The Japanese arcades are a sight to behold. Machines lined up one after the other in all their old school glory. Their flashing lights are blinding in a way and inviting in another, so I take a seat and start playing a game called Boxcelios. My ship flows side to side, attempting to catch enemies in my firing arc as I hurtle across what can best be described as a luminescent sea. I bust through the outer armour of the latest one while the ‘ding!’ of the machine sounds and another enemy comes flying into view. The score counter sits at the top of the screen as I chase a new record.
I’m lost, again, of course. Caught up in the Japanese arcades. Transfixed by their flashing lights and the joy of hunting high scores. I take a break halfway through and attempt to grab some prizes with the claw. The results are less than satisfactory, so I decide to save time and coin, and return once more to the arcade machine. That high score has to be mine.
The arcades are indicative of Yakuza as a whole. They’re nothing more than a simple diversion amongst an ocean of entertainingly strange side quests, but none of the others come quite as close to capturing the experience. I can’t help but note the game’s commitment to Japanese authenticity, its unabashed mechanical style of play, and in a spinoff that seems welcoming to newcomers at first, a zombie kill counter sitting at the top of my screen. It’s telling, then, that I don’t really care about that one.
It’s a blessing and a curse, this authenticity that Yakuza flaunts so proudly. It’s in this genuineness that I lose myself to the arcades for hours, but it’s there, also, that I realise how little I care for what is happening outside the building’s walls.
What is happening? Well, shambling corpses are devouring those around me, and tank-like beasts are wandering Kamurocho’s streets, while Yakuza’s stars continue to chat away as if this is all just another day’s work. Dead Souls decides to tackle the zombie apocalypse – in a spin off that could have welcomed others into its niche audience – without so much as raising an eyebrow. There am I, waiting intently for the wry grin that will turn this predictable romp into something far more entertaining, but I’m always disappointed. I can understand Dead Souls, but I just can’t appreciate it.
My lips do quiver from time to time, but never quite break into a smile, as the game switches between its main cast of four playable characters and offers them each a chance in the spotlight. All but Majima have decided to address it with a furrowed brow, while he, introduced while digesting another zombie flick, takes to his role with a wink and a nod, finding joy in the mere thought of an undead breakout. Finally, some fun to be had in the city.
And what a dull and dreary city it can be. Kamurocho, the series’ staple location, lay in ruins, though only in spots. One half is burning to the ground, littered with rubble and the walking dead, while the other half sits quietly behind quarantine walls, a faux open world constructed from the cars, people and buildings that inhabit it.
It feels utilitarian and mechanical, much less like the Liberty City the series is always compared to. Yet the Grand Theft Auto comparisons were never that apt, even when they came at the beginning of Yakuza’s life as its attempts to match Rockstar’s success went sour. It was a time in which money was poured into localisation and Yakuza still had Hollywood stars in its eyes and GTA success in its heart.
In some ways that comparison is more apt this time around, with Dead Souls kicking the series’ brawling combat to the curve, replacing it with the all too familiar wonky third person combat. I fight the camera more than I do the zombies. An over-zealous auto-aim, levelling and combat abilities go some way to alleviating the repetition of a dull system and there is some stupid fun to revel in as I stand with dual pistols crossed, gangsta style, mowing down zombies with ease.
These are the moments where Dead Souls wears it mechanics on its blood stained, business suit sleeve, where it comes closest to breaking that fourth wall, where the often called for wry smile and self-aware gunplay flow in harmony with the crazed action on the screen. At these times, it all starts to make sense and Dead Souls finally does its job in planting the seed of interest in the games that have come before it. Unfortunately, the pull for new players is never one that lasts long. Perhaps, if I had been here from day one, I could absorb the inherent joy in seeing familiar characters thrown into absurd situations and revel in the latest adventures of my favourite thugs.
Dead Souls is less a perfect entry point than a place to confuse newcomers with a lack of context. Foreign tourists walk around with a befuddled look on their faces while the locals dance happily in obscurity. The sharp left turn has always been far more interesting to those already invested in a series. If my first exposure to The Simpsons was a Treehouse of Horror episode or my first encounter with Red Dead Redemption was the Undead Nightmare expansion, I would probably feel much the same way. Without a reference point, Dead Souls becomes a sometimes arduous stay in a foreign country. It is a place in which I lose more than a small amount of change in an arcade that serves as my home away from home, in a land I want to leave.