14 years, 7 mainline games, 6 spin-offs, 2 remakes, several remasters and still the core of the Ryū ga Gotoku/Yakuza series has remained the same. It’s hard to imagine any other franchise that carries the kind of gravitas the Yakuza series has even after undergoing little change over the years. A new story, a fresh coat of paint, and a roster of morally grey but colorful cast is all the ammo the series ever needed to make a compelling action-adventure video game. Judgment (or Judge Eyes: Shinigami no Yuigon as it is known in Japan) is Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio’s latest spin-off that takes the player back to the iconic city of Kamurocho after the conclusion of the Dragon of Dojima saga and before the beginning of a new age with Shin Ryū ga Gotoku. Is Judgment a worthy title set in the Yakuza universe or does it fall flat on its heels to present the players with a compelling story and gameplay mechanics? Let’s take a look.
Story & Narrative
Judgment sees the player in the shoes of a disgruntled lawyer turned private eye, Takayuki Yagami. Yagami’s, his last case as a lawyer where he acquited an alleged murderer went sideways when Shinpei Okubo, the defendant knifed and burned his girlfriend after being set free. His reputation tarnished, confidence broken and morality challenged, Yagami leaves that life behind. One year later, Yagami, now a struggling private detective is pulled back into the thick of things thanks to a series of gruesome Yakuza serial killings. What happens next is a long, and thrilling chain of events that goes from one unexpected place to the next, shedding more light on Yagami’s past as well as cast a long shadow on the future of Kamurocho itself. That’s as far I can go without spoiling things for you.
Judgment is a spin-off of the mainline Yakuza games and features its own standalone story, characters, and events. Thus, no major character from the Yakuza games makes an appearance. While that might disappoint some, it is the best thing to ever happen to Judgment. The story of Judgment is gripping, emotional, full of violence, deceit, twists, turns, and conspiracies that keep you on the edge from start to finish. Hands down one of the best Yakuza stories in recent years. As per the series tradition, the story is paced very slowly, slower than any Yakuza game in fact. It takes a while for things to pick up and even when it does, you are distracted away from the main story by tasks and events that seem less meaningful in comparison. This can get quite annoying sometimes when you just want to experience the story without breaking the flow and bam! You are sent off to do some menial task not connected to the story at all. There is also a large focus on storytelling than the action this time around and that’s something that might not please all players.
As for Yagami himself, I’m happy to report that he’s in no way a Kiryu wannabe. While the two may share some similarities of a typical main character, Yagami is his own man. Versed in martial arts from a young age, he’s virtuous, undoubtedly intelligent, determined, resilient and most importantly cautious. Unlike Kiryu, he doesn’t have that many loved ones waiting for him on the other side and doesn’t have a reason to not fear death. The story in any Yakuza game is the story of Kamurocho itself and Judgment is no exception. Throughout your adventure, you’ll meet a cast of well written and deep personalities that either aid you or put up a wall in your investigation. Characters like Yagami’s ex-Yakuza partner Masaharu Kaito, the egoistic captain of the Matsugane family; Kyohei Hamura or even the dirty cop; Kazuya Ayabe become extremely likable (or hateable) in such short time that you feel like you’ve been seeing these people across multiple games. Judgment does a good job of ensuring that characters, whether major or minor get their share of screen time and no one goes away underused. Ryu ga Gotoku Studio once again proves that they’re great at providing emotional crime dramas of the utmost quality.
Gameplay & Mechanics
No matter how many new elements RGS implemented in Judgment to shake up the gameplay, it’s still a Yakuza game at heart and body. Hence, it’s really hard to go on without comparing Judgment to the previous games in the series. It’s once again a crime drama dressed up as an action-adventure in the streamlined sandbox of Kamurocho. Within the sandbox, the player is free to pursue the main story, explore Kamurocho to discover side missions, engage in mini-games and accomplish challenges all the while getting in random streetfights with some of the unluckiest thugs in the world. The series’ trademark juxtaposition of the outright bizarre with the deadpan serious is present and is executed beautifully like only RGS can. The city of Kamurocho is at series peak when it comes to detail and the number of locations you can visit. The city is filled with NPCs going about their business and, making it a busy, living and breathing representation of the Kabukichō district in Tokyo.
A Detective is You
Since Yagami is a detective, Judgment introduces several new mechanics that are in line with his profession to varying degrees of success. Often, Yagami-san is forced to investigate crime-scenes on foot and using his sexy drone, take photos, wear disguises, chase and tail suspects, pick locks and choose the correct dialogue during conversations. While these are meant to spice up the traditional Yakuza formula that’s remained unchanged for decades, most of them just come off as annoying or end up feeling like a gimmick.
There are no consequences to choosing the wrong dialogue options other than the fact that you’ll lose out on some experience points. Failing the annoying tail or chase sequences prompts a quick restart, while the whole mechanic of wearing disguises to blend in unnoticed is underused throughout the game. While I appreciate the developer’s intention to bring some variety to the game, they are nowhere close to altering the core gameplay drastically. I do like the fact that Judgment offers a variety of unlockable upgrades that lessen the tedium of these newfound mechanics.
I was never a fan of the new changes to combat brought forth by the Dragon Engine. The multiple-style combat system introduced in Yakuza 0 was great and didn’t need a complete overhaul. As such it’s nice to see Judgment try to blend both the old and new through the two-style combat system. Yagami, being versed in martial arts has two combat styles; the crane which is suitable against multiple enemies and the tiger, which is much more suited to single target encounters. The combat is more fast, fluid and along the lines of real-life martial arts than its Dragon Engine predecessors, with Yagami bringing on the pain in the blink of an eye. The speed, design, and flexibility of Yagami’s animations help to hide the clunkiness of the 30 fps combat to a degree. While it’s no match to the combat system of Yakuza 0, the crane and tiger styles do allow for some well-needed experimentation and versatility.
The flashy Heat and Ex-Heat actions make a return in the form of Ex Actions and Ex Boost and they’re greater than ever. There are a lot of ridiculous and fun moves Yagami can pull off that are specific to his surroundings, the number of enemies, the combat style that is being used and whether or not Ex boost is active or not. It’s a welcome change from the limited move sets found in Yakuza 6. Moreover, you can increase Yagami’s health, damage, Ex gauge, combo speed as well as unlock a slew of punishing moves and Ex Actions. You can also craft a number of decoctions to boost your efficiency during combat. I was a bit disappointed to know that Yagami can’t carry and store weapons like Kiryu as well as use lethal weapons during combat, but since he’s a law-abiding detective it makes sense to a degree.
It wouldn’t be an RGS game if there weren’t a ridiculous number of hilarious and outlandish substories and Judgment doesn’t disappoint one bit. Side missions are divided into small-scale friendly events and robust side cases. Since the crux of Yagami’s work depends on information, he has to befriend shop owners and other NPCs by running errands, fetching things and doing all sorts of menial tasks. In doing so, Yagami’s reputation goes up and he will be able to accept side cases that result in huge payouts. Most of the side cases can be obtained from one of three regular hangouts of Yagami while some can be found on the streets.
These are fully fledged quests that work similarly to the ones in previous Yakuza games. While the main story of Judgment maintains the dark, gritty realism of crime dramas, these side cases range from finding out whether a husband is cheating or not to eye-opening Aesop’s fables that teach Yagami and the player the value of morals and hard work. Some can even leave your jaw dropping in disbelief as to what the hell you just witnessed. There are about 50 side cases, some of which have multiple parts and even take place across the many chapters of the story. The series is effectively back in form after the disappointing sub stories featured in Yakuza 6.
Judgment is filled to the brim with content and a majority of those are mini games. From bringing over darts to batting to mahjong to shogi and gambling, Judgment introduces several new mini games such as pinball, drone racing (a suitable replacement for pocket circuit), a VR sudoku thingy and several Sega arcade classics. Though the omissions of fan favorites such as karaoke, pool, and bowling are disappointing, the new mini games make up for them in their own right. The time and effort put in to make these mini games full-fledged experiences remind me why I bothered to learn Mahjong exclusively for the Yakuza series in the first place.
Judgment also introduces some quality of life improvements such as a streamlined yet versatile skill system, revamped physics (objects no longer crumble like paper when you accidentally run up to them), improved quest log, less cluttered UI and the ability to make waypoints on the map. However, I still don’t get why the minimap rotation is fixed and can’t be auto-rotated. The FOV is also too close and thus lands the camera in all sorts of awkward positions during combat. Just Yakuza things.
Visuals, Performance & Sound
If Dragon Engine must be praised for one thing, it should be for the visuals. The engine is effortless in bringing Kamurocho to life thanks to the excellent outdoor lighting and amount of teeny tiny details that sum up a bigger picture. Walking through the streets at day or at night, it feels as if you’re walking through a real-life location, I’ve never been to Kabukichō but I imagine this is how its neon-lit streets look like. All the main characters are modeled and textured pretty damn great though I can’t say the same for every NPCs walking down the street. There are indoor areas where the lighting appears flat but that’s just me nitpicking.
Coming from Yakuza Kiwami 2’s buttery 60+ fps on the PC to 30 fps Judgment on the PS4 was a pretty rough transition. There are a lot of times when the game struggles to keep framerate at or even close to 30. When there is a lot going on, the fps drops to mid and low 20s on the base PS4. This is ever more apparent during crowded climax fights in the story where Yagami’s lightning fast kicks and punches slow down close to a crawl and it’s easy to make out individual pixel clusters in his flashy combat trails. Still, it runs way better than Yakuza 6 and the performance on the pro might be better. Or, maybe the Dragon Engine at 60 fps ruined my judgment (no pun intended).
Sound design and music is, once again, top tier. Like any longtime Yakuza fan, I can’t stand the English dub and prefer the original Japanese voice acting. The voice actors are intense where they need to be and mellow when the script demands. The actors all did a solid job across the board, especially the ones for Yagami and Kaito. The voice acting doesn’t go to the uncanny valley and over the top unless it is intended to be (in the case of some eccentric characters). Another departure from Yakuza 6 in this regard is the absence of full voice-overs for side cases. Unfortunately, the quality and quantity of the substories in Yakuza 6 suffered due to the team spreading the budget thin on full voice acting. Judgment takes the traditional approach and there are only a few grunts from characters during side case conversations, which has its own charm.
Judgment is a worthy entry in the Yakuza universe by all means. It features the traditional Japanese charm of the previous entries and no compromises have been made to make it presentable to the West. The story is one of the best in recent memory, the characters are well written, the combat is a return to form for the series, there are plenty of locations to explore, a cast of colorful characters to meet, around 50 fully-fledged substories along with mini quests and a whole new set of mini games to play. However, if you were expecting a major shake-up of the Yakuza formula by means of the newfound detective elements, then Judgment will disappoint. Judgment is a well made, formulaic Yakuza game fans of the series shouldn’t miss. At the same time, it’s also a welcome place for newcomers to jump in without having played the previous entries.