Old Dog, New Tricks
Judgment marks the latest release from Yakuza developer Sega. A direct spinoff of the aforementioned franchise, the game takes place in the familiar fictional Japanese city of Kamurocho. However, rather than having the player once again assume the role of reformed gangster and “Dragon of Dojima” Kazuma Kiryu, the game instead puts players in control of lawyer-turned-gumshoe Takayuki Yagami as you dive deep into the city’s seedy underbelly in pursuit of a serial killer who’s been stealing the eyes of the city’s hapless hoodlums.
The game’s fusion of bare-knuckle brawls and compelling courtroom drama is a welcome change of pace for Sega’s long-running Yakuza series, which had admittedly been getting a bit long in the tooth of the past decade-plus. Waltzing through the neon-soaked streets of Kamurocho, kicking ass and solving capers like some warrior monk version of Phoenix Wright is a riot. But if you’ve had your fill of Kamurocho over the past few years, this game probably isn’t going to grant your nasty case of franchise fatigue a reprieve.
Kung Fu Film Noir
Of course, being a Yakuza spinoff, Judgment doesn’t venture too far from the series’ established gameplay mechanics. But that’s not to say it doesn’t do a few new tricks to shake things up. Sure, you’ll still spend plenty of time cracking skulls in the warm glow of the town’s neon lights, but not as much as you would in other games in the series. The game’s protagonist Takayuki Yagami is a hardboiled detective, after all. And as such, you’ll find yourself doing more sleuthing than Humphrey Bogart throughout the 40-hour story. You’ll be planting bugs, stealthily picking locks, wearing disguises to stakeout areas to eavesdrop on suspects, and investigating crime scenes similarly to Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney or L.A. Noire to reveal clues to catalog in your burgeoning case file.
As someone who was admittedly starting to grow a bit weary of the Yakuza series’ formula by now, I really enjoyed the more methodical pace of Judgment‘s gameplay. Whether I was dueling it out in the courtroom to clear my client’s name or trying to poke holes in a witness’s testimony, I found myself completely immersed in the drama unfolding onscreen. Though once you discover that there’s no way to fail these scenes (you can always change your answer if you choose the wrong clue or bit of dialog), they do start to lose their impact a bit.
Despite the admittedly low stakes of the legal showdowns, I found the majority of Judgment‘s tweaks to the Yakuza formula very welcome. Having spent more than a decade seeing Kamurocho through the eyes of its criminal element, it was nice to have a chance to experience things from the other side of the law.
If you’ve played a Yakuza game before then, you’ll feel right at home with Judgment’s brand of beat ’em up combat. While Yagami’s basic moveset is quite similar to Kiryu’s, there are some notable differences between the two scrappy protagonists. For starters, Yagami is much more agile and can effortlessly leapfrog over opponents to strike them from behind or launch himself off of walls to deliver street justice.
As you’d expect, Yagami comes equipped with a couple of fighting styles which you can switch to at the push of a button: Crane, which focuses on sweeping kicks that can handily dispatch groups of enemies; and Tiger, a fierce, strike-centric fighting style that’s great for going head-to-head with individual baddies.
Though Yagami is undoubtedly a more mobile fighter than Yakuza’s Kiryu, he’s much less durable. It takes far fewer hits to bring Judgment’s gumshoe to his knees. Adding to the challenge is a new Mortal Damage feature. When enemies strike Yagami with powerful attacks or with weapons such as knives or guns, he’ll take damage permanent damage to his health bar until he visits a physician or uses a med kit, which is extremely costly. Thankfully, there’s plenty of money to be made in Kamurocho. That is if you’re willing to work for it.
Cash Rules Everything Around Me
You’re going to need to shell out a lot of money if you want to crack the case in Judgment. Between stocking up on healing items, funneling money into unlocking handy bonuses through the crowdfunding platform Quickstarter, and commissioning gadgets from your friendly neighborhood tech guru to assist in your stakeouts, you’re going to need some seriously deep pockets.
Thankfully, the Yagami Detective Agency is open for business, so work is always readily available. The best way to beef up your income is to take on cases for the residents of Kamurocho. Some of these tasks are predictable gigs like staking out a cheating husband or providing protection to a woman and her child from her ex-husband, who just so happens to be a Yakuza. Others are entirely over the top and involve things like capturing a dastardly panty thief or spanking a serial groper named “Ass Catchem.”
Though the cases you take on are often pretty entertaining, tailing missions are quite possibly one of the weakest aspects of Judgment. These missions force you to follow specific targets around town without being seen. The problem is the AI for your targets is borderline catatonic and seldom does anything to spice things up. You’ll typically just slowly skulk behind the suspect and hide behind glaringly obvious cover points whenever they peer over their shoulder, and occasionally snap a photo of them when you catch them in the act of doing some illicit deed. That’s pretty much all there is to it. Sound like fun? I didn’t think so.
At first, you’ll only have access to a handful of cases. However, building up your reputation in town will gain you more notoriety and thus bring more clients to your doorstep. To do this, you’ll need to make friends with the locals. These friendship scenarios play out a bit like bite-sized versions of the Social Links found in the Persona series. While you can complete most of these in short order, they’re entertaining enough and can often grant you access to new items or assist powers in addition to valuable reputation points. All told, it’s an excellent little system and makes every interaction with the game’s NPCs feel more meaningful as you reap the benefits of these relationships.
Hitting The Town
Like previous Ryu Ga Gotoku releases, there is plenty of fun and exciting ways to kill time in Kamurocho. Familiar stapes like underground casinos, online darts, and the batting cages return, and they’re as addicting as ever. And more patient players can try their hand at shogi or mahjong in the various parlors and parks across town though it’s worth noting that karaoke is conspicuously absent this time around, which is a little disappointing.
The game centers are packed with tons of great arcade games to play. Classics like Space Harrier, Virtua Fighter 5, and Puyo Puyo make a return alongside a pair of 32-bit newcomers from Sega’s model 2 arcade hardware: the superb one-on-one brawler Fighting Vipers and the sci-fi racer Motor Raid. And, as you’d expect, all of these are emulated perfectly and well worth your yen.
My favorite of the bunch is probably “Kamuro of the Dead“. If you hadn’t guessed, this is a light gun style shooter modeled after Sega’s iconic House of the Dead series set against the backdrop of a zombie-ravaged Kamurocho. It features five stages complete with varied enemy types and challenging boss fights. It’s a fast burn, to be sure, but it’s a brilliant bit of fan service that any enthusiasts of Sega’s arcade releases should enjoy immensely.
As for new activities, the most notable new additions are drone racing and a rather insane VR dice game. Drone League is incredibly addicting as you race drones through makeshift courses all over the city. You can modify your drone in several ways to make them faster and more maneuverable with parts you find scattered around town. And once you start, you won’t want to stop. Dice and Cube, on the other hand, is a Mario Party style VR board game where you must roll dice to make your way through several courses. As you progress across one, you’ll either land on tiles that net you prizes which you can exchange for items or cash, or enemies which you’ll battle with both your bare hands and some over-the-top sci-fi weapons. It’s silly, fun, and a great way to earn some extra cash.
All told, while many noteworthy mini-games from previous games in the franchise are notably absent, like Yakuza 0’s brilliant Hostess Club mini-game and the Gravure photo shoots, what’s here is still thoroughly entertaining.
No doubt about it, Sega has laid it on thick with Yakuza releases over the past few years. Having played through all of them myself, I was worried that Judgment would feel like more of the same. Thankfully, I was wrong. Sega managed to pull me back in with Judgment’s incredible story and surprisingly varied gameplay that puts a premium on investigation and character development over endless bare-knuckle brawls. Still, I can’t stress enough how much I’d like to see the developer provide a new town to run amok in with their next project, as the streets of Kamurocho are starting to feel more familiar than those of my own neighborhood.
If you’re a fan of the Yakuza series and don’t mind the familiar scenery, adding this to your library is a no-brainer. Judgment is a superb hard-boiled detective drama that you’ll want to see through to its finish.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PS4 (Reviewed); Publisher: Sega; Developer: Sega; Players: 1; Released: June 25, 2019; ESRB: M for Mature; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher.