Developer: Sega / Publisher: Sega / Played on: PlayStation 3 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature (Blood and Gore, Sexual Themes, Intense Violence, Strong Language, Use of Alcohol, Partial Nudity)
Evolving beyond its own zombie series House of the Dead, Sega finally had the bright idea to bring the ubiquitous undead to its most popular franchise of recent years, the Japanese gangster series Yakuza. If you think about it, the densely populated fictional district of Kamurocho is ripe with urbanite brains and the many streets and alleys are perfect battlegrounds for the well-equipped yakuza to defend their turf. Sure, it’s a departure for Yakuza, but Sega takes its zombies seriously, and you might be surprised how it works well in Yakuza: Dead Souls.
For a series that hasn’t featured zombies before, Dead Souls doesn’t waste time introducing them near the beginning of the game. The outbreak starts at the southwest corner of the map, which happens to be where Yakuza 4’s Shun Akiyama has his Sky Finance office. While making sense of the zombies, his devoted assistant Hana has taken ill and it’s up to Shun to escape the quarantined zone and find medical assistance.
Dead Souls follows the same four-act narrative structure of Yakuza 4, where you control a different character in each act. Once again, main protagonist Kazuma Kiryu is saved for last. In between Kazuma and Shun, you play as Ryuji Goda from Yakuza 2, and the maniacal Goro Majima.
You cannot help but be amused at the abundance of cutscenes featuring the yakuza as their all-business seriousness is juxtaposed against the zombie apocalypse. At first it’s funny to see them come to grips with the threat. When the outbreak is full blown, it’s entertaining to see how different gangsters deal with the crisis. It gets so out of hand that the game’s writers even managed to justify a cross-dressing scene.
In case the box art, trailers, and the presence of zombies haven’t conveyed it enough, this is a Yakuza with a very strong emphasis on firearms as opposed to the beat-‘em-up fighting system from the other games in the series. You do have some melee moves like shoulder rushes and defensive kicks to give you breathing room, but these are more secondary to the Gatling guns, SMGs, shotguns, and other weapons. Auto-aim helps manage the undead, a feature I don’t normally like to rely on, but it’s very much welcome when I have as many as two-dozen zombies approaching me.
Unfortunately, you can’t take a zombie’s face to an oven plate or smack them against a railing as these Yakuza-style context-sensitive moves were taken out of Dead Souls. At least you can still grab objects in the environment like oil drums and bicycles and use them as weapons.
It also wouldn’t be a good zombie game without some kind of weapon upgrade/modding system. As an additional incentive to kill every zombie you come across, the undead will occasionally drop the loot needed for modding. While it doesn’t have the creative DIY depth of Dead Rising, it is fun to work with a socially challenged weapons merchant who can be compensated with collectable figurines.
It’s all this collecting that made Yakuza 4 one of those action games where you can play for over a hundred hours, and this applies to Dead Souls. That’s if you have any interest in the side missions and the myriad mini-games; if you played Yakuza 4 you’ll recognize many of the same sports and card games, and both reward you for eating every dish in the restaurants. Thankfully some of the familiar optional gameplay has been modified to be relevant to the zombie presence. Many citizens will have specific problems or errands related to the outbreak and you’re always rewarded with experience (and the occasional special item). There’s also a lady in a café who has special zombie combat missions, such as getting 100 headshots. Overall these make for some fine stat-building deviations from the main story.
I would certainly recommend improving the characters’ stats since some of the combat settings of Dead Souls—like past Yakuza games—are not camera friendly. With urban settings comes indoor environments and it’s often been a challenge to manage the camera during difficult boss fights. I get through the boss fights the same way I have done in the past: boost my stats and stock up on health drinks. It should be noted that stats do carry over to each playable character as you progress through the game.
Sega has certainly gotten a lot of mileage out of Kamurocho. Its walkable urban charm, neon ambiance, and architectural details make it easy to revisit, having appeared in three PlayStation 3 games. Further asserting that this Dead Souls isn’t a throwaway expansion, Sega did a good job of making the zombie-infested sections of the city appear fittingly trashed and ruined. I also appreciated how the outbreak zone progressively takes over the map as you travel through the story.
Music has never been the series’ strong suit unless you’re a fan of guitar-driven SNK fighting game music, which is often heard during the Dead Souls’ exploration and zombie killing modes. I don’t even know how you’d classify Goro Majima’s battle theme, but I can tell you it’s unbearable after the fifth loop.
Not being fluent in Japanese, I can’t vouch for the quality of the voice acting, but not having an English dialogue option does save us the grief of hearing the kind of embarrassing voice work that was attempted in the original Yakuza. In conversations between gangsters, there’s the usual gruff and intense banter that’s also found in the other Yakuza games.
Conceptually, the Yakuza series might appear to have “jumped the shark,” but Sega has designed the game well enough and with such enthusiasm that you can’t help but be impressed. These Japanese mobsters treat the outbreak with the same seriousness as any encroaching business rival. The recycled setting and level design might’ve run its course after this game, but that’ll be something that the next installment will have to worry about. For now, the unlikely Yakuza series satisfies the need to kill lots of zombies while still retaining the franchises’ collectible-intensive depth.