Judgment has often been described as Ryu ga Gotoku Studio’s opportunity to stretch their wings and to do something new and different from their usual offering of Yakuza games. After 8 Yakuza games (including Yakuza 0 and, to a lesser extent, Fist of the North Star), I was certainly ready for a change, so when it was said that Judgment was not going to be Yakuza 7, I became optimistic about what they could be working on. Now that I’ve played it, I’m just going to say it… Judgment is Yakuza 7 in almost every way it can be described, aside from its name.
Yes, it’s a murder mystery, and yes, the main character, Takayuki Yagami, is a detective, so yes, the player is tasked with searching for clues, tailing & chasing suspects, taking photos, picking locks, and infiltrating hideouts, which contrasts a bit to Kiryu’s more heavy handed method of solving problems in the Yakuza games. And yes, the game stars an almost completely new cast of characters, and Yagami’s fighting style is less tanky and more agile than Kiryu’s. But the significant differences end there, and none of them succeed in setting Judgment apart that much from the Yakuza series. Instead, the games are far more alike than they are different.
If there was a single thing the developers could have done to change things up, it would have been to change the setting, but alas, we once again find ourselves playing a game that takes place in the recurring fictional Tokyo district of Kamurocho from the Yakuza series. Don’t get me wrong; Kamurocho is great! With its amazingly detailed streets and businesses, Judgment’s version of the city is stunning on PlayStation 4. It’s just that everything is so damn familiar! The sights, the sounds, the banter, the roads, the alleyways, the pawn shop and convenient stores, the pedestrians, the thugs, they’re just all the same old thing to anyone familiar with the Yakuza games. We have been here so many times before, and no matter how remarkable the design is, the impact of it all is so dulled by the familiarity. Not only is it the same city, but once again, the developers have chosen not to expand it–at least, not in the sprawling sense. There are certainly more explorable interiors than in the other games, but the invisible walls marking the borders of the map are in the exact same places as always, and locations that can be reached by taxi outside of Kamurocho are very limited in scope, and are only available during certain quests.
The battle engine too is very much business as usual, despite Yagumi’s skill set, and his ability to switch between Crane and Tiger styles that are suited for crowds and individual opponents respectively. The classic beatdown combo (square, square, square, square, triangle, triangle) is still your bread and butter, and on Normal difficulty, most battles can be won by spamming it. You can also grab enemies, block and dodge attacks, and spend meter on finishing moves or to temporarily power up to deal more damage and become invulnerable. This is useful for avoiding certain attacks that can injure Yagami, lowering his maximum health until he visits a doctor or uses a surprisingly rare and expensive consumable. Beyond that, Yagumi can jump over enemies, and even run up walls to attack from above, but in my experience those techniques missed or failed to trigger far too often to be a viable strategy, and in fact left me vulnerable to attack more often than not. So in my case, I fell back on my usual Kiryu strategies and they still worked, so combat felt pretty much exactly how it has always felt in the Yakuza series to me.
This feeling of sameness is exaggerated because despite Judgment not being formally a Yakuza game, the enemies you face are in fact Yakuza more often than not, or otherwise street thugs or the occasional civilian with a chip on his shoulder. And in almost every case, they will brag about their strength or threaten you with the same tired old threats. And when you defeat them, they warn you, “this isn’t over,” or that “you’ll regret this!” A Yakuza series familiar player will always know when combat is about to begin by the number of generic characters in the background, or the sounds of footsteps and cracking knuckles, or the type of music that is playing. It just feels like a Yakuza game all the time.
Obviously this isn’t always a bad thing. I wouldn’t be 9 games deep into this developer’s catalog if they weren’t quite capable of telling an engrossing story or entertaining me thoroughly. The quirkiness you’ve come to know and love from Yakuza is still at play as well, and there are even some familiar faces dedicated fans might notice around Kamurocho if they are thorough. And while the battle engine is familiar, it serves its purpose well, with enough nuance to give skilled players the opportunity to get good at it–especially on the harder difficulty settings–and a ton of entertaining attack animations and finishers to appease the masses.
But Judgment’s real strength is in its storytelling and character design. Though slow to start, the murder mystery that unfolds throughout Judgment’s lengthy campaign is worthwhile and interesting. I grew fond of several of the characters, whose development was slow but effective in making me care about them. Once again, the method of storytelling was as Yakuza-like as ever, but that’s probably one of the biggest positives for the game. I mean sure, there are the usual moments where a bunch of characters are just standing around talking about what to do next that can plod on and on, but in general, Ryu ga Gotoku Studio’s developers are experts at crafting cinematic cutscenes, and delivering an emotional payoff to the player that sticks with the game to the end. I very much enjoyed the main story content throughout the game.
The optional content was much more hit-or-miss. On the positive end are the few new pieces of content that are unique to Judgment, including my personal favorite, drone races. There are multiple courses available that see Yagami flying his drone down the streets of Kamurocho, and even through some of the buildings! The courses are peppered with targets you can fly through that can give the drone a boost of speed, or repair it a bit if bumped into anything. The player can also modify and improve the drone with parts researched by collecting and turning in items found throughout the city. All in all, it’s a surprisingly competent racing game!
Also new to Judgment is a rail shooter called Kamurocho of the dead. It doesn’t have many levels, but those that are present are quite fun to play! Then there’s Paradise VR, which is a simple board game where you roll a die to move and then get prizes or challenges based on the spot you land on. There’s also an old-timey pinball machine in Yagami’s office that is… well, I can’t say it’s that exciting, but it’s a thing you can play.
Many of the other distractions and mini-games found throughout Kamurocho were pulled right out of the Yakuza series, such as batting cages, darts, mahjong, shogi, poker, blackjack, and the usual list of Japanese gambling games that I can never quite figure out, like koi-koi & oicho-kabu. There’s also the arcades, with the same old UFO catcher and the same old prizes, and a variety of Sega games to play, most of which are familiar yet again (though it’s always fun to play a round of Puyo-Puyo). While all of these games are fun enough in their own right, I can’t say I felt the need to experience them for the umpteenth time (though I must say I’ve gotten really good at darts over the years).
Strangely, the main distractions from the Yakuza series that I really would have hoped to have seen again are conspicuously absent. While there is a brief moment in the story where you get to play dressup with one of the female characters, there is no full on hostess or cabaret club in Judgment. And it would have been great to experience Yagami’s version of karaoke, but sadly, it’s nowhere to be found.
That’s especially unfortunate because there are four love interests for Yagami to date in Judgment, and karaoke would have been a lot of fun in that context. Instead, dates are limited to 3 games per girl, usually split between the UFO catcher, darts, poker, shogi and the batting cages, and once you’ve exhausted each storyline and maxed out the relationships by answering questions appropriately, winning games, and giving gifts on occasion, there’s really not much else to do with them. It’s also unfortunate that these characters are only partially voiced, and that most of their dialogue plays out in text. They have not been given the hostess treatment visually either, and that’s a bit of a shame. The good news is that each of their stories lasts about an hour long, and they are all very well written. I was actually made to feel some real life anxiety when one of the stories hit a little too close to home, and I laughed out loud at another.
The substories–called side cases this time around–are another aspect of the game where you can tell that the writers were having fun. While most of them are cliche in premise, they try very hard to wrap up in a surprising way, and they occasionally succeed at doing so, justifying the time spent on them. But just as often they will be cliche and predictable, like when you meet a street performer and you just know she’s going to end up getting scouted by a shady character culminating with a battle in an office on the 3rd floor of a building somewhere against a bunch of sleazy goons.
Still, for the most part, the side cases are fun, and they also connect with another of the game’s systems. Throughout Kamurocho are a variety of people that Yagami can befriend, whether they are randoms on the street, business owners or shopkeepers. Interacting with these characters can lead to dialogue options and side cases, and resolving their issues enough times can turn them into permanent friends who will give gifts when visited and unlock secret items in shops and on restaurant menus. Some of them will unlock a special attack animation if Yagami happens to have a brawl nearby, and a few will even join in the random battles throughout the city, slightly evening the odds for the player by distracting a few enemies at the very least.
None of this feels out of place for a Yakuza game, so I can’t help but continuing to describe Judgment as such. The ways that it does differentiate itself from Yakuza are not significant enough for Judgment to disconnect itself from its roots in the series. The detective mechanics themselves may be unique to the game, but it wasn’t unheard of for Kiryu to follow someone, or chase someone down, or to find clues. And the way they are implemented into Judgment, I’m afraid to say, isn’t all that interesting.
Searching for clues, for example, is a mechanic straight out of a point and click adventure. The player is tasked with searching a 3D environment for specific objects or pieces of evidence, and finding them is fun enough when it’s easy, but tedious when it isn’t. Often you don’t even know what it is that you are looking for, and in these situations, there is little more to do than move the camera over every inch of the area, and in a 3D space, that’s no small task. It doesn’t help that some objects are much larger than their hit box, and in those situations, you literally are pixel hunting. It wasn’t uncommon in my playthrough for the target pixel to be in an area I had already gone over several times.
Tailing is another mechanic that sounds fun on paper, but in practice is anything but. Yagami frequently has to follow NPCs around Kamurocho. They will almost always walk slowly, and stop every now and then to turn around and emote frantically for a moment, before they resume walking their scripted path. They will do this regardless of whether or not there is any reason whatsoever for them to think someone might be following them, and even if they look straight at Yagami, he can walk out of line of sight to almost instantly relieve all suspicion. I once tailed someone down an escalator. Before I got to the bottom, they turned around and spotted me, and I had to turn around and go the wrong way up the escalator to hide. Apparently that wasn’t suspicious enough for Yagami to get caught, but it probably was the most fun I ever had in a tailing mission simply because it was so ridiculous. But for the most part, tailing is neither challenging nor engaging, it is merely time consuming, to the tune of 3 to 5 minutes per instance, and they pop up a lot throughout both the main story and side cases. Sometimes they even happen more than once in a single mission, or back to back across several, and I rolled my eyes every time yet another tailing mission was introduced.
It was a bit more fun when Yagami had to get a photograph that met certain criteria for a case. He could do this both on foot with the camera in his phone, or in the air with a drone. In either case, snapping the right photo from the right distance at the right moment was entertaining, if not overly challenging. I would have liked to see this mechanic used just a bit more throughout the game.
Chasing enemies down can also be fun. These scenes play out like an auto-runner, so the player just has to worry about moving left and right, and pressing context sensitive buttons to jump over or move around obstacles. There’s a particular series of such chases in a chain of side cases that’s amusing to say the least, but I don’t want to spoil it for you.
So there is definitely fun to be had in Judgment. The main story is well told, and gets particularly good in the later chapters, and there is plenty of content to justify a full-price purchase. Beyond the lengthy main story there are 50 side cases and 50 potential friends to make in Kamurocho, not to mention all of the minigames and distractions. But it definitely is a Yakuza game, no doubt about it, so if you’re like me, and you’ve played them all before, there is absolutely some potential for series burnout with this one. On the other hand, if you’re a super fan, you’ll feel right at home here, and if you’ve never played a Yakuza game before, go ahead an increase the score at the bottom of this review by a point or two, because as a fresh experience, Judgment really does have a lot to offer! It’s only in the shadow of the Yakuza series that it feels mediocre rather than revolutionary. Nevertheless, it’s always great to see a studio trying new things. I hope Ryu ga Gotoku Studio continues to innovate, and I look forward to their next title!
Ari finished Judgment in 50 hours having completed most of the optional content. He received a copy of the game for review purposes from SEGA.
Available on: PlayStation 4
Version Reviewed: PlayStation 4 (Pro)