Ryu ga Gotoku Studio hits it out of the park with Judgment. The new Yakuza spin-off takes place in the familiar, yet fictional Kamurocho district of Tokyo. Despite initial concerns of the game not really having an identity of its own under the shadow of the long-running Yakuza series, Judgment exhibits many notable deviations from your typical Kazuma Kiryu title. Regardless, the game still holds many similarities, both in good and in bad, to the mainline series. Judgment manages to capture the charm and spirit of the series, while introducing a new cast of characters, mechanics, and tone. It’s a game that plays out like a tense crime drama tied with the quirky, masculine core of the Yakuza series.
Judgment puts you in the shoes of an ex-defense attorney turned private investigator, Takayuki Yagami. He stumbles upon a mysterious set of killings where the victims all have their eyes gouged out. The story is genuinely engaging and easily kept me invested from the beginning to the end. I found parts of the story to be rather predictable, though, but it didn’t really detract from my overall enjoyment of the narrative. Thematically, Judgment hones in on the duality with Yagami navigating through the world of crime and justice, while having ties to both.
Yagami often investigates crime scenes and engages in scuffles with members of the yakuza. Investigations conclude in dramatic court cases and surprising discoveries, while fist fights result in escalating levels of action and violence. Eventually, the two will intersect and that’s when things really get interesting. Criminal connections to the authority and political corruption slowly unveil as Yagami figures out the truth behind the strange, grisly murders. In some vague sense, it reminded me of the duality themes of Sleeping Dogs as well as the immensely enjoyable attorney work of Phoenix Wright.
Judgment’s cast is fun and likable, some resembling past Yakuza characters while some feeling completely fresh. Characters like Kaito, Sugiura, and Ayabe were memorable and surprisingly endearing, while Hamura excelled as a real yakuza villain. The game’s focus on a sole main protagonist allowed for a tighter, more concentrated cast unlike in Yakuza 5 that arguably spread itself too thin. Generally speaking, there’s a good degree of nuance in the main characters of the story. Unfortunately, Judgment lacks any notable female characters. While that follows the general trend of the mainline games, it still left me a bit disappointed.
Admittedly, the series has always been male-driven with females primarily playing second fiddle, but it would’ve been nice to see the writers expand the cast to feature at least one female character worth noting. I doubt adding one would seriously have detracted from the game’s masculinity. Here, females are mostly relegated to service, love interest, and hostage roles. Judgment features two of the iconic hostess dress up moments that were a bit hit-or-miss for me. One situation in particular felt incredibly shoehorned in and overall, the developers probably could’ve avoided the cliché setup altogether.
Regardless, Judgment’s action scenes occasionally crescendo into exciting adrenaline-filled artistry. The rule of cool is front and center as in previous Yakuza titles. However, the developers really managed to succeed in crafting new and often exhilarating scenarios that add immensely to captivate the audience. Along with an excellent camera work for a dramatic effect, Judgment completely owns its crime drama action hybrid of an identity.
Combat flows in a sort of beat-'em-up style, revolving around combo attacks, special EX moves, and environmental weapons. Yagami has two fighting stances, crane and tiger. Where crane dishes out wide sweeping attacks to deal with huge crowds, tiger provides powerful single target attacks that break guard. Along with Yagami’s ability to jump off walls, Judgment’s combat is a joy to play. Getting into fights with enemies is always a spectacle with the fast and satisfying attacks as well as the heavy-hitting EX moves that both look and sound painful.
Besides combat, Judgment makes effective use of Yagami’s role as a detective. In the big picture, the game feels like it wanted to keep Yakuza’s crushing, cinematic combat, while incorporating detective-based mechanics to the side. The game carefully balances between the familiar, yet fresh combat along with sleuth actions, such as lockpicking, investigating, drone spying, and tailing. There’s a strong blend of mechanics holding up the typical combat from getting stale. While brawling is as great as it has always bee, the health management aspect has always left the difficulty somewhat compromised.
Players can heal on the fly resulting in quite an easy experience. To add insult to the injury, death rewards the player with a full health bar and EX gauge that creates a fun, yet conflicting experience. Sure, it’s designed so to avoid discouraging players, but it’s also asking to set the difficulty for themselves. To that end, it’s really a matter of choice whether or not the player chooses to heal during fights, ending up in possibly too much freedom for some. It’s more challenging and satisfying experience without healing and a smoother ride with it, appealing to both the hardcore and the casual players to the certain extent.
Beyond the excellent blend of fist fighting and detective work, Judgment is host to a slew of side activities. From shopping at stores to playing arcade games, Kamurocho is full of fun and interesting things to do. As an open world game, Judgment features plenty of side missions to accomplish and side characters to assist. All these activities provide rewards in the form of skill points to further improve on Yagami’s abilities. Even the very act of eating new food comes with skill point incentives.
On a surface level, Kamurocho feels alive. The environmental design is pitch-perfect with its authentic shops, restaurants, and massive buildings. When traversing the open world, the clubs blare out party music, the commercials play loudly, and the traffic sounds add that cherry on top of the imaginary authenticity sundae. Following Yakuza titles, Judgment excels in giving the player a sense of actually being in Tokyo’s fictional district. Finally, the soundtrack is superb with a classy mix of funk, rock, and amazing electronic music.
Judgment is an absolute roller coaster of an experience that I can wholeheartedly recommend. It’s an intense investigative adventure full of drama, action, and heart. If this is the direction where the Yakuza series is headed to, I have high hopes for the future. The developers have effectively used the established formula to tell a brand new story. Without a doubt, Judgment is worth playing for both fans and newcomers alike.