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Barricading 'Dead Souls' within Yakuza's red-light district


In the first hours of Yakuza: Dead Souls, I witnessed the fictional Kamurocho neighborhood of Tokyo's red-light district becoming ravaged by a zombie nightmare, with wrecked buildings, flaming cars, and thousands of hungry undead taking to the streets.

With the help of a DVD store's secret weapons cache, altruistic loan shark Shun Akiyama becomes a dual-pistol-wielding killing machine, cutting a path through the horde of former businessmen, students, and gangsters to get help for his sick assistant Hana.

Though the premise seems (and is) absurd, and there's little sense to making a zombie shooter out of a series best known for its uncanny representation of a realistic Tokyo, I couldn't help but appreciate the care Sega put into setting up the adaptation. Every change to gameplay, environments, or story required to adapt the game into a shooter shows evidence of deliberation and forethought. It's not just a matter of adding zombies and guns. Sega took its assignment very seriously, even though Yakuza: Dead Souls delivers its entertainment in a campy, b-movie way.

Gallery: Yakuza: Dead Souls (PS3) | 13 Photos

For example, the free-roaming, open-world nature of the game has been replaced by a level-based structure, allowing for natural pauses to the action. I'd consider this an even more dramatic change than that whole walking-dead business, based on the franchise's history.

Akiyama (or the other three characters, whose chapters follow) makes it through a gauntlet of zombies to his destination, and is rewarded with a moment of rest that wouldn't be possible in an open world with random enemy encounters. For example, when Akiyama makes it out of a sewer, the level ends and the player is graded on time, damage taken, and kills, and awarded experience points accordingly.

Yakuza: Dead Souls delivers its entertainment in a campy, b-movie way.

But even with the structure of Yakuza changed, the team made a conscious decision to keep it Yakuza. And that means random slice-of-life minigames. But how on earth would the minigolf courses, spa resorts, and hostess clubs of the world stay open with a zombie apocalypse going on? Sega sequestered the zombie stuff from the rest of the world by literally sequestering part of the town from the rest of the world. As soon as the zombies show up, the Japanese Self Defense Force erects an enormous steel wall around the area, right through the center of Kamurocho -- even through the middle of some buildings. Nobody outside has any idea what happened. While it's relatively hard to believe that nobody would be concerned about the gigantic emergency barricade, it's at least more believable than having the bowling alley stay open with the dead feasting on living flesh a few hundred yards away.

You're able to move into and out of the zombie part of town through a few specific locations, like the aforementioned sewers -- security breaches that the SDF hasn't noticed yet. Most of the time, these will be at the end of a level. When you're outside, you can wander the city, buy supplies, upgrade your weapons and, of course, take part in minigames. I had a perfectly lovely evening with some hostesses at Jewel, for example. When the story takes you out of the quarantine zone, going back in on your own triggers "Free" mode, which is sort of a limited take on the series' open-world nature. In this mode, you can wander around and kill zombies, and look for sidequest content, like people who need rescuing. Then you can choose to get back to the main story and take part in scripted levels.

In Japan, guns are almost as exotic and mythical as zombies, so they have to be introduced deliberately, just like every other new element. The first gun you come across falls out of a cop's hands when he is overwhelmed by the undead. After that, you'll pick up some more heavy-duty weapons at the DVD shop, and by dealing with the hobbyist weapon modder, Kamiyama. SDF weapon caches around the city allow you to store items and replenish ammo.

Since this is Japan, firearms are still treated with a measure of distrust, evidence in the fact that most improvised melee weapons are more powerful than guns. You can knock a zombie out much more quickly with a bicycle wheel than with a submachine gun. I'm still waiting for Mythbusters to gather some control zombies and verify that one in real life.

After experiencing a sample of Yakuza: Dead Souls' early content, I can say with confidence that a lot of smart people thought a lot about this silly, silly game. It's absurd, but there are sound concepts behind it. I don't know if that makes its existence better or worse.

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