In the Japanese criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: The detectives who investigate crime, and the lawyers who prosecute the offenders.
Actually, in this case it is just one man.
This is his story _DUN DUN_
The Yakuza series is a mainstay of the PlayStation library. The first title was released in Japan way back in 2005 for the PlayStation 2. Since that time a total of 8 main-line games and 3 spin-off titles made by Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio have been released outside of Japan with even more spin-off games available in Japan only. Initially the series could only be found on the PlayStation console family but now all of the titles can be found on Xbox/Windows as well.
There is a lot of convoluted history and backstory in the main Yakuza series, and with even the ‘shortest’ game in the series typically taking 20+ hours for a first playthrough. It can be a bit daunting for new players to just jump in to a Yakuza game. However, the spin-offs and Judgement in particular, are the perfect opportunity to get a feel for the setting, gameplay and storytelling that the made the Yakuza games so popular.
Judgement does not have any characters returning from the main series and I believe this helps the game come across as fresh and allows it to maintain an individual identity despite the setting itself being very familiar. It also allows newcomers to fully enjoy the game without needing to play through 200+ hours of previous Yakuza games. So, what is Judgement actually about?
Judgement is set in the Yakuza series’ staple fictional district of Kamurocho in Tokyo, Japan. Kamurocho doesn’t actually exist, but is based on the real-world red-light district of Kabukicho. Here we take the role of lawyer-come-private-detective Takayuki Yagami, using his full skillset from both occupations to solve a serial murder case involving the warring Yakuza clans that reside in Kamurocho. Early on in Judgement we are presented with Yagami’s tragic backstory that explains his decision to leave the uptight legal profession and become a cool, leather jacket-wearing private detective.
After the prologue we get started with Yagami taking on the investigation of a death in the ranks of Kamurocho’s Yakuza. This is the third Yakuza death with a heinous modus operandi involving removal of the eyes with an ice pick. Initially, Yagami is hired by the Tojo Clan to find evidence to exonerate a clan Captain of the latest murder. Through his investigations, Yagami discovers something much more sinister at play. The plot is well written and involves some twists and turns that do surprise, but without ever feeling forced or ‘unrealistic’ – as was sometimes the case in the mainline Yakuza series. It is difficult to go into much detail without spoiling the story (which I won’t do here), but at times it does feel like you are playing through an episode of Law and Order. Except in Japan…with an ex-yakuza sidekick…and parkour street fights.
Yagami is assisted by a varied cast of unique characters including his ex-Yakuza sidekick Kaito, a crooked cop and the team from his former Legal firm. All of the main cast are extremely well-written and fleshed out with backstories that are drip fed to the player throughout the game. Yagami and Kaito in particular are very likable characters who have some great quality banter. Despite being a serious game with a serious plot there is plenty of humour here as well.
The Yakuza series is known for its hard-hitting beat ’em up battle systems, and Judgement is no different. Combat is most definitely a strength of this game with Yagami having mastered two different fighting styles – the Crane style that is focussed on crowd control, and the Tiger style which is best suited for combat mano-e-mano. As usual there is no end to the number of environmental objects that can be used to your advantage, from traffic cones and trash cans to shop signs and bicycles – anything you can pick up can be smashed into your opponent’s face. Yagami is much more agile and athletic than Kiryu (the protagonist of the 6 main Yakuza games) and this allows for a fighting move-set that utilises parkour-style actions such as wall running before flinging yourself towards an opponent with a back flipping axe kick. Also returning are the ‘EX‘ finishing moves that cause devastating damage and look absolutely brutal.
Personally, I played through the game on ‘Normal’ mode and did find throughout the game that the majority of fights were a little on the easy side. With the various support items available and the ability to pause the game and use them anytime it is difficult to get a ‘game over’, and even if you do the game is very generous in allowing you to retry the fight immediately. Still, the combat looks great, feels great, and doesn’t get boring as you keep unlocking new moves and actions as you gain experience.
Judgement continues the trend of what Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio has become known for with the Yakuza series: content, side quests, mini games and LOTS of them. Alongside the usual mini-game culprits in the SEGA arcade games, baseball batting cage, darts, casino games, shogi and Mahjong; Judgement provides some a couple of new flavours in 3D Drone Racing and a virtual board game. You can spend many hours getting distracted from Yagami’s quest (just like I got distracted from completing my play-through for this review) because there is so much to do here and it is all well made and fun to play.
The SEGA arcade options this time include the full arcade ports of: Fighting Vipers, Viruta Fighter 5 – Final Showdown, Puyo Puyo, Fantasy Zone, Space Harrier, Motor Raid, and ‘Kamuro of the Dead’ which is a shooting game similar to House of the Dead.
Judgement definitely has that feeling of ‘just one more side-quest’, ‘I need to go out on one more date with Sana-Chan’, or ‘damn it I’m not turning this off until I win that last item out of the crane game’.
There are some elements to Judgement’s gameplay that are new to the series, though to me these are some of the weaker parts of the game. The majority of these are introduced early, but do not really evolve as you play through the game. First up is a ‘search mode’ where you are presented with either a crime scene or a still photo and need to find clues to progress your investigation by zooming in and highlighting the clue – not particularly exciting or engaging. There is an extension of this mode where you need to sneakily photo a suspect in a compromising position but still not really a section of the game you can look forward to.
Secondly there is a ‘tailing mode’ where Yagami must follow a suspect or person of interest through the streets of Kamurocho without being identified. This fares a little better than the search mode, but often just feels like the game is being slowed down or padded out. That being said, it can get your heart racing if you lose your mark and need to quickly locate them again.
Finally there is the ‘chase mode’ where Yagami must chase a person (or object) though the streets of Kamurocho. This is much more frantic than the other new modes, but really it is only a glorified quick-time-event button-press-a-thon.
Overall, the new modes do strengthen the feel of Yagami being a private detective, but there is no real challenge or even an ability to fail these sections. I do appreciate that the developers tried something a bit different, and there is certainly scope here to build on these for future games.
Anyone familiar with the recent Yakuza games will know what they are in for here. The ‘Dragon’ engine previously used for Yakuza 6 returns here and brings the bustling streets of Kamurocho to life. Kamurocho is designed in gorgeous detail and you can see the effort that has been put in to every aspect of the buildings, streets and neon signs of this red-light district. From the bright lights of the SEGA arcade to the gritty alley-way behind a dodgy bar, Kamurocho looks as good here as it ever has before. It really feels like you are walking the streets of busy Tokyo.
The people you meet on your quest are also drawn with extremely life-like qualities. For me, other than Naughty Dog I think the team at Ryu Ga Gotoku had some of the best facial animations that could be found on the PS4, and these have been further enhanced to beautiful 4K60FPS visuals on the PS5.
Combat also puts the PS5 to the test with various objects and particle effects flying around. Despite this I never encountered any observable issues with frame rate dips. Throughout my time with Judgement there were never any obvious issues with the visuals that dragged me out of the experience. My only minor quip was the colour choices for some of the mini-map tracking that I found difficult to see clearly (I am partially colour blind) but it definitely wasn’t a game-breaking issue. Being an upgraded PS4 game this isn’t going to be the best looking game available for next-gen, but it is certainly no slouch.
One of my favourite parts of Judgement is the original Japanese voice acting. It is stellar. Yes, you can play the game with English voice acting if you wish, and it is serviceable, but it just doesn’t bring the same gravitas. If you are playing a Yakuza game with English voice acting, just like with anime, you are doing it wrong. Personally for me the Japanese is the best option from the perspective of audio-visual engagement – because the character animations are synced up with the Japanese audio and it can look very weird with the English turned on.
Elsewhere, the ambient sounds of Kamurocho help bring the town to life. Traffic, the murmur of people as you walk past and the cacophony of noise emerging from Pachinko parlours really make you feel like you are in Tokyo. The sound effects in combat work to pass on the severe impact when you strike your opponents (and when you are struck yourself).
The soundtrack and background music are never in your face, but help to build the tension of Yagami’s investigation and the developing story. At other times the subtle melancholic and noir-esque jazz tracks can help you relax and enjoy the city when you are not rushing to complete story based tasks.
Judgement is yet another killer entry into the Yakuza series, but it can be enjoyed alone without any prior experience required. The cast of characters are well-written and more importantly the Japanese voice acting is top-notch. The story draws you in with intrigue and never feels predictable or cliché.
Playing only the main story quests will still give you a good 20+ hour experience, but with everything you can do here there is well over 80 hours of gameplay. The amount of side content and mini-games mean there is really about five different games’ worth of entertainment here. I must have spent at least 3 hours alone playing Fantasy Zone in the SEGA arcade. If you are looking for ‘value for money’, this is a game for you.
What started in the west as a very niche Action/Adventure/Beat-em-up PS2 title has grown into a triple A series that is now moving into different genres (the RPG insanity of Like A Dragon). Judgement is not only a great place to start for new people wanting to dip a toe into the franchise, but it is an excellent standalone game that has been upgraded to take advantage of the power of the PS5. It is still worth a play on the PS4 if you aren’t one of the 5 people that own a PS5, and if you are eventually lucky enough to find one you can take advantage of the PS5 upgrade for free.
In the 24 hours before completion of this review, the news broke that the sequel to Judgement is coming VERY soon. ‘Lost Judgement‘ will release internationally on 24 September 2021. I can’t wait.
So, why should you play it?
You are already a fan of the Yakuza series and want to experience more of the dark underworld of Kamurocho.
You love anything Japan.
As a lawyer/detective you have always wanted to knee a Yakuza in the face.
You enjoy procrastinating from the task at hand with darts, Drone racing or classic Sega Arcade games.
But, why shouldn’t you play it?
Gratuitous violence isn’t really your thing.
You prefer a more linear streamlined experience with no distractions.
A review code on PlayStation 5 was provided for the purpose of this review.
Leigh 'SirLemsip' Zemski
Leigh is a game reviewer and columnist from Melbourne. His favourite genres are JRPGs, rhythm games, third person action games and old-school shoot 'em ups. You can read more of his reviews and retrospective articles at qualbert.com