A spinoff that stands up for what's right
These days, I tend to purposely shy away from learning too much about games from studios that I've come to follow. In an age of preview livestreams, alpha/beta signups, and a few trailers a week, I let the hype train speed on by.
I've known about Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio's new title Judgment for a while. I knew it was to be published by SEGA. It was an action RPG. I knew there was all that controversy with one of the actors. And I was aware you'd be stepping into the shoes of a lawyer. I was happy in my ignorance beyond those facts. So, I was a little surprised when I found myself back on the grimey, neon-lit streets of Kamurocho, modeled on Tokyo's famous red light district, once again.
Funnily enough, judging Judgment is a slightly strange affair. On the one hand, you may be viewing this as a completely new game, if you have no knowledge of the Yakuza series. On the other, you may view this game as a spinoff, which is how I choose to. Many of the mechanics, locations, and more from the Yakuza series have been further refined in Judgment.
But let's back up for a moment. In Judgment, you're ex-lawyer-turned-private-eye Takayuki Yagami. Having lost his father and mother, Yagami turned up in Kamurocho, where he was taken under the wing of the Matsugane family yakuza boss. He soon became friends with Masaharu Kaito, a yakuza, and trained to become a lawyer under his mentor Genda.
In one of his first criminal cases, Yagami defended suspected killer Shinpei Okubo. After proving his supposed innocence, Shinpei is soon convicted of murdering his girlfriend and burning down their house. Yagami quits in disgrace, the case still haunting him three years later. However, upon stumbling upon a case concerning the Matsugane's rival Kyorei clan, the goons of which have been turning up with their eyes gouged out, Yagami may be unwittingly digging up the past as he pursues the "Mole", a mysterious killer.
The story itself is one of the stronger showings, if you compare it to the back catalogue of the studio's other titles. It sets itself up like episodes of a TV show with an underlying thread - the capture of the Mole - running through. Not wanting to give too much away, Judgment thematically focuses both on Japan's growing older community affected by Alzheimer's and the inherent bias that its defense/prosecution system has on murder cases. Swift judgment, if not correct, is not really justice at all.
The character of Yagami is a starkly different protagonist. Emotional, driven by justice, and stubborn, he makes for a compelling character that is often at odds with those around him. He bounces off his partner Kaito well, as well as the other characters in the cast. I suppose a testament to the game would be that I felt a number of side characters were underutilized, especially Yagami's former love interest, Mafuyu.
What sells the all around great acting are the facial animations and models. In engine cutscenes look great and the motion capture for scenes really adds another level of life to the game. The fight choreography is absolutely insane - the best I've seen in a game. It rivals a ton of martial films, too. However, because Judgment is lifted from previous Yakuza titles, I recognized models from those games. Not to mention the fact there is not a great wealth of different NPCs on the streets and in the goons you encounter.
As mentioned above, we're back in Kamurocho once again. It's been quite a journey seeing this game progress from the PlayStation 2 to the current console generation. The city is recreated as vividly as ever. Every neon light, darkened alleyway, grubby bar, sterile skyscraper, puddle, stacked convenience store - it all blends to create an extremely detailed little sandbox. There's a real sense of personality imbued in Kamurocho. The location has to be engaging, seen as though you're going to be spending several dozen hours sprinting up and down its streets while beating the stuffing out of yakuza.
The game's main story is divided into chapters/main cases. As Yagami, you'll take up a case each chapter and often see it through to its conclusion. This is where that gumshoe brain comes into play. Your case file features an overview of the situation, a person of interest list, and an evidence list. As you progress, these lists are updated with new information, evidence, and theories that help you close the case come the chapter's end.
There are several detective mechanics that Yagami has at his disposal. To break into locations, he can enter a simple lockpicking mini-game that reminded me of Bethesda's Oblivion, where you have to tap tumbler pegs. There's a rotational lockpick, that gave me nightmarish flashbacks of Kingdom Come Deliverance. Yagami can don disguises in some cases, from a hobo to a flashy yakuza, to divert suspicion or slip on by unnoticed. There are also instances where Yagami must deduce possible theories or whip out incriminating evidence. You're rewarded with skill points for chaining correct answers together. I really appreciate the fact Judgment makes you keep on top of what you're investigating, even if it's in such a minor way.
You also have a drone at your disposal, which you can fly around to spy on suspects in a few instances. Yagami will also be tailing people on foot through the streets in another minigame: stray too close and you're caught, so you need to take cover behind signs and cars until you reach your destination. If Yagami needs to pick up the pace, he'll even give chase on foot, dodging obstacles and sliding across car bonnets in pursuit in an on-rails QTE minigame. And if all else fails, he'll let his fists and feet ask the questions.
On the surface, that sounds like a lot of different mechanics that attempt to combine the action-heavy world of Yakuza games with a little more brains. The proof of concept for this mission structure was best showcased in one of the first cases that has you investigate the murder of a yakuza in an attempt to clear one of Judgment's antagonists - Hamura. Yagami must infiltrate an art gallery, so he scouts it with the drone to find a suspect, then decides to enter as a repair worker after busting the A/C. The mission has you picking locks, answering questions to avoid brawls, gathering evidence to unlock safes and find items. Sounds pretty cool, right? It was. And it all culminated with a good brawl.
One issue that has always plagued the series of games is that, as the story progresses, its complex plot will grind to a halt at the end of chapters for lengthy exposition dumps. An interesting way the game skirts this at one point is having you go back in time to the first instance Yagami interacts with one of his cases, so you have much more agency in the exposition. However, as Judgment's missions progress, these interwoven scenarios become less frequent. You barely wear your disguises later on. I can't remember being able to engage in dialogue checks. And while the first-person mode you enter to find clues is one of the most-used mechanics, it did not feel as important with the cases.
Don't get me wrong, I love a good brawl and the fighting is great. I just wished each case was handled with as much intricacy as the first. However, it is understandable because Judgment tells a very rigid story, so branching, reactive, or more complex scenarios may be difficult to implement. Despite that, the moments where you are in court, acting as lawyer, presenting evidence to get a confession are extremely fun despite being few and far between.
The fighting is hugely cathartic in Judgment. In previous games, the developers toyed with several different fighting styles that could each be developed, unlocking more moves, power-ups, etc. Now, Yagami simply has two styles: Crane, designed for taking on multiple goons at a time; and Tiger, which is for one-on-one battles.
The Crane style reminds me Shun Akiyama, who was first introduced in Yakuza 4. Basically, your attack style is an insane flurry of kicks. You're flying and spinning through the air like you're on wires. It's awesome. Especially when Yagami executes his "EX moves", which are special attacks that require you to have filled up bars on your EX gauge through battling. You can launch objects in the air and send them crashing into thugs; run up lamp posts to spin kick several guys at once; create a literal whirlwind with your legs to vacuum up punks like a human dust buster. The fighting style is crazily varied and an absolute joy.
Combat moves aren't the only things that can be upgraded. You also have a number of active and passive skills. You can increase health, combat speed, the rate at which your gauge charges, as well as you alcohol tolerance, being able to detect enemies, etc. While there are decidedly fewer weapons this time around - no guns, swords, plus several others - it's a streamlining that also affects older mechanics like equipping items and armor. These do not feel missed, however.
I think there's a bit of a rub with gaining skill points, however, as they are handed out through the main story or side cases. The thugs you battle on the streets provide a pitiful amount. You also obtain points through objectives around the city - travelling distances on foot, playing games - busy work, basically. On the one hand, it encourages you to take the game's other activities at a slower pace, but it makes things a slog later on.
While I was never in doubt of having enough points to unlock the skills I wanted, I didn't feel there was enough of an acceptable grind outside of that. I also found it was the same with money, too. Side cases do provide a lot of wealth, but that can easily get cannibalized doing other side events. Outside of these cases, your best bet was gambling, which takes quite a bit of time. If nothing else, it encourages you to explore every facet the game has to offer, including the Premium adventure (free roam) and its version of New Game+.
And Judgment certainly has a lot of facets. The Side Cases are the most involving, which also tie in to Friend events. Side cases are fun quests like finding lost animals, chasing a wig down the street, concocting strange potions, or engaging in brain teasers. They're all varied and a ton of fun, and really lend the game a real quirkiness. The Friend quests are certain people you help to have them join you in battle, get discounts, etc.
Even the dating mechanics from previous games have been refined, so there's an actual story with the women you're courting. Not to mention the fact you can play Virtua Fighter 5, Fighting Vipers, an on-rails, House-of-the-Dead FPS, and tons more. It's easy to while away the hours just dipping your toe into all the minigames. Plus there's an organic interconnected nature to all these side tasks. Because the prerequisites are tied to many different things, such as having befriended this person or eaten at a certain restaurant, you're encouraged to sample all the game has to offer.
Ultimately, Judgment left me in two minds about a number of things. Despite being a spinoff game that reuses locations, it manages to elevate itself through great acting, gameplay, and improved mechanics. But after spending several games exploring Kamurocho, I want to see what the developers can do when starting from a clean slate. It's easy to see the apprehension: Yakuza's really only made a name for itself in the West over the past few years, so maybe they're not ready to let go of the seedy Kamurocho and get out from the shadow of Kiryu just yet.