Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Yakuza: Dead Souls Review

If you've played a Yakuza game before, you'll know them as sprawling urban RPGs centred on the tensions and rivalries between different factions of the Japanese mafia, featuring plenty of beat-downs, kerb-stomping and bashing people over the head with tables. Yakuza Dead Souls is… kinda like that, but also with zombies. As a way to end the series in spectacular style, SEGAhas unleashed the undead apocalypse on its fictional version of Tokyo, turning the game into a zombie shooter rather than a brawler in the process.

Unfortunately this transition has been anything but painless. In getting rid of the satisfying hand-to-hand combat and replacing it with astonishingly incompetent shooting mechanics, SEGA has excised one of the best things about the Yakuza games. If you're a fan of the series you'll really want to like Dead Souls, but as the game goes on, its problems build up into an insurmountable tower of pain and frustration.

Like in Yakuza 4, there are four main characters that share the story between them: kind-hearted loan shark Shun Akiyama, insane pirate gangster Goro Majima, ex-Yakuza boss Ryuji Goda, and the star of the series, Kazuma Kiryu. As the game progresses so does the zombie crisis, and these four characters come together to try to put an end to it. They all have different weapons, and you can buy more and upgrade them as you go to expand their arsenal. The game's about 15-20 hours long, depending on how much you indulge in mini-games, exploration and side quests.

Friends with Shotguns trailer

It's not all about the zombies, at least not at first. Outside of the containment area, Kamurocho is operating as usual, with all the restaurants, arcades, massage parlours, casinos and hostess bars you'll know and love if you've played a Yakuza game before. As the game progresses, though, the zombie crisis does too – before long, most of the city is trapped behind barriers and infested with the undead. You can enter the containment area at any point in Free Battle mode, which lets you kill zombies for fun and liberate besieged businesses from the groaning, flesh-hungry menace – but you won't want to engage in any more zombie-shooting than is absolutely necessary.

This is because Dead Souls' shooting mechanics are horrible. Aiming in first-person is amazingly slow and cumbersome and you rarely have the chance to fire off more than a few shots before the fast-moving undead are upon you. The generous auto-aim doesn't help much, mostly because the camera regularly decides that you'd rather be aiming at the wall in front of you than the crowd of zombies behind you. Turning around takes ages, and you regularly end up backed into a corner with a group of zombies as the camera stubbornly refuses to co-operate, stuck in repeated hit animations and unable to retaliate or escape.

You can pick up objects in the environment and try to batter zombies to death with a mannequin, Dead Rising-style, but it's pretty ineffective; they're all but immune to anything but bullets. It's not long before the bad design decisions start to mount up. You have a snipe gauge that fills up over time and lets you execute cool QTE-driven Heat Shots, exploding a gas tank or oil barrel or fire hydrant, but getting hit depletes it – and getting hit is inevitable when the zombies move much faster than you can turn around. Boss battles often depend on these finishing moves, and given that the camera issues are worse in these fights than anywhere else, you'll often get hit by attacks you can't even see.

Like most of Dead Souls' issues, it seems like a fairly minor problem at first, but it gets worse and worse. The combat isn't too bad at the beginning of the game, when the zombies are fewer and further between. During Shun Akiyama's chapter, the first one, the shootouts are bearable – and there's a generous measure of other Yakuza stuff like exploration, side-questing, going fishing, golf, hostess bars and the infamous "happy ending" massage parlour. But before long, Kamurocho ends up almost entirely closed off, and from Part Two onwards the game degenerates into a seemingly endless procession of zombie-killing in corridors. By the time you get your hands on Kazuma Kiryu, the final character – and the one you'll have been waiting for, if you're a long-standing Yakuza fan – the game is nothing more than an awful shooter, without any of the redeeming features that make the first half tolerable.

Yakuza: Dead Souls Montage

The bosses are worse. They take the form of giant mutant zombies of various descriptions, and their behaviour is straight out of a ten-year-old book on sadistic game design. It's all here: regenerating health, infinitely respawning smaller enemies, attacks you can't dodge, stupid camera angles that constantly, wilfully put you in danger that you can't see properly. Success is down to persistence and health pickups – skill is a tiny part of the equation.

It's difficult to overstate how frustrating Dead Souls is to play in the latter stages. You forge through streets crowded with zombies as the frame-rate slows to a crawl, firing blindly into the mass of dead flesh because you'll inevitably get knocked over if you stop and try to aim, hoping you don't get caught in an infinite hit animation. Special mutant zombies gang up on you and get you stuck in corners next to invisible walls. Bosses are near-impossible to beat unless you've prepared by buying several health-restoring items, and even then they're sadistically annoying.

It's a shame because it doesn't start off that badly, and Dead Souls still has the great story, acting and sense of humour that made previous games in the Yakuza series so endearing. You want to know what happens at the end of Dead Souls, but you dread the process of actually getting there. Characters old and new are dropped in for cameos, the translation is still among the best out there, and it's got a lot of charming Japanese madness about it, from cross-dressing to UFO catchers and bizarre jokes. The cut-scenes, similarly, are as well-acted and pleasingly ridiculous as they ever were; and outside of the containment area, there's that same diverse selection of weird and wonderful sub-stories.

But there's no way to ignore that the shooting is straightforwardly terrible, and is more than enough to put you off playing the game at all. It's depressing to see a series that I've loved for a long time end this way. Kamurocho has always been vibrant, detailed, brimming with personality. Now it's been turned into a series of narrow streets to shoot zombies in. Seeing a fictional place that you've come to know and love devastated by an undead plague is a uniquely unsettling experience, and if this were a better game, it could have been a very affecting one. Instead, it's just depressing.

Yakuza Dead Souls is not a bad game – it is a good game ruined by broken mechanics. Its story, scripting and sense of humour can’t make up for that. If you’re a long-standing fan of the Yakuza series, you’ll want to see how it all ends, but be prepared to endure a lot of pain before you get there. Otherwise, it’s best to stick to Yakuza 4 and pretend that this disappointing series conclusion never happened.
out of 10Click here for ratings guide
The cut-scenes are great, and the zombies look alright; the rest, not so much.
Appalling slowdown betrays the series’ usual high standards.
Excellent voice-acting marred by very generic J-rock soundtracking the zombie shoot-outs.
Outside of the shooting, all is well, but the shooting itself is only tolerable for the first half of the game. After that it’s awful to play.
6.0Lasting Appeal
There are 20+ hours of gameplay here including side missions, but crucially, you won’t want to actually play it.
(out of 10)



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