Game Review: Yakuza Dead Souls

Dan Jenko delivers his verdict on the new, zombie-filled edition of the Yakuza franchise, out now for PlayStation 3.

As the life-cycle for a console ends, game development enters a sort of short-lived golden age. After years of experience working with the system, better quality products are generally produced, and there are greater expectations for new releases.

With that in mind, it really does come as a shock to play a game as appalling as Yakuza: Dead Souls so close to the end of this console generation.

It’s possible to work up some admiration for the team behind the latest Yakuza game, as they evidently attempted to re-invent the franchise as an action orientated open-world experience, rather than an old-school beat ‘em up. Unfortunately however, the transition has ended up as an absolute disaster – one that is totally undeserving of your hard-earned money.

Yakuza’s greatest strength has always been its exciting combat, which used to revolve around beating up thugs and working out how to deal with challenging bosses. Yakuza: Dead Souls changes all that by exchanging fisticuffs for firepower, with enemies taking the form of the wearily-familiar undead: a type of adversary that seems incredibly popular in the industry at the moment.

In theory, an action-packed and bloody romp featuring talented death-dealers blasting their way through hordes of the undead appeals. It worked for Call of Duty, it worked for Valve with Left 4 Dead, and it even worked for Rockstar’s critically-acclaimed Wild West open-world experience Red Dead Redemption. But somehow it just doesn’t work for Yakuza, and as a core concept it falls flat on its face.

This failure lies almost entirely in the shooting mechanics, which vary from being far too basic to being utterly broken. You can hold down a single button to ‘lock on’ to one enemy at a time, and then just hit the shoot button to take out incoming zombies. This is usually the best way to take down the undead hordes you’re constantly faced with throughout the game’s 15 hour campaign, but annoyances such as locking-on to a zombie behind a wall or the camera moving so you literally cannot see your enemies, make combat consistently irritating. This gets worse near the game’s climax, where even more zombies are shoved onto the screen.

You can also aim down the sights of your weapons to pick off enemies from afar, but this mechanic is entirely broken. It’s pretty much impossible to aim accurately without assistance from the game’s auto-aiming system, but even with that in place it’s pretty difficult to successfully shoot straight, which can lead to you tearing out your own hair in frustration during a tricky fight.

It’s therefore left to the story to try and redeem Yakuza: Dead Souls, but some idiotic plot-lines and surprisingly boring characters hold it back from being anything close to a killer feature. There are four playable characters in the game, but only one of them manages to be anything other than a stereotypical mercenary type, and it’s difficult to really care what happens to them.

Often the game introduces new characters with little-to-no explanation of exactly who they are, but within minutes your character is agreeing to help them and treating them like old friends. This often almost completely contrasts the personality of the character you are playing as, with the majority of the Yakuza’s you portray coming across as generally unhelpful and unlikable. Not only that, but it destroys any personal feeling you as the gamer have towards the character, making for a constantly dull and infuriating plot.

The plot does infrequently throw up funny moments, however, which is pretty admirable considering that the voice-acting is Japanese-only. It’s a shame then that the game often attempts to take itself a bit too seriously, because humour is used well on the rare occasions that the writers allow the stereotypical characters to make a joke or sarcastic comment. Near the start of the game, you’re tasked with protecting your deeply unwell assistant, which provides a rare instance where you actually care about a character. Combined with some laugh-out-loud humour, it makes for a decent plot-line.

While we’re on to the positives, it should be noted that there are actually a few things Yakuza: Dead Souls does get right. It offers an interesting open-world, thriving with places to visit and cool mini-games, and some of the best fun you’ll have with the game is exploring the vast, Japanese city. This, combined with some passably average graphics,  makes for a game that actually does have some hidden quality, even if it’s consistantly ruined by abysmal gameplay mechanics. The latest Yakuza game may be a step-down for the franchise, but there are certainly a lot of the things present that made the previous games so popular.

One old feature that isn’t present is varied RPG elements. In fact, the game only offers a vaguely-explained levelling system, in which you gain experience for your in-game actions. You can then spend those experience points in order to level-up and increase your character’s abilities, but there isn’t that much to go after and you’ll have to play the game a hell of a lot to unlock the higher branches for each skill. Ultimately, we’ve seen it all before and it gets boring very quickly.

Yakuza: Dead Souls serves as a disappointing addition to the acclaimed Japanese franchise. The transition from beat ’em up to action was a bold one, and perhaps could have worked with some better shooting mechanics, but ultimately it fails to deliver on any level, especially when you consider the amount of great action games that are out there at the moment.

The game does have some quality behind it, but the low-points are so bad that it’s pretty much unplayable at times. The story and exploration may justify a purchase from die-hard fans, but even they will most probably end up being thoroughly disappointed. All things considered, this is definitely one to avoid.

FMV Rating: *1/2

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