We've seen zombie sandbox games before, but this is the only one where you can take a break to sing karaoke and drink with sexy (non-undead) girls of the night. But is that good enough to make you want to play another zombie game?
Yakuza: Dead Souls (PlayStation 3)
Released: March 13, 2012
Dead Souls takes many of the series' settings and several of the recurring characters and puts them in a zombie story that does more to serve Yakuza fans than it does fans of zombie sandbox games. This is great for those who have enjoyed the past several Yakuza games, as this title serves as a sort of all-star fantasy side mission. Fans will dig seeing series star Kazuma Kiryu, Yakuza 4's Shun Akiyama, crazy eye patch guy Goro Majima and the machine gun-armed Ryuji Goda working together to push back the zombie invasion. Unfortunately, these characters will do next to nothing for those new to the series. While no prior knowledge of the series is required to enjoy Dead Souls, only series fans will pick up on some of the story's finer points. That said, this is a zombie game -- how much story does there need to be?
Surprisingly, the narrative is pretty good. Those expecting another Resident Evil outbreak are going to be surprised by the story-heavy gangster turf war plot. There's a nice blend of the serious gangster scowls and revenge talk with more lighthearted and silly situations to make for one of the series' most enjoyable tales. Some of the situations are flat-out hilarious, showing us that the developers wanted to take this opportunity to have a bit of fun. Those looking for dark corridors with scares aren't going to find it here, as this is not a survival horror. Instead, Dead Souls follows four badasses and their journey to take back Tokyo's red-light district, and it's all done in that very satisfying Japanese action movie sort of way.
The gameplay in Dead Souls will be a bit of a departure for Yakuza series fans as the game centers around gun play. Sure, there's a bit of kicking and punching going on, but you'll quickly find that fists don't do much against the undead. The only way to get anywhere in Kamurocho these days is to mow through the hordes of zombies with a shotgun or two. If you're expecting to revisit the kick-and-punch brawling of past games, this is the wrong game for you -- there's next to none of that.
The good news here is that there is a nice selection of guns and other weapons (tanks! forklifts!) to take down the undead with. Each of the game's four main characters has a different type of gun style assigned to them, and the blend of the four goes a long way toward keeping the zombie shooting action fresh. While Kiryu kicks it old school with a single pistol, Akiyama dual wields pistols, Majima has a super-powered shotgun, and Goda has a Gatling gun for an arm. You're free to buy and equip other guns, and all weapons are open to upgrading to increase power, ammo limit, and more. Characters' fighting abilities are also upgradeable through Soul Points, which are earned via battles and leveling. These points can be dumped into abilities that improve everything from hand-to-hand combat to weapon strength, keeping in tradition with the series' action-RPG systems.
It's nice to see another tradition -- using items from the environment in fights -- continues in Dead Souls. Like in past games, you can put the hurt on enemies with anything laying around, so charging into a crowd swinging a bicycle is still possible, and still lots of fun. This time around they take this even further with new environmental options for zombie killing. Using the chainsaw to cut off zombie heads is as satisfying as you'd imagine, and the flamethrower has to be a zombie-game classic by now. I really enjoyed using a baseball pitching machine to pop the undead in their heads, and liked it even more when I found you could load it with grenades instead of balls.
The game's Heat Snipe mechanic also takes advantage of the environment, and it makes taking down the undead a bit easier. Once its gauge is filled from killing zombies, you will be able to execute a special attack that will make an impossible shot possible. Imagine being able to snipe a thin gas line running along a wall to have it explode and take out dozens of zombies, or hitting the gas tank of a downed motorcycle. Good stuff.
Unfortunately, while shooting down waves of zombies starts out fun, the appeal wears thin quickly. While the game does its best to mix the action up with four different characters and their varied gun types, it's not enough to keep the zombie killing fresh. Much of the problem lies in how aiming works -- and how it's not necessary. Gun play uses a third-person view, letting you hold down the left shoulder button to aim and strafe while firing. You need only to face the direction of zombies to hit them, with no proper aiming required. While you're free to pull up a crosshair to fine-tune your aim for a headshot, it's simply not necessary, as mashing on the right shoulder button a few times kills just about anything with way less effort.
Worse yet, simply running around outside of aim mode while firing has shots locked onto nearby zombies, with your gun automatically turning to face the nearest enemy, almost completely removing any challenge. While you can entertain yourself for a bit striving for shot accuracy, or working to rack up a headshot record, the reality is that you only need to mash on the fire button repeatedly to progress. This is potentially good news for those that aren't great at shooters, but I feel that even these individuals would feel disappointed at how easy kills come in Dead Souls.
The only exceptions to the mindless fire-button pushing and lack of variety come during boss battles, most of which feature massive beasts that require skill and proper aim to take down. These bosses were a welcome change from the zombie hordes, since there are movement patterns and weak points that actually require thinking to overcome. It's a shame there's only a handful of these situations.
For my money, the Yakuza series sidequests and diversions make any of the titles worth the price of entry. There's plenty of opportunities to screw around in Dead Souls, though you'll find that they're a bit less prominent this time around, especially when you consider that Tokyo is going to shit all around you while you're flirting with hostess club girls. You can still go shopping, try your hand at casino gambling, hit karaoke joints, or simply wander around town enjoying the sights, just like you could in other titles. I got lost in a pachinko trance that lasted nearly two hours, and I'm still not sure if I won or lost.
There's also plenty of off-the-wall sidequests that range from simple item-fetch assignments to escort missions. The quality varies, but there's definitely some good ones in the mix. One of my favorites involved mob bosses and cross dressing, so there's something to look forward to. While the core story gives about 15 solid hours of gameplay, the sidequests and auxiliary entertainment could easily double that number.
Dead Souls sits in a strange middle zone, stuck somewhere between the past Yakuza series games and the tired zombie sandbox genre. While fans will surely enjoy seeing series stars in this zombie apocalypse setting, they could miss some of the classic Yakuza pacing and gameplay. Zombie game fans will enjoy the varied killing options, but could be disappointed at the lack of challenge when it comes to gun play. Still, there's enough here to warrant a purchase between the solid story and characters and the ample options to goof off. If you try not to think too hard and approach Yakuza: Dead Souls with a B-movies in mind, you'll likely come away entertained.