Editors Note: This review was made possible thanks to an advanced copy of the game provided by the publisher.
When I reviewed Yakuza 6 last year, I honestly wasn’t expecting to return to the district of Kamurocho anytime soon for future stories. But Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio had other ideas, specifically of doing a spin-off story with a brand new cast of characters. Hence, Judgment, a noir-detective thriller that also happens to have a protagonist who can beat people unconscious with bicycles.
Going Over The Leads
The protagonist this time around is Takayuki Yagami. An ex-lawyer turned detective who has cigarettes to smoke, a tragic backstory to occasionally brood over, and a big case to solve. A serial killer is loose in Kamurocho and their latest victims have stirred up the criminal underworld. As Yagami gets more involved, a small conspiracy begins to unravel involving warring crime families and corrupt cops that continue to threaten him and his small group of allies. With other elements complicating things further such as a no nonsense forensics officer, prying journalist, and a gang of young masked parkour-ing troublemakers complicating things further.
In other words, despite this being a thematic spin-off, Judgment is still a crime thriller in the vein of the main Yakuza games. Maintaining the series’ strong emphasis on character dynamics and plot progression peppered with its signature action and pacing.
This also extends to the overall structure and formula of the game. Simply put, if you’ve played any prior installment in this series, despite the change in the name you will feel right at home here. The district of Kamurocho is still yours to explore at your leisure. The map is still packed with side activities like rescuing stray cats or playing full versions of classic Sega arcade games – Yagami’s office even has a fully playable pinball machine in it, and there are Friendship Side Missions where you help people out with their everyday problems.
But the devil is in the details, and there are ways that Judgment has its own distinct personality. In addition to the whole thing having its own visual identity with moody shades of blue and vibrant color palette, this version of Kamurocho might just be the most lived-in and authentic it’s ever been, there are many ways the game emphasizes Yagami as a less brutish protagonist. His attacks are a lot more focused on kicks and acrobatics, putting an emphasis on wall-running and sweeping strikes as opposed to Kiryu’s straightforward street fighting. Boss battles are made more nasty by the introduction of severe damage which damages Yagami’s maximum health, with medkits being the only way to heal. Plus, Yagami’s personality is far more sardonic and embittered compared to the taciturn gangster, which does let him express more broad emotions and play off of the supporting cast in more dynamic ways than stoic stares and confrontational grunts.
Reviewing The Evidence
But the biggest areas where Judgment really charts its own path is in when it emphasizes Yagami’s detective work. There are entire sections dedicated to prolonged stealth sections where you infiltrate shady locations in disguise and tail suspects. Examination puzzles where you return to crime scenes in order to find clues and people of interest. You even question key witnesses for information with some basic dialogue options. And when things do escalate into unexpected action, there are extremely energetic chase sequences where Yagami hounds the person he’s after across the city complete with quick-time events and on-rails running.
While these elements aren’t exactly in-depth, the dialogue stuff is mostly just making sure you’re paying attention, it’s the presentation that keeps everything compelling. There was a chase sequence early on where Yagami is running away from some thugs, and while the actual gameplay amounted to some basic quick-time events, but he was frantically holding on for dear life on the back of a car, using a skateboard to flip and roll his away from his gun-wielding assailants. It was like someone took the skateboard escape sequence from Back to the Future and added a big scoop of anime action cheesiness into it.
The effect is a subtle but immeasurably refreshing change in tone. Yagami can’t just kick down a door and beat everyone down until they tell him what he wants since doing so would lead to more problems, and makes each chapter of the story feel focused on the hero’s next obstacle. Or more specifically how the goal posts keep changing as new information re-contextualizes what he thought he knew.
In fact, my only real complaint about these gameplay additions is that I wish there was just a bit more to them. The tailing and stealth sections are very basic bits of tedium that don’t really advance past following when your target is moving, then hiding when they take five seconds to turn around. Also despite all of the investigation sequences, clue-hunting, and interrogating that you do in the main plot, the detective work still unravels at the power of plot. If you were expecting something akin to LA Noire where you can piece things together yourself, you will be disappointed. There are also moments where you can feel the Yakuza formula intrude on this game and it can make things feel jarring. In addition to Yagami whipping out certain finishing attacks and improvised weapon attacks that are blatant copy and pastes from Kiryu, there are a few sequences where the plot basically stops dead to try to get you to mess around in the overworld. It is entertaining to see Yagami participate in drone races or try his hand at a crane game in his downtime, but it’s a little weird to see him do it in the middle of a massive murder mystery because he’s literally waiting for a phone call to continue the plot.
Yet it is because of these additions that Judgment manages to feel like its own separate entity from the rest of the franchise. The detective work practically demands you pay more attention to the mystery as it unfolds, adding to the immersion. The changed perspective of a crime-fighter trying to bring justice to a place as mired in the criminal underworld as Kamurocho adds some wrinkles and texture that was lacking before. And it’s clear that this change has been utterly freeing for the narrative since it doesn’t have to lean on certain tropes anymore, even if some of those are exchanged for some rote hard-boiled detective cliches.
Whenever it’s fully embracing its detective murder mystery identity, Judgment is a fantastic gritty action experience that takes Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios’ formula into a refreshing new direction. The characters are likeable, the central mystery is intriguing, and even when it leans back on its own established formula, the gameplay remains satisfying and fun. If you’ve ever been interested in these types of games, this is a great place to start.