After almost 15 years of games buried deep in the criminal psyche, the Yakuza series makes an abrupt pivot to the other side of the law in Judgment, a spin-off title about a worn-down private detective working the mean streets of Kamurocho. A Japanese crime thriller with a few action and RPG aspects thrown in for good measure, it is yet another example of the great narrative work being done by this series, even if its older tropes don’t quite fit the established mould.
The story and character work is always the main draw in any Yakuza title and Judgment is no different. It follows Takayuki Yagami (played by Japanese actor Takuya Kimura) as he works to unravel a case involving a serial murderer. He’s a different animal compared to Yakuza‘s violent, emotionally charged protagonist Kiryu. Yagami is hard but calculating. He takes his work seriously but is not without a wry sense of humour. His emotions are buried deep and it takes a lot to rattle him. Kimura’s performance communicates volumes about the character — he is immediately arresting, a character with a rich inner life. The performance is meticulous, right down to small, practised tics that betray the mile-a-minute pace of a deductive mind that can’t be turned off.
While working as a defence attorney at a small-time law firm, Yagami is stunned when a friend he helped prove innocent of a violent murder is arrested on a new count of murder in the first degree. The man’s girlfriend brutally slain, their home left to burn and the supposed murderer taken into custody covered in blood and in full view of the media, the case seems open and shut — Yagami was lied to by a psychopath and, in falling for the deception, an innocent woman needlessly lost her life. For such a spectacular lapse of judgement, Yagami distances himself from the firm and strikes out on his own.
Several years pass and Yagami finds himself eking out a meagre living running down small-time crooks and turning them in to the cops. He is aided by an affable former yakuza, happy to milk his old connections in exchange for a slice of the action. They work together in Kamurocho (modeled on the real world Shinjuku red light district of Kabuchiko). Kamurocho is a dangerous place, constantly squabbled over by yakuza families like the Tojo clan. Moving from place to place in Kamurocho is done on foot, and it gives every street a sense of being grounded in reality. Those who’ve played previous Yakuza games will know the map by heart, which alleys to duck down for a shortcut. Those who haven’t will become familiar with its maze of streets and vendors quite quickly.
Another thing that carries over from Yakuza are random thug encounters. From time to time, aggro drunkards in groups of three or more will catch you wandering Kamurocho and lunge at you, starting a fistfight. Recent remake Yakuza Kiwami introduced a change to the long-running beat-em-up style street fight mechanics that allowed the player to swap stances — one to better deal with single targets and one for larger groups of enemies. It’s fine and it works as well as it did in YK but its inclusion in Judgment landed a bit strangely for me. Brawls like this make sense in Yakuza. Kiryu is categorically a Bad Dude, a criminal, someone with a short fuse and a habit of using violence to get his way. It would not be out of character for him to rough up a gang of drunks on his way downtown, and his yakuza status gives him a certain amount of immunity from consequence.
But Yagami is a detective. He used to be a lawyer. He’s someone who would understand the potential legal repercussions of getting involved in a street fight. So why is he roughing up dipshits on the regular? It doesn’t make a lot of sense. The finishers are cool, and I understand the game wanted something to keep things lively in between long cutscenes, but it didn’t sit right with me given who the character is. If you’re going to make him fight, why not give Yagami a defensive fighting style, one designed to incapacitate? Then we can pacify the attackers, call the cops and have them pick these fools up. Doing so would curry favour with the law and maybe earn the player a favour down the line. Instead we’re just laying these guys out and going about our day. It’s weird, and it is my primary complaint with an otherwise exemplary narrative experience.
Information is currency and everyone is on the take which means lips are often sealed. Here, Yagami uses his skills as a former attorney to wheedle new leads and alibis from cagey interviewees. Successfully picking the most relevant questions and pumping each witness or suspect for the most useful information nets you a tidy XP bonus. Judgment places a greater focus on conversation during cutscenes over Yakuza and it makes for a nice point of difference against the series’ typically more passive approach to storytelling. Rather than letting the player sit and watch each cutscene play out, you’re invited to become a part of the conversation. To be clear, you’re not able to influence the direction of the conversation — this isn’t Mass Effect — but you can come away with a lot more information than you had before.
Visually, the game is another knockout and uses the same Dragon Engine platform used for current Yakuza games. It allows for expressive, lifelike character models and motion capture during cutscenes, creating a greater connection between the player and the world. The environmental details in Kamurocho knit together to create something that feels like a genuine slice of Japanese life. Its rain-spattered streets and neon lights work every bit as well as the backdrop to a seedy mafia story as they do a hardboiled detective yarn. People come and go, with little snatches of conversation creating the feeling that everyone you see is running their own race.
If Yakuza is already your thing, Judgment is absolutely up your alley. It’s a slow burn legal drama that revels in the chewy ethical quandaries it throws at its characters. The cast is fabulous, the characters wonderfully written, the localisation is as brilliant as always and like the best crime novels, once it gets its hooks in, you won’t be able to put it down.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: Beautiful visuals; Cracking story; Strong character work
Lowlights: That beat-em-up mechanic is really starting to show its age
Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio
Platforms: PlayStation 4
Available: June 25, 2019
Review conducted on PlayStation 4 Pro using a pre-release code provided by the publisher.