision marksmanship. These shots can deal more damage, destroy otherwise bullet-impervious objects and trigger huge explosions taking out multiple enemies. It isn't an automatic hit though, you need to select your target and pass a quick-time-event to make your shot a successful one. One slight problem with this is the graphics, now they are generally decent, and certainly in the upward trend for the series, but over long distances it is entirely possible to get zombie pop-in. You see one far off, reposition yourself and, by moving a couple of yards further away, they disappear, yet your reticule shows them to be there thanks to it turning red to signify danger/target allocation. It's not a game breaker of an issue, given you're usually far out of their eye anyway and won't trigger their stampede if you take a few extra paces, but it does break the spell slightly.
They won't keep their distance once disturbed though, and picking a nice clean shot to the temple as one runs towards you is rewarding. They come crashing through windows, bursting through doorways, crawling out of grates and seem to drop from anywhere when the game dictates you've triggered their need for entry into an area. Sadly they respawn quickly (not just upon re-entry to a location but also during open gameplay in certain sections), fine if you're after a spot of grinding but otherwise it becomes a bit tiresome – if you love clearing areas in your zombie games this will disappoint.
The likely drive behind this choice was to keep you moving, because once you stop and actually assess what the game is, it becomes startlingly shallow. The clunky camera and your character's poor turning circle reduce any attempt at a brooding atmosphere and force the gamer to rely on the run-and-gun method, leaving the camera in situ, firing blind, morphing proceedings into a flashier version of Zombies Ate My Neighbors, which can still prove amusing.
Keep running, and once you're in the face of a slavering brain-muncher you can still rely on the good old-fashioned Yakuza staple of wielding anything that comes to hand, and even the most bullet-obsessed gun freak would have to admit that swinging a bicycle into an assailant's bonce is fun. Sadly the wealth of ammo and underpowered melee attacks make this an unsound tactic. A Yakuza title should have you occasionally having to resort to a swift kick in the chops followed by a street sign caved into the cranium, but even the chainsaw proves unwieldy and will soon be put down once the initial novelty factor has worn off and you've taken a few unnecessary hits because of your playful dabbling.
If you are overrun, can't dodge your way out of every lunged attack and find yourself grabbed, that reliable staple of breaking free in videogames, the button mash, is there to help you prise yourself from decaying digits before you become the main course. Fail to do so and you can always recover energy in the standard Yakuza way of eating at a restaurant, consuming energy drinks found throughout the levels, resting at your hideout or even indulging in a mid-zombie-apocalypse dip at the local hot springs. If all else fails and you snuff it you can reload from the last check-point; it really is a pretty forgiving game.
The monotony of taking out the vanilla hordes of staggering grey-fleshed mutants can drag in sections, leaving the gamer to find variations in their methods of despatch, experimenting with the arsenal available to them. Practising the double whammy of kneecapping an onrushing zombie and following it up with a slug between the eyes will keep you amused for a while. Not everywhere is overrun with the undead though, in the non-infected parts of Kamurocho it is Yakuza business as normal. You'll bump into people who'll send you on errands in the typical series way, you can drop a few coins in the slots, see what's on the magazine rack, chat up a hostess, go bowling or even have a pervy post-spa game of table tennis.
There's a “Free Battle” mode where you can dip in and out of the infected areas of the district, splatter some grey matter, help out a few people if necessary, and nip back to safety when you see fit, separate from the main narrative. It's sandbox gaming, for those eager just to unload a few clips,but it also gives those struggling an important chance to build their experience points, level up and grab some decent gear. Once you've accumulated some money you can modify the weapons and armour you carry. To do so you require certain obscure materials like metals or high density polymer, which can then be fashioned to make your kit more powerful, protective or simply hold a greater capacity of ammunition.
There's only so much fun to be had playing with the weaponry and killing identikit zombies, the few extra varieties aren't exactly imaginative and don't greatly alter the way in which you'll deal with an encounter, you'll likely just choose to either target the special variety first or last. There isn't a sense of intricacy to the game's hit detection or the physics that other zombie titles offer; head, body or leg is the only thing that looks to make much difference. Those shot in half will cinematically drag themselves along for a few yards but then often duly expire without another shot being fired. Ardent John Woo fans may not see themselves ever tiring of firing twin 9mms, arms crossed mid volley for a flourish, but there's still a limit, even with the array of slightly more inventive Sniper Mode scenarios for taking out swathes en masse.
To add a bit of extra spice, and keep the combat interesting, you'll pick up partners along the way. This should add an element of squad based shooting to proceedings, with you being able to direct your ally attack, stick by you or leave them to their own devices, but more often than not just letting them act as a basic wing man is sufficient. They can join in on co-op sniping when the mode is available in a scenario, but beyond that they're little more than an extra gun, handy zombie magnet or even at times an obstacle.
Fans of the series will get along with the odd pacing and narrative style, and the crossover appeal to zombie aficionados is clear, but for those not overly bothered by either there's little to drive you forward beyond the want to get to the next boss battle and see where the story is heading. Boss fights are what you’d expect, large enemies brought forth to be taken apart by your adherence to set patterns of dodging and attack at the correct moments. Unlock a larger inventory and stock up on health drinks and they'll be a mildly taxing but entirely welcome distraction.
For those with the inclination to repeat levels or gauge their effectiveness, the completion of a stage bears a breakdown of specific skills and how you've been graded – kills, accuracy, time and the like. It won't make this into a significantly longer experience for the vast majority, the main campaign isn't epic in scale, but it's still a good feature the series offers.
The pacing and atmosphere bounce from pillar to post like a game that's been developed by two different teams and stitched together, and in essence that's what we've got, a bifurcated SEGA title, the bastard child of a studio that was behind both House of the Dead and Shenmue, distilling and mixing two disparate genres. If you can ignore any aspirations the game may have had to emulate better survivial horror fare, with the over-the-shoulder camera, flashlights and such, then you may find a frivolus, rentable third person arcade shooter to your liking, short on polish but big on attitude.
- Initially fun carnage
- Goro Majima makes a welcome return
- Traditional Yakuza distractions
- Clunky camera
- Respawning enemies
- Easy to get cornered at times
Yakuza: Dead Souls PS3 Review
The appeal of Yakuza: Dead Souls, to the wider market, will depend very much on how thrilling players find the core gameplay – like Resident Evil-lite, complete with issues inherited from that franchise, with the underpinnings of absurdist Yakuza distractions; bowling, batting cages and zombie brains. As a fan of the series, i swung repeatedly from loving its carefree attitude, distinctive humour and characterisations (Goro Majima proving yet agan the high point) to being infuriated by its mechanics and lack of the expansive qualities i associate with previous instalments. Though core aficionados will likely be unduly forgiving of the latter (if you fall into this camp, feel free to add a point to the score), it has to be rated as a game in its own right. It's just a pity that the melee brawling that harked back to the object swinging pick-up-and-play Die Hard Arcade style is well and truly dead here. Or perhaps that should be undead?
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