A bizarre zombie twist in Sega's epic Yakuza crime drama makes this game a winner - as long as you're keen on gangsters and/or zombie shooters...
The heart of Kamurocho, the fictional red light district based so closely on Tokyo's Kabukicho, lies in ruins.
Ravaged by legions of shambling undead and crushed by the army's failed clean-up attempt, it's been quarantined behind huge steel fences that keep the zombies in and the rest of the world out.
Of The End is the latest bizarre entry in Sega's epic crime drama that's brought Japan's underworld to life in seedy shades of sex, violence and humour. But this time, it's also a zombie game - one where gang members must save Japan from an undead onslaught.
The destruction of Kamurocho, the sandbox city so vividly realised in Yakuza 4, feels more poignant than it might in another zombie title. Not only have we explored its every hostess bar, convenience store and casino in previous games, but after the real devastation of Japan it's sobering. And when March 11's tsunami washed away whole towns, guess who was first on the ground to help survivors? The government? The army? In many cases, it's reported, it was the Yakuza.
Yakuza Of the End Review: Zombie holocaust
It's impossible not to think about this as you control Shun Akiyama, the first of four playable characters, as the zombie holocaust unfolds around you, communications go down and the death toll begins to rise.
Of The End is a major departure for this uniquely physical crime series. OK, it retains many of the things that made the previous games so great - a rich story told with humour, a detailed portrayal of one of Tokyo's sleaziest nightspots complete with real-world shops and products, gorgeously animated and acted cutscenes and even, surprisingly, the cast of recent games.
That's rumpled-cool loanshark Shun Akiyama, ex-gangster and series main man Kazuma Kiryu, the eye-patched Majima family-head Goro, and the gun-armed Ryuji Goda. But Yakuza is, for the first time, not about martial arts. Of The End is an action shooter.
The tech is recycled from Yakuza 4, but tweaked to accommodate gunplay. You aim your shots with R2, or simply run and gun by bashing square and letting the auto-aim do its thing. It's more Dead Rising than Resident Evil, arcade action where scores of zombies stream from doorways, drains, bridges - everywhere.
Mow them down and chain up combos; the higher your score, the more Soul Points you accrue. These are then used to level up fighting moves, fire-power, armour, inventory capacity and so on.
Yakuza Of the End Review: Single Barrel
For a shooting game, there's not much variety in the armoury. Each character has his own preferred weapon: Akiyama favours dual pistols, Majima packs a super-powered shotgun, Kiryu plumps for an assault rifle and Goda, well... his whole arm transforms into a Gatling gun.
Obviously. But where does he load all the bullets? You can pick up a few new firearms and upgrade, but if you're hoping to amass an arsenal, this isn't the game for you.
Happily, as before you can also grab nearby objects as weaponry, and find yourself bending a bicycle, fuel drum or potted plant over the skulls of wrongdoers. Here it's brilliant for crowd control, for clearing a space around you before you open fire, and it lends the game a unique hybrid dynamic. Flamethrowers, chainsaws and fire extinguishers are less common but more deadly.
You also have a Heat Gauge, which creeps up a little with every undeadoffed. Fill it and certain objects - the gas tank of an oil truck, steam pipes, high-pressure canisters - can then be targeted with a stab of triangle and blown up with a Heat Snipe QTE, decimating crowds of zombies at a time.
The problem is that the original game engine was never really designed for any of this. A large explosion combined with an onslaught of lurchers slows the framerate to a crawl. Worse still, manoeuvring can be pretty tricky - you simply can't turn in a tight enough circle to whack the zombie that's creeping up behind you.
The camera is controlled with the right stick; find yourself mobbed and there's no question of it auto-adjusting to point at your attackers.
Buttons are sometimes unresponsive, load times can be agonising and the AI 'buddy' system is badly done, with friends blundering into your line of fire and complaining when you shoot them.
Yakuza Of the End Review: Elegrant wreck
These quibbles are not bad enough to ruin the game, but they do make it hard to pull off the badass moves that any self-respecting crime lord should be breaking out, and strip away a layer of sheen from a usually impressively smooth series.
Thankfully there are a good variety of monsters to mash, and they're fun. Common or garden zombies lurch slowly in the distance but will rush and chase you down if you get too close. They drop with a shot to the head or a few to the body - fewer once you level up your guns - and there are plenty of character models plucked from the Tokyo streets, from faded salarymen to oddly fetishised schoolgirls.
Tougher beasts include the Chibizaru (which translates as Little Monkey) who's an annoyingly fancy-footed skater boy; Dekamacho (hilariously and literally Huge Macho), a lumbering beast vulnerable only on its head; and the ghastly Nakionna (Crying Girl), whose banshee wail summons hordes of repugnant reinforcements.
The boss fights are spot on. Escalating with just the right degree of difficulty - and getting pretty damn impossible once you unlock the Of The End setting - each is a dramatic setpiece. Even after you bring down a Resident Evil Licker-like Arahabaki, a car-tossing, stone-clad Onraki or a steel-clawed mutant cockroachspider Shichigemo - yes, really - the thrill of the struggle takes a while to subside.
Yakuza Of the End Review: Take a view
Just as in Yakuza 4, Of The End is divided into chapters for each playable character (though luckily there's no sign of ponderous deathrow-escapee Saejima, who slightly stalled the format in Y4). You have to bust in and out of the infected zone several times for story missions and non-linear sub-missions.
You can also enter a Free Battle area to grind for Soul Points, or wander the streets outside the fence to play all the minigames from last time - karaoke, darts, the Sega arcade, hostesses and more. You can even just relax in a hot-spring bath. OK, so evil runs amok in the quarantine zone, but it's business as usual for the rest of Kamurocho.
Yakuza Of the End Review: Verdict
Is Of The End worthy of an import? Unless you speak Japanese you'll miss a lot of the story and the gags - plus yakuza slang can be tough to decipher anyway - but in gameplay terms you can probably muddle through. At present there's no Western release date slated (the last two Yakuza games each took about a year), so it could be the only way - it certainly is for now. One thing's for sure. In a time of crisis you won't find the Yakuza sitting around twiddling their thumbs, but even with a qualified success such as this odd spin-off, it's worth twiddling your thumbs on them.