Last year, Sega and Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio hit an important milestone, as they finally concluded the more than a decade-long story of Kazuma Kiryu with Yakuza 6: The Song of Life. With the series now more popular worldwide than it’s ever been, it’s clear that they weren’t going to move on from it. Their plans for the future, it seems, rest on two pillars- mainline Yakuza sequels with a new protagonist, and a spinoff set in the same universe, but with a completely different cast of characters and a separate, isolated story of its own.
The latter is, of course, Judgment– and being both tied to and free from the Yakuza series at the same time, it is uniquely positioned to take the franchise forward in significant ways, and maybe even define its future for the next few years. Thankfully, Judgment takes full advantage of that enviable position- it is familiar enough to serve as yet another enjoyable jaunt through the seedy underbelly of Kamurocho for those who know the city and its streets like the back of their hand, but it also stands on its own and has enough new elements to be perfectly placed to introduce you to this crazy, self-aware, over-the-top universe even if you’ve never once beaten up a thug with a bicycle or a traffic cone before.
"Judgment is familiar enough to serve as yet another enjoyable jaunt through the seedy underbelly of Kamurocho for those who know the city and its streets like the back of their hand, but it also stands on its own and has enough new elements to be perfectly placed to introduce you to this crazy, self-aware, over-the-top universe even if you’ve never once beaten up a thug with a bicycle or a traffic cone before."
In place of the grizzled criminal Kazuma Kiryu, former attorney-turned-private investigator Takayuki Yagami takes centerstage in Judgment. Once a famed defence attorney with a growing reputation, after Yagami helped get one of his clients acquitted, only for him to commit a heinous act afterward, the lawyer with the promising future swore off his line of work. Picking up after a time jump, Judgment sees Yagami having turned into a private investigator with all the right contacts, just the right amount of grit, and a versatile set of skills that, conveniently enough, also includes being able to beat up half a dozen goons with his bare hands.
Though he has massive shoes to fill, Yagami takes to the spotlight like a fish to water. Yagami serves as a solid protagonist, capable and intelligent, but also witty and – when the game needs him to be it – goofy. It’s easy to root for him and his charming attitude- and it also helps that the characters surrounding him are just as memorable as well. Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio have a knack for creating huge ensembles that are consistently strong, and Judgment doesn’t break that mould. From Yagami’s partner who was once a yakuza himself, to people at his old law firm, to the higher ups in Kamurocho’s crime families, Judgment has a strong cast of excellently written characters. The fact that the game’s English dub also boasts of surprisingly good voice acting across the board makes all these personalities stand out that much more.
The story told through these characters is equally strong. Though Judgment starts off a little slow, it begins gathering pace after the first couple of hours, after which the narrative is in a constant state of escalation. Yagami becomes embroiled in what begins as an investigation of a murder case, but the way it all changes and unfolds through a series of conspiracies and unpredictable twists will keep players hooked. Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio has made a name for itself with excellent plots and accomplished storytelling, and the developer shows off those talents once again with Judgment. The story here is (relatively) more grounded than what you’d expect to see in a Yakuza game, and that, coupled with the fact that you’re playing it all from the perspective of a civilian with a legal background, lends a new dimension to it that hasn’t been seen before in Yakuza games. The panache and storytelling flair of Yakuza, then, is still very much present here, but we get to see it through a different lens.
"The panache and storytelling flair of Yakuza is still very much present here, but we get to see it through a different lens."
Yagami’s legal background, in fact, doesn’t just have an impact on the story- it also changes the gameplay in notable ways. Judgment takes the core foundation of a Yakuza experience, but adds to it with a variety of activities and mechanics to expand upon that foundation greatly. The combat system of Yakuza is very much present here, and it’s largely similar- which also means it a hell of a lot of fun. Beating fools to a pulp with stop signs and thrashing their faces into vending machines is just as flashy, over-the-top, and fun as ever. It’s a winning formula, and Judgment doesn’t mess with it.
But beyond the combat, there’s a lot of new wrinkles here to speak of. Thanks to Yagami being a private investigator, a lot of the game tasks the player with- well, with investigating stuff. This part of Judgment feels very much like a Phoenix Wright game. This can entail a number of things- tailing missions, lockpicking, using your drone to scout out aerial views, investigating areas for clues, cross-questioning witnesses or persons of interest, or piecing together evidence to uncover hidden truths.
Judgment doesn’t succeed as resoundingly in this area as it does in others. Lockpicking is a fun mini-game, using the drone can be entertaining once you get the hang of its controls, cross-examinations and cross-questioning of people involves choosing the correct dialogue choices to strengthen your arguments in what can be engaging little back and forth interactions, and presenting the right clue or the right piece of evidence at the right time can be satisfying as well. But tailing missions are, as tailing missions tend to be more often than not, dull and overlong, while investigations, which see you entering a first person perspective to survey an area and scour it for clues, can become long, drawn out sequences where you’re searching for what can feel like a needle in a haystack for much longer than it should take. Investigations especially tend to break up the pacing- thankfully there’s upgrades to unlock that make things a little easier (such as controller vibrations when you’re close to a clue), but even then, these sequences feel needless and boring.
"Tailing missions are, as tailing missions tend to be more often than not, dull and overlong, while investigations, which see you entering a first person perspective to survey an area and scour it for clues, can become long, drawn out sequences where you’re searching for what can feel like a needle in a haystack for much longer than it should take."
The side content in these games is as much of a draw as the main story is- and Judgment doesn’t disappoint in this area. It’s not just the main players who’ll stick out in your memory after you’re done with the game. Judgment’s friendship system opens up interactions with a startling amount of NPCs throughout Kamurocho, allowing you to acquaint yourself with and befriend them. These friendships lead to handy rewards, but what makes this a system worth engaging with is the interactions themselves.
From a fast food chain employee asking you to take selfies with her for a competition, to a young waiter in a coffee shop who’s besotted with one of his coworkers, to a college student working at a hotel desk to get speaking experience before she moves abroad, there’s a wide, varied, and colourful cast of characters to get to know in Judgment. Though all these interactions could certainly have been much more enjoyable if they’d been voiced (and din’t suffer from awkward canned animations), they’re still largely charming, and lend a level of depth to both Kamurocho and Yagami himself that will keep you coming back for more- and really, given the absurdly large number of available friendships and all the interactions each one of them entails, the canned animations and lack of voice acting are somewhat understandable.
Beyond that, there’s a whole lot else to do as well, from mini-games like mahjong and darts, to entire Sega arcade classics included within the game itself (including the likes of Virtua Fighter and Puyo Puyo Tennis), to visiting the many establishments throughout Kamurocho to have a bite to eat and drink, and more. The absence of some notable omissions is certainly felt (especially karaoke), but there’s still enough here to keep you occupied for hours and keep you away from any meaningful mainline progression, if that’s the sort of thing you’re looking for.
"There’s a wide, varied, and colourful cast of characters to get to know in Judgment that lend a level of depth to both Kamurocho and Yagami himself that will keep you coming back for more."
Judgment’s visuals deserve special praise as well. Sega debuted the impressive Dragon Engine and all that it is capable of with Yakuza 6 last year, and then showed it off again in Yakuza Kiwami 2. Both those games were absolute lookers, and Judgment is as well. Kamurocho exhibits an impressive level of detail, and its crowded and neon-lit streets look absolutely stunning. Character models tend to look a bit plasticky at times, especially for the numerous side characters who don’t have a role to play in the story, but by and large, this is a great looking game.
After seven mainline games in the Yakuza series and what was a definite conclusion to its ongoing story arc, many would have said that taking a new direction would have been a no-brainer for the developers- but tinkering with what has proven to be a winning formula was a big risk. As it turns out, it was a risk that paid off, because RGG Studio tinkered with it just the right amount. Judgment is a mix of new and old, and strikes a great balance between a continuation and a new beginning. It does justice to the series it spawns from by being a quality, polished experience, but also does justice to itself by being able to stand on its own two feet.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
Engaging plot that keeps twisting and turning; Accomplished, stylish storytelling; Memorable and consistently strong cast of characters; Yagami is a great protagonist; Friendship system is an excellent timesink; Combat is as fun and flashy as ever; Lots of side content to dive into; Gameplay is much more varied than Yakuza; Kamurocho looks beautiful and richly detailed.
Tailing missions are dull; Dull and long-drawn investigations can harm the pacing; Some fan-favourite mini-games are missing; Non-story NPC interactions suffer from lack of voice overs and awkward canned animations.