The Yakuza series is well known for its self-serious plots and goofy side stories, but Yakuza: Dead Souls aims to elevate things to the next level. Introducing zombies may seem like an act of desperation to fill a creative void, but it’s quite the contrary, as the developer experiments with placing some of its most well-liked characters in increasingly baffling scenarios. As such, despite the change in direction, Dead Souls is squarely targeted at the heads of fans, but given the ageing mechanics of the series as a whole, is it any fun to play?
It’s not an easy question to answer, because your enjoyment of Dead Souls will hinge directly on your investment in the Yakuza universe as a whole. The game follows in the footsteps of the brilliant Yakuza 4 by splitting the campaign into four distinct chapters each told from the perspective of a different protagonist. The laid-back money lender Shun Akiyama opens the campaign, and is followed by appearances from the frighteningly comical Goro Majima, former rival Ryuji Goda and series veteran Kazuma Kiryu. While the gameplay format remains the same regardless of character – a mixture of open world investigation and linear third-person shooting – the studio once again proves its ability to tell fascinating intertwining narratives, as the cast of Dead Souls cross paths and interact throughout the course of the game.
The plot opens with Haruka – Kazuma Kiryu’s adopted daughter – held captive as throngs of the undead roam the streets of Kamurocho. As the story develops, the plot tiptoes around the clan warfare subject that has become pivotal to previous titles, but while it ultimately heads in a different direction, the developer’s ability to bring clarity to such a bizarre subject underlines its penchant for great storytelling. And despite being pitched as a spin-off, Dead Souls latches into very specific moments of Yakuza lore. The story’s accessible without an overarching awareness of the franchise’s wider plot, but fans will definitely get much more out of it.
It’s seeing those familiar faces in such an unusual scenario that makes Dead Souls so enjoyable. The writing is as self-conscious and goofy as ever – aided by a strong localisation – and it provides a rare comical experience. The balance between serious and silly is just right, and it encourages you to anticipate what’s waiting around the corner. Side stories especially go off the rails, as they mix the franchise’s typical cultural wit with a dim apocalyptic setting. We won’t reveal anything for fear of spoilers, but we’d surprised if the game didn’t make you laugh.
Unfortunately, the quality dialogue and brilliant characterisation is buried beneath archaic game design. Shooting is nothing new to the series — side arms were previously available as alternative attack options on top of the more robust martial arts mechanics found in the mainline games — but while Dead Souls largely neglects the hand-to-hand combat from previous releases, the developer has forgotten to develop the shooting controls properly to compensate.
As a result, Dead Souls doesn’t really play like a shooter. Moreover, it plays like a full game derived from previous iterations’ hokey shooting mechanics. The default control scheme has been adapted from its Japanese release, placing targeting and fire controls to the triggers, but because of the archaic manner in which it operates, the alternative Japanese scheme is preferable. Indeed, there is no cover system or anything complex like that; Dead Souls auto targets as you bash the fire button, while holding down on one of the triggers locks the camera in place so you can strafe. It’s undeniably competent, but not especially fun, and the developer’s unwillingness to move on from an ageing engine is starting to show.
There are some nice arcade tricks which give the combat a more satisfying feel. Zombies pop and fall apart as you shower them with bullets, while you’re constantly provided information on your cumulative kill count and combos. Missions are graded at the end, and there’s the opportunity to go back and replay stages once you’ve beaten them in order to increase your rank.
This is all built on top of the traditional Yakuza formula. The city of Kamurocho is broken up into quarantine zones and traditional exploration areas, with the size of the infected areas growing as you progress through the game. Outside of the quarantine you’re able to interact with the game in the way you’d expect: stores are still questionably open for business, allowing you to purchase a burger or two from the local fast food restaurant and play a few rounds of pool in the Cuez Bar. There’s very little new in the form of side activities: bowling, arcades, baseball, pachinko, casino, mah-jong, karaoke (which is at its bafflingly comical best), darts, golf and table tennis all return, largely unchanged from their format in previous games. There are some tweaks to the fishing (which we won’t spoil) and, of course, the hostess dating simulation from previous releases returns with brand new side stories to explore, but don’t expect a dramatic reimagining of the format already established.
It’s when you’re in the quarantine zone, which you can access at any time, that Dead Souls radically changes. The gameplay here is much more linear than the open city of Kamurocho itself, with barriers, destroyed cars or immoveable objects forcing you around certain paths through the city. While you can access pretty much any area of the map itself, you’ll need to take specific paths to get there, and that allows the developer to pave the way with reams and reams of the living dead.
As you’d expect, the game does a good job of adapting the traditionally clean streets of Kamurocho into an apocalyptic nightmare. Shop fronts are boarded up and can be liberated as you play, while fallen signs and rubble litter the streets. Dead Souls is far from a graphically impressive game – while it’s colourful and detailed, the engine runs at a sub-HD resolution and everything looks washed out – but it compensates with atmosphere.
Main missions (and side stories) will see you ploughing through the quarantine zone to reach target destinations and further the narrative, but there’s a good mix of enemy types to keep things varied. While the undead are a constant, multiple mutants are introduced throughout the course of the campaign which encourage you to adopt different strategies. Rock zombies, roller-skating zombies (seriously) and flying zombies all force you to adapt, even if they are artistically derivative of foes from Resident Evil and House of the Dead.
The campaign is peppered with a sequence of boss fights too. While many fall for “shoot the shiny bit” tropes, some of these encounters are well executed and actually prompt some enjoyable face-offs. There’s one boss in particular – an octopus-man in case you wondered – which is great fun and suitably grotesque.
As you plough through the zombies you’ll collect materials and loot which can be spent on upgrading your weapons. Each of the four protagonists has a special piece, with Ryuji Goda’s arm-mounted Gatling gun perhaps the most notable. Spending money and trading in materials allows you to become even more deadly, and you can even invest in the upgrade shop itself to increase your combative potential.
As previously suggested though, the game struggles technically, especially when the combat gets hectic in the game’s latter third. The frame-rate struggles under the weight of multiple AI characters, and starts to chug, especially when there are numerous graphical effects on screen too such as smoke. And we when we say chug, we’re talking sub-10 frames per second. It’s doesn’t necessarily cause a problem per se, but it’s particularly disappointing when you consider the other types of experiences currently running on PS3. It’s not that the system isn’t capable of running the game, it’s just that Yakuza’s engine is in grave need of optimisation.
Naturally, bringing partners into the undead-infested streets doesn’t help matters. Some missions will require you to play with an AI partner, while side quests see you unlock additional accomplices as you progress. You can command your companions to complete specific actions – such as cover, stay and use a health pack – but their implementation is limited otherwise. Their biggest use is in heat snipe mode, unlocked once you’ve built up a power bar from killing enough enemies, and used to create makeshift explosives anywhere on the map.
When you’re alone, heat snipe can be used to target gas canisters and other points of interest to enhance your combative options, but when you’re with a partner you can order them to toss a grenade into the air, which can then be shot at to clear crowds of zombies. Heat snipes are controlled using short QTE cut scenes, and while they get a bit repetitive later in the campaign, they are definitely a satisfying method of undead expulsion at first.
The combat-heavy focus of Dead Souls means you’ll beat the campaign in less time than previous releases (around 15-20 hours) but there are still multiple side missions and mini-games to explore beyond that. The Yakuza Studio needs to reconsider the way it handles cleared game data but, despite the complications, you’ll get full access to side story content once you’ve beaten the game, allowing you to clear up the title’s enormous roster of optional activities without the lure of the main plot to distract you. There’s also a new game plus feature allowing you to pull your gear into a second (more challenging) play through.
Ultimately, Yakuza: Dead Souls is a game designed for fans. Newcomers may (rightfully) frown at the poor controls and sub-par visuals, but series veterans will be thrilled to find their favourite characters integrated into such a baffling situation. The Yakuza Studio has a rare talent for engaging storytelling and great characterisation, and while it doesn’t necessarily make Dead Souls a compelling game to play, it does make it one worth experiencing.