For: Playstation 3
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity, sexual themes, strong language, use of alcohol)
It has always taken a special kind of person to truly appreciate the "Yakuza" series, which re-engineers flaws into points of endearment like few (if any) other series can.
"Yakuza: Dead Souls" takes that bizarre two-way affection into a whole new arena, but it never loses itself in doing so. An existing confluence of brawling and storytelling goes slightly nuts with the addition of zombies, firearms and more sustained action than has typically been present in these games, but everything that those earlier games comprised - including the weirdly wonderful tug-o-war between archaic and charming - remains intact.
"Souls," perhaps obviously, isn't central to the "Yakuza" canon, which up to now has crammed several television series' worth of violence, drama, comedy, family feuds, criminal dynasties, troublemakers and complete weirdos into four numbered games and a spinoff that released only in Japan. "Souls" takes "Yakuza 4's" setting and premise - once again dropping you into the shoes of four deeply unique main characters - and tells a what-if story in which the undead clog the streets and the usual friends and enemies enact a moratorium on their squabbles.
Along with the setting and characters, most everything else with which "Yakuza" is synonymous returns in "Souls." In safe zones walled off (for now) from monsters, you'll find a new assortment of strange people to meet and assist in side stories. Hilariously weird minigames and diversions abound. The random troublemakers who pick fights in the street have disappeared (perhaps a nod to your new shared enemy), but when you're battling zombies, the full brunt of "Yazuka's" brawling controls - from suplexing zombies to using everything from bats to bicycles as weapons - lie at your disposal. As always, it's a fast and exciting 3D answer to the great 2D brawlers that thrived in the 1990s.
But while hitting a zombie in the face with a coffee table is effective in a pinch, you'll need some real firepower when "Souls" drops you into an area crawling with several dozen undead.
Enter guns and grenades - and what a strange entrance it is. "Souls" crams three flavors of shooting controls into its existing gameplay with reckless disregard for elegance, and their respective effectiveness is inversely proportional to pretty much every third-person shooter made since roughly 2004.
Whereas holding the L2 trigger to aim down the sights of a gun increases precision in most shooters, it's generally a nightmare here - sabotaged by a camera unfit to handle it, as well as Sega's baffling decision to map aiming to the left instead of right stick. (You can't move while aiming this way.) The method is handy when sniping from a distance, but laughably worthless otherwise.
A middle option, wherein you hold L1 to strafe and automatically fire at enemies in your line of sight, works a little better - except when pressing L1 causes you to strafe facing the wrong way, unable to turn around, even if you're facing the right way when you press it. It happens randomly, but also regularly.
Ultimately, the best (and, by a factor of 10, most fun) way to mow down zombies is to not even aim at all. As you run through a room hammering on the shoot button, your character shoots whichever zombie is nearest by in his field of view. You can turn on a dime and clear a room in the blink of an eye, especially once you unlock a visually spectacular special ability that lets you use gas lines, circuit boxes and even loose steel girders as bullet-activated hazards.
Played this way, the shooting is fast, exciting, effortless and silly in exactly the right way - in other words, a perfect complement to everything else "Yakuza" has done so wonderfully for so long.