Still Playing: Yakuza Dead Souls

Sega might just be the most playful big publisher around. From Virtua Fighter Kids’ weirdly proportioned, funhouse mirror battlers and grapplers to Phantasy Star Online’s surprise seasonal themes; from Typing Of The Dead to the greatest freebie in videogame history, Christmas Nights Into Dreams, the company isn’t afraid to stretch and subvert its major properties for the sake of a few giggles.

It’s also unafraid to let its developers take big names and transplant them into other genres. Remember Sonic The Fighters? Probably best not to, actually. Panzer Dragoon Saga? Now that’s more like it. Yakuza: Dead Souls follows this fine tradition, taking the cast of the Yakuza series and tossing them into one giant, out-of-continuity April Fool’s joke (the action actually kicks off on April 1st, a loading screen tells us). The thing is, this being Toshihiro Nagoshi’s Yakuza Studio, Dead Souls is far more than a frivolous ‘game off’ for the series and team. Mechanically, it’s a competent thirdperson shooter that repackages, and re-emphasises, the minor, cursory grinding element of a canonical Yakuza game in a new, irresistible way: by tying it to lots of guns. Upgrading and amassing an arsenal is one of the major pillars of Dead Souls’ gameplay, but it’s the psychology rumbling beneath all that phallic fury that really keeps me coming back for more flesh and gore in this epic ‘what if’ of a game.

As with the rest of this gangster soap opera series, just when I think I’m out, the tone – pitched slap-bang between dead serious and tongue-in-cheek, equally capable of laughs and gasps – keeps pulling me back in. Kamurocho, the world of Yakuza here subjected to flesh-hungry hordes, is one of gaming’s great characters, a semi-fictionalised, visually faithful Japanese town shot through a filmic, caricatured kaleidoscope of bright lights and madcap conmen. This is Japan as cartoon and commentary all at once: where women are subservient damsels and men battle for control, for piece of mind (and occasionally just for peace) with little effect or reward beyond death or more drama.

Creator-director Toshihiro Nagoshi has torched his virtual city before but here he tortures it, putting its infrastructure and its cast of hoods and harlequins to the test. He – and we – love to see the mighty squirm, and what better way to challenge the physically intimidating, proud mobsters of society than with a marauding mob of the civilians they seemingly tower above? A mob barely able to run. A horde unable to tie their own shoelaces, yet entirely capable of overwhelming these terrible titans who have previously dominated the streets and skyscrapers with self-righteous politicking and excessive punching.

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