Game Review: 'Yakuza: Dead Souls'

The Yakuza series has been a Japanese staple for years, a sort of Grand Theft Auto of the East, glorifying a group of Japanese gangsters in an open-world Japan where they engage in various criminal activities, albeit with their own sense of honor.  In particular, it followed one Kazuma Kiryu, a yakuza with a heart of gold who in later games gave up his criminal ways to start up an orphanage in Okinawa, which has the inherent hilarity of an alternate cut of Scarface where Tony Montana runs a no-kill shelter for cats.

This is where SEGA's Yakuza: Dead Souls takes off, with Kazuma dragged back to the mainland by a rival gangster who kidnaps his young orphan ward Haruka and holds her hostage in the middle of a zombie outbreak in Kamurocho.  Now it's up to Kazuma and three other yakuza to try and survive the chaos of the outbreak, which has been contained by the Japanese military by dropping a series of massive steel walls around the quarantine zone.  It's these walls that dictate the strange gameplay flow of Dead Souls, which tries to blend the free-roaming, open world of its predecessor with more constrained instances of zombie mayhem.  The world outside of these quarantine zones is familiar to Yakuza fans, with various minigames, locations, and all of the usual Yakuza flair.

However, once you accept a mission back in the quarantine zone, you creep from this relative normalcy via a sewer into zombie hell, which is where Dead Souls veers wildly from its predecessors.  The hand-to-hand combat of the series has been all but excised, and new emphasis placed on gunplay against overwhelming odds: literally hundreds of zombies.  There is still some melee in place, with characters able to pick up a wide variety of environmental items to bludgeon their foes, ranging from bats to benches, giving the game a Dead Rising Lite vibe.

Guns still rule the roost, however, and more often than not you'll have to raise iron against the undead menace.  This is where Dead Souls, unfortunately, fails as a game.  While the guns all have a fairly satisfying kick, and can lead to a fantastically gruesome kill (the gristly pop of an enemy's brainpan is far more satisfying than it should be), the targeting is a miserable affair.  Free aiming at your foes is naturally fast and loose, but trying to draw a proper bead with the game's lock-on feature usually leads to failure, with the reticle focusing on the empty air by a zombie's shoulder or somewhere in space nowhere near your target.  Mind you, this is an ability that you purchase like an RPG so the fact that I'm spending my hard earned skill points on an ability that simply does not work rubs me the wrong way.

One thing that does not rub me the wrong way is Yakuza: Dead Souls' charming b-movie flavor.  The story is the sort of goofiness that direct-to- DVD movies are made of, with cartoony characters, forced dialogue, and moments that are just so hilariously Japanese that it made me smile no matter how angry I got with the gunplay.  One special ability that your character has is the "heat snipe," a quicktime event that allows you to focus on an a particularly incendiary part of the environment (propane tanks, gas caps) and fire, mashing the circle in button in time to guarantee a massive explosion that can clear dozens of enemies in a fiery inferno.  The animations that accompany this heat snipe ability are absurd and melodramatic, with a ridiculous slo-mo pacing that had me chuckling no matter how often I did them.

This b-movie absurdity saves Yakuza: Dead Souls from the sort of damnation that I would normally give a game with such a broken gunplay mechanic.  If we can forgive a movie, or even love it, for its inherent flaws under the pretense that it's a "b-movie," why can't we extend the same sort of forgiveness to a "b-game?"  Yakuza: Dead Souls may not be perfect by any measure, but it's certainly enough fun for you to enjoy it, warts and all.