In a case of art mirroring life, the release of Judgment has been mired in controversy. Based in the Yakuza universe, which explores the seedy underbelly of the mythical Tokyo suburb of Kamurocho, storylines involving drug deals and gangs clashing are depicted within the title. Shortly after the Western release date of the game was announced, voice actor Pierre Taki, who voiced lead antagonist for the game, was arrested for possession of cocaine, resulting in Judgment being pulled from sale in Japan. Sega subsidiary Ryu Ga Gotoku, the developer of the title, decided to replace Taki’s performance in the game, bringing in a new voice actor and adjusting the physical likeness of the character. This change caused concern with the fanbase that the western release would be delayed. Thankfully, despite these setbacks, Judgment released on time and is a highly polished, enjoyable experience for both new and old fans alike.
Protagonist Takayuki Yagami has seen better days. Once a hot-shot lawyer at the top of his career, his world came crumbling down when a former client murdered their girlfriend in cold blood. Disillusioned with the court system, Yagami sets up a detective agency where he can use his investigative skills to dispense his own form of vigilante justice.
One day, Yagami is called by his old law firm for assistance on a case. Yakuza from the minor Kyorei clan are turning up dumped around Kamurocho with their eyes gouged out. The law firm is defending Kyohei Hamura, a rival Yakuza with an extremely unpleasant personality, but also a fairly strong alibi. What initially appears to be a turf war betweenYakuza clans twists and turns into something much more complicated, and Yagami will need to use all of his detective skills to find the true culprit.
In true Yakuza style, Yagami will have to beat up many thugs and adversaries on his quest to find the truth. Combat is a slightly simplified version of the Yakuza formula, combo-based brawling with two styles to choose from: Crane for large groups, and Tiger for one-on-one battles. Beating up waves of thugs is immensely satisfying, with Yagami smoothly chaining one move to the next. Wandering street thugs will present little challenge to the player, but boss battles will require more finesse, as they are able to execute the same types of special moves as Yagami. Unlike previous titles in the series, fights can now spill inside buildings, with enemies smashing windows and swinging chairs much to the chagrin of the restaurant employees. The tutorial advises that the cops may be called if a fight carries on too long, but most battles will end well before that point.
Combat in general is easier in Judgment, and enemies with multiple health bars are much rarer than in the past Yakuza titles. This change is to the title’s benefit, as those damage sponges could get quite frustrating after a while. The occasional tough enemy will turn up over the course of the story, with the boss battles of the roaming Keihin gang in particular presenting a challenge, but for the most part the average player will get through the combat sections with ease. Judgment‘s difficulty can be adjusted at any time, so if one is missing the Yakuza grind, they can always crank up the difficulty to hard.
New to the series is Yagami’s array of detective skills. In the pursuit of truth, he will tail people, chase down suspects, break into buildings, analyse evidence, and question witnesses. The first chapter does a really good job of displaying all the different skills on offer, using every ability in the attempt to prove Hamura’s alibi.
Tailing a suspect uses stealth mechanics, with Yagami following the target from a safe distance. Suspects often have a sixth sense about being followed, and will stop and turn or abruptly change direction. Yagami can hide behind cars or crowds of people to stay unnoticed.
Sometimes a suspect will try to evade Yagami. Chasing down a target uses quick-time prompts to dodge around crowds of people, with Yagami nimbly vaulting over fences and people’s heads.
Breaking in involves either lockpicking or a thumb-screw turn, depending on the door. Straight lockpicking involves a fiddly Elder Scrolls-like system of carefully pushing up pins. The pins are very sensitive, and pushing one in too far will reset the lot. Thumb screws are considerably easier, with the player rotating the analogue sticks to specific angles. Either version usually has a generous time limit, allowing for some time to practise the mechanic.
Analysing evidence will be familiar to anyone who has played the courtroom-based Ace Attorney games. Yagami looks around an area for anything out of the ordinary—this might be to progress his current mission, such as codes to a safe with important information, or to contradict presented evidence; lack of blood stains on the ground means the body has been moved. This can prove surprisingly tricky, particularly in the scenes where Yagami uses his drone to look around: all of the three dimensional space leaves a lot of ground to cover.
While each detective mechanic by itself is simple, in combination with the others it builds a compelling gameplay loop. The investigation mechanics makes the player feel fully involved in the story, figuring out clues along with Yagami. As a jack-of-all-trades game, the player will not be solving anything as complex as a Danganronpa locked room, but the detective work is a refreshing twist on the Yakuza formula.
The city of Kamurocho makes a return in Judgment, along with its bizarre inhabitants. Alongside the main story, Yagami can pick up side cases, which are his main source of income. In true Yakuza form, the requests Yagami gets are quite strange. He will use his detective skills to determine who stole the cake from the office fridge, check if an apartment is haunted, dress up like a vampire to help a pop star, chase down a flying toupee, and many more. In less skilled hands, this tonal dissonance with the main story would be problematic, but here it works: a light-hearted break from the serious themes of the game. The game has 50 side cases in total, with a further 50 smaller friendship side-stories to complete.
Kamurocho also features mini-games aplenty, with darts, mahjong, shogi, black jack, and a variety of Sega arcade games to play. While it still features an impressive amount of activities, the game has a smaller selection than previous Yakuza titles, with the noticeable absence of karaoke and dancing. A specialised mini-game for the title would have been a nice addition, like the hostess club or real estate market in Yakuza 0.
Yagami earns skill points with almost every action he performs, from eating a burger to beating up a street thug to playing a round of Puyo Puyo. The points are spent on a wide variety of abilities, from the expected combat upgrades to the more unusual social skills like being able to hold more liquor or craft a flirty text. Tying skill points into exploring Kamurocho is a wonderful idea, as players will easily get side tracked and spend hours at the arcade or drone racing—this way, even the most distracted gamer is still making progress each time they play.
Navigating the world of Kamurocho’s labyrinthine streets has never been easier, with an improved map system and running set on a toggle rather than holding the button down. The player can search for a location on the map by name, and can set a marker on a place they want to go. Yagami can catch a taxi at each end of the map, but with the large quantity of side content, running through the city and seeing what pops up is often a better mood.
The visuals are somewhat inconsistent in Judgment, with bleeding edge beautiful story cutscenes, but stiff in-game models. The textures on the character models are incredibly detailed, which may be why the limited animation is so noticeable. This issue is due in part to the uncanny valley effect—the closer something looks to real life, the more one notices the tiny details missing, such as the subtle movement of facial muscles. The characters still look nice, and lack the dead-eyed appearance that hyper-realistic models can possess. Kamurocho has also never been so crowded, with many more NPCs and moveable objects than in previous titles. Particularly crowded scenes can cause some stuttering, but thankfully no such issues were encountered during main story sequences.
For the first time since the original game in the Yakuza series, Judgment offers an English voiceover alongside the Japanese track. The voice work is excellent across the board, and players will get a great performance with either option.
That Judgment drops the Yakuza moniker from the title is surprising, as the game feels like a Yakuza game through and through, with the signature sprawling open world of Kamurocho, combo-based brawling combat, and kooky sidequests. Yagami’s new detective abilities add some enjoyable variety into the mix, but the title would have comfortably fit into the main franchise. That being said, Judgment stands out as one of the very best in the series and serves as a perfect entry point for anyone curious about the Yakuza games.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4.