The Yakuza games are known for their melodramatic stories full of twists, betrayal, and depth, as well as their brutal close-quarters fighting. Yakuza: Dead Souls’ story isn’t really bad, but it’s not nearly as deep as what you’d expect in a Yakuza game, although there is more to it than just killing zombies for no reason. The gameplay has completely changed from the previous games, since this title is all about the guns and not hand-to-hand combat. For these reasons (among others), it’s best not to think about Yakuza: Dead Souls as a Yakuza game, since it will undoubtedly fall short. Think of it as a zombie game set in a world that has already been created. But even then, the game still falls short.
The story follows four different characters, all from previous titles in the series. Each character has their appealing and endearing qualities. For example, Shun Akiyama’s laid-back charisma is entertaining and often comical throughout the game. However, there are few things better than Goro Majima being excited about the zombie outbreak because he enjoys killing. As everyone else is screaming and running away, he grabs a shotgun and charges into the mob of undead. The characters and writing save the game from being worse. Yes, there are a couple of quirky Japanese moments that don’t seem to translate well to Western players, but even that doesn’t weigh down these awesome characters.
The game is technically a third-person shooter, but the gameplay mechanics are so terrible that they will have you rage-quitting within minutes. You can shoot when freely running, a poor auto-aim will be used, and you can also zoom in the camera so it is right behind you. This allows you to look in one direction and strafe, but auto-aim still picks your target. Another button will allow you to freeze in place, and finally, a reticle will appear for you to manually aim. This would be fine if all the aiming controls weren’t cumbersome and clunky. Manually aiming for the head sounds like a good strategy (especially for zombies), but here it’s not.
Moving the reticle feels awkward and slow, which is a huge problem when dozens of zombies are charging at you. As a result, for about 90% of the game you will run around and hit the shoot button, allowing auto-aim to take care of everything. The problem is, this gets very tedious very quickly. You just run in circles, hitting the shoot button over and over until all the zombies are dead. The zombies chase you so closely that there isn’t any time to stop, turn around, plant your feet, and maneuver the difficult reticle to aim properly.
The next problem is the camera. The aiming is bad enough, but most of the game you’ll be fighting the camera as well. It’s stuck in a position behind you, so when you are running away from a mob of zombies, you can’t look at them. The real problem is in close-quarters, which accounts for more than half the game. You’ll be stuck in a hallway with dozens of zombies, and the camera will constantly get stuck in a wall or zoom in and out as if it isn’t sure what to focus on. It’s a nightmare and the last thing you want when dealing with zombies.
The small corridors are annoying even without camera issues. Fighting a couple of zombies here and there isn’t bad, but when there are a lot, the problem worsens. Since the aiming is so problematic, you have to constantly run and shoot, which is considerably more difficult in a tiny room. You can pick up objects to swing, but they aren’t as strong as the guns, making them feel rather pointless. Then there are special zombies, and when those are thrown into the mix, everything becomes even more troublesome. It’s just overall bad design that adds to the already frustrating gun mechanics and camera.
The entire game becomes tedious as well, particularly during the latter half. The shock of the special zombies wears off and when they start appearing every couple of minutes it gets annoying. They aren’t hard to kill: they just take time. This can make your progression through a level slow to a crawl when it should actually be the opposite.
Tedious is the key word for this game, and it stands true for the bosses as well. Most of the time, you are put into a tiny area with them, and, as already stated, small areas in this game are a nightmare. The bosses all have a lot of health, so it always comes down to just whittling away at their health bar, which is not only boring, but also difficult thanks to the aiming. This can cause a boss fight to be hard in unnecessary ways, since you’re fighting terrible game mechanics more than the deadly monster. Some bosses can regenerate their health and some also have infinite zombie minions to prolong the already frustrating fights. A boss isn’t supposed to be easy, but the bosses in this game are just a downright chore.
There are some good things; for example, heat snipe. This is a quick cinematic of your character shooting something in the environment (usually explosive) to take out a group of zombies. A bar will fill as you kill zombies, and once it’s full, the shootable objects become highlighted and you just need to perform a successful QTE. A strategic shot can make all the difference, and it’s enjoyable to see how many zombies you can kill in one heat snipe.
You gain experience, and as you level up, you can unlock new abilities. There are also upgradable weapons. It’s not overly complex, but it’s not as simple as spending some money and getting a better gun. You won’t go out of your way to collect what’s needed, but you will get excited when you see you can upgrade one of your favorite weapons. The quarantined zones are fun to explore and see what there is to discover, as they’re filled with tons of people and side-quests. There is also a lot of extra fun stuff to do: bowling, pool, karaoke, fishing, gambling, and more. These are all things expected from a Yakuza game, and they don’t disappoint in the slightest. They’re fun and a great distraction, something that you’ll desperately need after playing the main levels.
There are times when the game does come together and you’ll have zombie-slaying fun. Whenever you’re outside in the open with a good weapon, the gameplay picks up. Outside, you can maneuver easily and the camera is workable. However, it’s just not enough to make this game good. Tedious gameplay, a frustrating camera, and cumbersome aiming are the three main negative factors. Seeing as how those three components make up the majority of the game, they are big negatives. There are other things that weigh the game down even more; for example, at some points the frame rate will dramatically decrease to the point that it feels like you’re playing in slow-motion. The few positives, like good characters, a decent story, and tons of mini-games aren’t enough to pick it up. Even fans of the Yakuza series may not like this game since it doesn’t feel or play like a Yakuza game at all. It feels like a spin-off, and like most spin-offs, it falls short.
This review is based off a retail copy of the Playstation 3 version of Yakuza Dead Souls developed by SEGA and distributed by SEGA