If Takeshi Kitano and George A. Romero somehow mated and produced an ill-conceived video-game lovechild, the result might turn out a little something like Yakuza: Dead Souls. Since its initiation in 2005, Sega’s reverenced Yakuza series has always been able to walk the favorable middle ground between straight-laced and bizarre, balanced and over the top, with an inflexible dedication to capturing the notoriety and atypical appeal of Japanese mafia lifestyle while imbuing its novel storylines with an oddly provocative sense of humor. With the supposed unquenchable thirst of the gaming public for anything relating to zombie apocalypse-style narratives and playability ostensibly stronger than ever, and with Sega being a frequent developer of arcade zombie-themed titles (their House of the Dead II consumed many of my quarters), it seems completely logical that a Yakuza installment intertwined with an undead brain-feeder plot would grace the PlayStation 3.
Indeed, badass Yakuza members trading blows with hordes of bloodthirsty reanimated corpses sounds like an authentically marvelous undertaking, especially when the operation is crafted by Sega’s esteemed, clever Yakuza team, but unfortunately the core mechanics suffer from a major alteration in breed of gameplay, shifting from an all-out brawler to a sketchy third-person shooter, and the result is a buggy, frustrating mess that mars the beloved franchise. The winning comedic beats and genre outlandishness thankfully remain intact, but that doesn’t change the fact that getting a hang of the gunplay control scheme is about as pleasurable as having your face chewed off by soulless husks.
From the game’s early moments, Dead Souls very much resembles its predecessor, last year’s entertaining Yakuza 4. Four distinct, well-designed characters emerge as playable, each a moderate stereotype of the surrounding Nippon gangster culture. These archetypal faux-protagonists and their humorous environmental interactions have made Yakuza chapters dp damn enjoyable. Laughing at the quirks of the personality clichés (the hero, the former boss, the sentimental loner, and the certifiable insane guy) is a constant highlight, making Dead Souls a success in the story department, but a disaster when it comes to actually maneuvering your way through that tale. As with previous entries, the sandbox exploration element exists, albeit in a more limited fashion. Seedy casinos, maid-run dining establishments, karaoke lounges, and other examples of Japanese leisure activities are available for an assortment of time-wasting mini-games, but as soon as the zombie infestation rears its ugly head, the overall fun factor takes a massive nosedive. What could have been Outrage meets Day of the Dead in refined pixelated form is more along the lines of an under-prepared game-design student’s attempt at a digital The Walking Dead adventure set in modern Japan.
How horrendous the shooting practicalities of Dead Souls are don’t fully reveal themselves until roughly five hours into this 20-hour experience, which does give the graphical scope and attentive detailing of the game’s fictional Kamurocho setting some breathing room to mildly blossom. Aside from some milquetoast interiors, the city is a vivid fusion of ornamental neon and the overcast creeping dread of ravenous wights. I often found myself slowing down behind barriers before fully plunging into shaky combat to stall the treacherous, painful controller finagling that was coming my way. Simply making 180-degree turns to confront enemies approaching from behind is a strenuous chore. Automatic aim functioning is essentially broken, and fine-tuning for precise sniper shots in first-person view is incredibly unstable even in the steadiest of hands. Camera angle adjustments, which were just fine in past Yakuza games, become easily stuck on invisible walls and snagged on tight corner corridors causing your character to get gang-banged in dead-ends more often than a lost prostitute wandering the chaotic, ghoul-plagued streets.
Dead Rising seems to have had an influence on the makers of Dead Souls, as mining the scenery for objects of bludgeoning, slicing prowess is a repeat option, but implementing these makeshift weapons lacks the finesse of Capcom’s survival-horror kingpin. Basically, if you don’t have a gun, you’re fucked—and even when you’re suitably armed, the controls are so poorly constructed that even the weakest of field monsters can get the better of you in large groups. Context sensitive sequences come into play for CQC one-hit kills and eventually long-distance tactics like exploding gasoline canisters, but the sequential wave of approaching zombies is too quick, the blast from the fuel tanks too glitchy to acutely flee from, leaving you damaged and directionally confused. Getting used to the heinous projectile controls doesn’t wholly click until the final battle, but before then every lackluster boss fight is an exercise in tolerance and ultimately a measurement of momentary luck rather than a test of inherent moxie; I can’t tell you how many times my triumph only occurred because of a well-placed heath or ammunition power-up. An obvious disappointment, as Yakuza 4’s late-level altercations were such extravagantly handled escapades.
Dead Souls has all the superficial hallmarks of a noteworthy Yakuza episode. The farcical crime-saga background, the boisterously cheesy dialogue supported by exceptional voice acting, and satisfyingly oddball cutscenes are creative peaks, but the truth is that the game plays like complete rubbish. I would only recommend it overenthusiastic fans of both the Yakuza canon and necroambulist lore, as one or the other alone isn’t nearly enough to allow such exigent faults to be discounted, further proving the addition of zombies to something already established as prominent doesn’t necessarily make for a more valuable commodity.