Table Tennis and the Zombie Apocalypse
I was stuck in a room full of zombies. To be more precise, I was stuck in the corner of a room full of Japanese zombies. The camera was angled in such a way that all I could see was the grimy wall to which I was pinned, thanks to an unfortunate gathering of obstacles. The undead were only a few feet away, ready to chomp down on my snake skin jacket, desperate to trap me in a loop of stumble-bite-stumble. By the time I had finally gained control of the camera the pack was already upon me and I spent the next thirty seconds unsuccessfully trying to reload my shotgun, each time being interrupted by a salary man's corpse, burning through curative items until I finally got a shot off and cleared some space.
Such encounters are common place in Yakuza: Dead Souls, a non-canonical addition to the Yakuza franchise that sees the seediest corner of Tokyo suffer a zombie apocalypse while the rest of the city, including the people just over the road, go about their business as usual. Guns, never more than an occasional pick up in previous outings, are the focus here but are no substitute for the brutal fisticuffs and besuited street fighting that has defined the series.
The camera is possessed, constantly finding the angle least conducive to zombie brain splattery. Much like the first Resident Evil, from which Dead Souls takes many a cue, the controls are a constant source of frustration, leaving you at the mercy of mini-bosses that make the denizens of Dark and Demon’s Souls seem thoroughly accommodating. There are a number of enemies that love nothing more than knocking you on your arse only to put the boot back in the second you gather yourself, sending you into a cursed loop of stumbles.
The combat mechanics are no better. Cover is non-existent and your firearms are mapped in the most unintuitive way imaginable. Draw your weapon and sometimes it will lock onto something fleshy and shambling, other times you’ll find yourself aiming at a lamp post or a massage parlour; there are times that point blank shots won’t register and others when a zombie will successfully find cover behind a silk flag.
Yakuza: Dead Souls is a shambles, yet I had a lot of fun playing it. Kamurocho is still the star, even when parts of this Shinjuku facsimile are cordoned in an effort to contain its cannibalistic residents. From batting cages to real-life restaurants, it's all there, same as it ever was – I don’t think any series has gotten as much mileage out of one setting as Yakuza has Kamurocho. Hostesses still smile at your rubbish jokes and the UFO catcher machines are filled with cuddly toys; the suggestively dressed lady at the bath house is happy to play a round of table tennis, forgetting all about her best friend who just had her face eaten off, and nothing will stop series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu from getting in a round at Karaoke-kan. The mini games are a constant and welcome distraction.
The ludicrous plot, featuring some of my favourite characters in modern gaming, makes it a bit easier to forgive the errors in design. Akiyama is the likable loan shark, who knows how to fly a helicopter and handle an automatic weapon, and Majima is still properly mental. Despite working at a Takoyaki stall (battered octopus), Ryuji Goda has a machine gun for an arm; apparently this didn't come up in his job interview. Kazuma is the stoic hero who is still far too fond of his 80's suit. He is so bad arsed/thick that he spends ten minutes trying to clear a street of zombies with his bare hands before reluctantly deciding to invest in a gun. The supporting cast is equally as entertaining, with the notable exception of African American Gary who towers over everyone with his bulging biceps and man breasts, sounding like a dimwit in his nonsensical Japanese baritone. In entertainment, Japan still struggles with its depiction of foreigners, and in particular black foreigners, routinely creating caricatures that could be viewed as racist in the West, such as Gary. For further examples, you need look no further than the black-face singers and comedians that still occasionally appear on Japanese TV variety shows.
The main cast come out with some unforgettable lines - the voices are Japanese with English subtitles - that will have you laughing and mimicking throughout, from which I have picked up a couple of gems that I’ve been trying out on my (unimpressed) wife: “年貢の納め時や!” If you want to make an impression and get yourself into some weird situations during a trip to Japan, I'd highly recommend learning some Yakuza quotes!
It's unusual for me to derive so much pleasure from such a flawed game - Lost Planet 2 is the only other example that comes to mind. It probably helps that I have invested many hours into Yakuza over the last eighteen months - Yakuza 3, Yakuza 4 and then an aborted attempt at playing the Japan-only Kenzan – during which time it has become one of my favourite current generation series. I'm greatly looking forward to Yakuza 5, even if there's no guarantee that it’ll be coming west, given SEGA's new reluctance to localize anything that isn't guaranteed a significant audience.
Considering its countless issues, I can't recommend Yakuza: Dead Souls. If you are new to the series, I suggest plumping for Yakuza 4 and staying as far away as possible from this zombie spin-off. That being said, Dead Souls succeeded in keeping me entertained for a solid fortnight, even if at times I did want to bash in its brains with a shovel.