Judgment Review: Private Eyes Are Watching You
When Judgment was first released in 2018, it promised to keep what fans loved about the Yakuza series and put its own unique twist on things by making the game a detective thriller instead of purely a game about organized crime. While no game set in Yakuza’s iconic setting of Kamurocho will completely escape from that series’ shadow, Judgment does stand out from the crowd with a fantastic new cast of characters and a story that gripped me from beginning to end.
Fans used to running around Kamurocho with Kiryu may feel weird about doing so as an entirely separate character, but those who have played some of the later installments in the main series should be used to this by now, and the cast of Judgment does a great job of pulling players in right from the start.
A Career Gone Wrong
Takayuki Yagami used to be a lawyer. He was good, too, highly in demand after getting an incredibly rare acquittal in a murder trial, despite Japan’s 99% conviction rate. That all changed, though, when right after his acquittal, Yagami’s client murders his girlfriend and burns his home down. Feeling a deep sense of guilt and shame for helping to free someone who went on to commit such a horrible crime, Yagami stepped down as a lawyer and opened up his own detective agency alongside his close friend Kaito, a former member of the Yakuza who has been kicked out of his family.
Three years later, Yagami does minor detective work like collecting money and tracking down cheating spouses. He’s getting by, though his agency isn’t exactly printing money for him. When a local Yakuza leader is accused of murder, and his old law firm is hired to represent him, Yagami is hired to track down evidence to help prove the man’s alibi. With proof of a serial killer on the loose taking people’s eyes, though, things are far from what they seem. Yagami might have decided he was done with the law, but it isn’t done with him.
Jumping into Judgment will feel familiar to anyone who has played a Yakuza game. Unlike the main series, which has shifted into an RPG, Judgment is a classic brawler like players are used to. As you run the streets of Kamurocho, you’ll be jumped by various street gangs, collect sub-missions, upgrade your abilities, and check out a ton of shops.
Part of the fun of this series is seeing how its world evolves from game to game. Some may be tired of Kamurocho after playing games in it since 2005, but part of what I love about these games is seeing things change, new shops pop up, and old ones go. It kind of feels like coming home. I can navigate Kamurocho without a map. I know all the street names. Yet sometimes, a new game will have something that surprises me. There wasn’t much of that here, but seeing Yagami and company so thoroughly integrated into this world is awesome.
A Change Of Pace
While combat, despite feeling as good as the series ever has with one major exception, is pretty much what players will expect, there are some definite changes. Yagami isn’t a former Yakuza seeking revenge, he’s a detective, and the gameplay here has changed some to reflect that. Yagami will spend time tailing targets to figure out what they’re up to. He scans crime scenes for evidence. He can even pick locks in two separate ways and deploys a drone for spying, as well as for a fun racing minigame.
It’s all a good idea, but I do wish some of it were better designed. Searching environments is fine, though it often turned into just clicking everything until I found what I wanted. Tailing, however, is long, tedious, and boring. Lock picking was also fine but doesn’t come up enough to feel like an integral gameplay mechanic. The core of Judgment’s gameplay is fantastic, but that’s because it’s taken almost directly from Yakuza. It isn’t ideal for a game trying to stand on its own as a spin-off that its biggest weaknesses are the things that set it apart.
I mentioned one issue with combat above as well, and that’s the game’s decision to include a new type of damage known as mortal wounds. Basically, if you get hit by certain attacks, often gunshots or stabs but sometimes regular attacks too, you’ll take what is called mortal damage, which lowers your maximum health and stops you from healing it. To remove mortal wounds, you have to use either a very specific and expensive healing item or visit a doctor. While I understand the desire to make certain attacks feel more important to avoid, in practice, it just annoys. Having to run all the way across town to see the doctor when you have things to do isn’t fun. This series has never been about realism, and the rest of the game certainly isn’t trying to be realistic. So including this mechanic was a major misstep, though one its sequel thankfully addresses.
Still, all the content Yakuza fans expect of the series is here. Tons of side missions, including a variety of detective cases which are some of the more fun content in the game, are well worth your time. So are the arcade games and mini-games, some of which are far deeper than a mini-game needs to be. I loved the House of the Dead style arcade shooter, though I would love to play it with a real light gun. The drone races I mentioned earlier have a crazy amount of customization options. There’s even a weird VR board game that didn’t fully click with me, but I can see some players really enjoying it.
What ultimately stands apart most in Judgment though is its story. Figuring out what is going on with these murders goes places I truly did not expect. This is perhaps my favorite story in the entire Yakuza series, and the fantastic cast is a big part of the reason. Whether we’re talking about Yagami himself, his partner Kaito, the lawyer at Yagami’s former office, the Yakuza family he’s tied up with, or the game’s antagonists, all play their parts wonderfully, and there are twists here I genuinely did not see coming.
Anyone who enjoys the Yakuza series should check out Judgment. While it doesn’t stand apart from the main series as much as I might have liked, with its most significant weaknesses being the places it tried to go its own way, the core gameplay from its parent series is as good as ever, and it features perhaps the best story in the entire saga.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed), PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Stadia; Publisher: Sega; Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios; Players: 1; Released: September 15th, 2022; ESRB: M for Mature; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Judgment provided by the publisher.