Archive | October, 2011

Review: Yakuza: Dead Souls

1 Oct

The chainsaw epitomises all that is wrong with Yakuza: Dead Souls. What should be a joyous way to cut your way through mass hordes of zombies is an awkward way to take down even one. When it doesn’t work you will be stumbling this way and that, cutting into everything but zombie flesh, and when it does work you will simply be repeatedly pressing a single button; perhaps holding down L1 at the same time.

While the combat in the main Yakuza titles is not particularly complex there are enough combos to go around to keep things interesting; not to mention the fact that the fights are brutal: heads are stomped, and eyes seasoned. The other problem with the chainsaw? A few arms might be cleaved off, perhaps a head, but it’s not nearly as gory as one might expect.

This is not entirely a call for gratuity for the sake of gratuity, but the gameplay is set up so that it would at the very least make things more interesting. Barely halfway through the game and I had already killed 5,000 zombies; clearly they were but lambs to the slaughter. Indeed many of the zombies simply stood around passively, only attacking when I pissed them off by shooting them in the face. Even when I was especially drunk (alcohol marinade makes human flesh extra tasty) many of the zombies simply stood back and watched as I floundered around mercilessly slaughtering their best mates; zombies have no loyalty!

Of course there are tougher zombies (suspiciously known as mutants) that have their own offensive and defensive patterns, but they are introduced far too slowly. You can go hours without coming across any new enemies even if you are just blazing through the story, let alone if you are taking in everything else Dead Souls has to offer.

The same strategy applies to all but a select few of the tougher enemies: shoot them in the head until they die—well, that’s the way it always isn’t it? Yes, but shooting them in the head interrupts their pattern, rendering them little more than a normal zombie with a lot of health. Okay, sure, but you’ve got to be a skilled marksman to shoot them in the head, don’t you? Nope, simply hold down L2 (as long as you have the prerequisite skill) and the game will automatically aim at their head for you, or level up a little more and you’ll soon find that even when simply looking in the vague direction (without even aiming) of a zombie will yield a high percentage of headshots. Yet you’ll probably be thankful for the auto-aiming when you realise that manual aiming is done with the left analogue stick without providing any improvements over conventional right analogue stick aiming.

There is heat sniping (Dead Souls version of heat actions) and a reasonable range of environmental weapons to spice things up, but with heat actions most of them simply boil down to blowing up or burning zombies in a short animation after a player triggered QTE. While these are enjoyable the first few times they quickly lose their charm, not least because chain explosions and massive fires inevitably result in a frame rate that stutters so badly it would be more accurate to call it mute. There are a few amusing heat sniping events—nitro-glycerine tanks for example which freeze any zombies that are close enough to the tanks’ area of effect. After snap freezing the zombies can be picked up and used as melee weapons. Beating up zombies with zombies? Yes, it’s as fun as it sounds, or at least it would be if using a zombie as a weapon was any different to using a couch, and any less awkward than using a chainsaw. There are also a few enemy specific heat snipes, but they just mean you’ll be taking out the more interesting mutants quicker! Oh, and partners get in on the act too; complementing enemy specific heat snipes, and a few very explosive team based ones too. It makes them almost useful, but more on partners later on.

There are directives—a list of challenges to complete such as get 100 headshots in a row, or kill 100 zombies without being hit—but the vast majority of them will automatically be completed through normal play and do not require any deliberate, skilful play. And while there are a lot of directives they are quickly eaten through even if you are taking the time to smell the roses of the side activities—they are a beautiful fragrance after all.

Why start off so negatively? Because this is what you’ll have to put up with if you want to enjoy some of the excellent other things Dead Souls has on offer.

There’s just one more niggling little (big) problem that lets you enjoy the side stuff which is part and parcel of every Yakuza game: as the game progresses more and more of Kamurocho is quarantined—the quarantine zone is where the zombies are, and it can be a pain to navigate. Even though you can quite safely run past any enemy the streets are often blocked off by rubble so that you have to take the long way around, not to mention that when you make it a good chunk of the way into the game enough of Kamurocho is under quarantine that there are no taxis left so you will have to walk everywhere you want go. To make matters worse there is generally only one or two ways to enter the quarantine zone, usually in close proximity of each other. You might be in south Kamurocho and want to get to north Kamurocho and it turns out that there’s actually a gate near where you want to go, but you can only enter the quarantine zone through the south gate. This makes sense early on where there are backdoors into the quarantine zone that the SDF (a politically correct euphemism for the Japanese army) don’t know about, but when you’re strolling in and out through a completely intact SDF gate after you’ve only moments ago strolled out of another one with the SDF not being too pissed off about it surely a little suspension of belief could have been asked of the player so that their enjoyment of the gameplay might have been improved!

It’s a frustrating annoyance, but if you persevere then you are rewarded with everything you would expect from Yakuza. The side quests are invariably amusing (and there’s even more cross dressing and male nudity than before!) and sometimes even quite emotional; a zombie outbreak is a great setting for Yakuza-style antics. There’s a long running side quest involving a film crew making a low budget horror flick with real zombies, and at one stage you will find yourself chasing after a girl in the quarantine zone who is posting updates on twitter asking suitors to come and save her while she progressively loses more and more of her clothes. I am sure you can guess the punch line, but it is no less amusing when it comes; in fact it’s exactly what you would want from Yakuza.

In terms of exploration the environment is not used as well as in the main series. There are no coin locker keys or other similar secrets so there is little motivation to go off and explore on your own. Even the location of side quests are marked on your map. It’s as useful as it is a de-motivation for exploration. Yet at the same time, for a long time player of Yakuza, it’s actually quite affecting seeing Kamurocho in such a destroyed state, and it’s quite satisfying rescuing a shop or hostess club from zombies and getting them back up and running.

The destruction of Kamurocho is well detailed. For example many of those working in rescued buildings will be wearing armour, but in typical Japanese style make sure to open the business again, though unless they cater to zombies it’s probably poor business sense.

The hostess side stories have improved since previous Yakuza games in two respects: the first is that you don’t just get a picture and a chunk of experience for going through their lengthy story, you also have them join you in combat. The second reason is that Dead Souls focuses on four characters, and the hostesses are used very cleverly to develop the four characters despite their limited game time.

Through the hostesses’ conversations with Shun Akiyama, Majima, Ryuji Goda, and Kazuma Kiryu (and even simply through which hostesses they take a liking too)  we get to learn a great deal about the characters, and because we aren’t just learning about the hostesses dealing with them is a lot more engaging. They might be eccentric and endearing, but let’s be honest, we’d all much rather learn a little more about series favourites like Majima than a hostess. Or at least I would.

Join you in combat? Yes, there are partners in the game that will brave the quarantine zone with you. It’s not just hostesses; quite a few of the partners are picked up through side quests, and while they aren’t usually helpful in combat, many of them are quite likable as minor characters thanks to their side quests which makes them more palatable when they join you in combat. As unhelpful as they are the good news is that thanks to the passiveness of the enemies you don’t have to babysit them too closely, and they aren’t so hopeless that they are a hindrance.

In fact in what is perhaps one of Dead Souls best, but most flawed features they are a great help, simply as a distraction for the zombies that do decide to attack; they’ll also pick up the odd kill too and their explosive tandem heat actions are good for clearing out a large group of enemies quickly.

In each chapter there is a Subterranea mission. The Subterranea is a multi-floored dungeon that can take hours to complete as with each subsequent Subterranea mission the number of floors increases. Even with the passive gameplay there is something very satisfying about making it through such a long undertaking; there is no mid-dungeon crawl saving. You can leave at the end of each floor, but if you do that you just have to start all over again! It might only be an exercise in endurance, but it is a satisfying one. If there was gameplay to match it then it would be a truly brilliant dungeon crawl.

I repeat dungeon crawl because it is important. There is another way to approach Dead Souls. Not as a shooter, but as a dungeon crawler. Approached like this the lacklustre shooting mechanics, and passive enemies are much more easy to take. The focus becomes the solid crafting system that is reliant on you mining the rich vein of items that are the zombies and tougher enemies. These items are used in the crafting system to make better weapons or armour. While the upgraded equipment doesn’t make a great deal of difference except on the hardest difficulties it’s a solid and satisfying system, and more complex than the crafting in the main series.

Levelling up is also more complex with far more options than in the main series as to how to grow your character with the soul (skill) points you gain from levelling up. Not only do they affect your combat ability but also your inventory size and how much equipment or weapons you can wield.

There’s another important thing that we haven’t talked about yet. The story. It starts off rather poorly; a certain someone is kidnapped as you would expect, but such an event is immediately forgotten and you’re suddenly looking for some paracetamol to treat a fever. While this is a typical Yakuza scenario you wouldn’t normally expect to be doing something like that in the main narrative at a time of great urgency: zombies are invading! But when you have time to acclimatise to it, it becomes clear that this is what is great about Dead Souls’ story and setting.

While the actual theme of zombies slowly unfolds in the background, most of the main narrative is taken up by how the main characters deal with such an event on a day to day basis while also taking care of their zombie and yakuza related activities in the background. It’s only until later in the game that you really start to sink your teeth into what is going on, on a grander scale. This makes the story an excellent way of letting us get to know the characters better, and is a clever take on the zombie invasion scenario.

You know what? If there really was a zombie invasion you’d still need to deal with the absurdities of everyday life. It doesn’t matter that there are people being eaten alive just beyond that quarantine wall, you’re still going to need to take your medicine if you’ve got a bad fever, young man! (Tom Towers does not endorse the overuse of pharmaceutical drugs and suggest that if one is suffering from a mild fever they rest; admittedly that may be hard during a zombie invasion.)

It gives the setting a much realer feel than most games based around a zombie scenario, and seeing the quarantine zone grow is very ominous indeed as it swallows more and more of the city. While the citizens of Kamurocho are in ignorance at first as things become to get more and more out of control rumour begins to spread and they begin to jog around urgently; it’s a subtle change, but another good example of the excellent detail that has gone into destroying Kamurocho.

There are glimpses of what could have been even if the shooting mechanics were not improved. When you are confronted with a good variety of the tougher enemies, and the run of the mill zombies swarm you things can get frantic, and not just because the controls fail when you try to lock the camera (so that you can strafe) and you find that doing so sometimes means you can’t aim left or right, or when the auto aim keeps snapping to the wrong enemy. You actually have to approach things tactically and consider carefully which of the tough enemies to take down, while swatting away the swarms of zombies at the same time.

If the rather lacklustre (as far as bosses go) bosses which sometimes make an appearance outside of boss scenarios were seen around Kamurocho as a rule more often then another layer further layer of strategy could have been explored. Even without that addition these moments are unfortunately extremely rare.

While the core gameplay gets in the way of enjoying the other things that are great about Dead Souls, and the poor shooting mechanics are especially hard to take with the rare glimpses of potential and solid crafting and levelling systems, not to mention the fact that Dead Souls was released in close proximity to Binary Domain which is an excellent shooter, I can’t help but still love it.

As an exercise in fan-service it’s excellent. You get further insight into some of the best characters of Yakuza and you get to slaughter hordes of zombies as Majima who enjoys the mass slaughter with child-like glee, and has the girliest laugh that a badarse has ever had.

As a send off to Kamurocho in preparation for Yakuza 5 it’s just as engaging. There is surprising pathos in the destruction of Kamurocho if you have played through the whole series: as beautiful a setting as Kamurocho has been over the series it is time to say goodbye; five games in and there is little more that can be done with it—but we have loved Kamurocho, so it’s only fitting that we can be a part of its destruction. Considering that then perhaps it makes sense that killing off the zombies destroying Kamurocho is so unengaging; but the pathos is elsewhere, so that is hardly an excuse.