Review: Judgment (PS4)

A Different Set of Eyes

When something makes money, making more titles available to their audience only makes sense. Since Sega has been remaking and adding new entries to Kazuma Kiryu’s story for modern consoles, players (including myself) were happy to see his gritty journey from low-ranking yakuza to makeshift father figure come to fruition midway through 2018. Needless to say, the glut of these releases and my exposure to them have made me a fan of these games as well.

However, developer Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios (along with Sega) has seen fit to expand the Yakuza universe with a different protagonist roaming the streets of Kamurocho with his own life to lead, and the gameplay elements this man brings to the table will come with him. Published by Sega, Judgment comes to the West as a PS4 exclusive at the standard price point of $59.99.

Turnabout Mysteries

The story for new protagonist Takayuki Yagami opens with a bit of backstory before a three year time skip. Yagami (often referred to as Tak by his peers) is a defense attorney at the Genda Law Firm who has built up quite a name for himself over the years. Not only did he overcome a slew of obstacles to get into his field, but was also able to prove the innocence of a man named Shinpei Okubo, despite criminal courts pretty much always convicting their defendants. However, this comes crashing down on Yagami when Okubo decides to murder his girlfriend in cold blood and set her apartment on fire. Naturally, this tarnishes his reputation pretty badly and he decides to leave the Genda Firm.

Cut to 2018, and Yagami has opened up a detective agency and made a partner out of ex-yakuza Masaharu Kaito. Initially, the both of them collect evidence and assist the Genda firm with proving the innocence of a yakuza named Kyohei Hamura of murder. Unsurprisingly, with this being a Yakuza game in all but name, things aren’t always what they seem to be, and a mysterious figure that goes by “The Mole” emerges onto the scene after a slew of murders emerge with the victims missing their eyes. Unsurprisingly, this is where the main focus of the game’s plot lies. Like any good mystery, things start to heat up and get more interesting the deeper Tak digs. Watching things unfold the way it does is quite the spectacle, though some story beats will seem familiar if you’ve played any previous Yakuza entry.

Keeping with the tradition in tone variation for this franchise, Judgment juggles a serious mystery plot with dashes of ridiculousness here and there for good measure. The main plot here is quite entertaining, if not a little exposition heavy at times. Regardless, I find Yagami to be a fine protagonist for this spinoff. He’s a confident, hard-boiled, sometimes overly serious private eye with a penchant for the dramatic himself. He isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty if the situation calls for it, but he’s also able to maintain a professional demeanor when he needs to. He’s no Kazuma Kiryu obviously, but he’s comfortable in his own skin given the backstory that unfolds for him and how he handles himself throughout the main story.

You’ll find that the side stories that you’re used to in previous games make a return here as well. Again, this is where the game gets to let loose a little in the best possible way. One such mission has you engage in a chase sequence for something you wouldn’t be expecting to chase, and it’s flat out silly. By now it’s standard for Yakuza games, but it’s always amusing to see what kind of ridiculous situations they can put their protagonist in. It deserves a good chuckle more often than not.

Seedy Sleuthing

While Judgement is a spinoff game for the franchise, it embraces a lot of familiar gameplay elements while also implementing elements new to the franchise to help set it apart from other entries. The familiar beats of traversing Kamurocho, beating up street punks while traversing the city (cops will show up if you take too long now), distracting yourself in multiple ways, and engaging in side stories all help the game feel like a warm blanket for longtime fans. Though considering that Yagami’s chosen profession isn’t attached to a yakuza hierarchy, the player gets the chance to engage in some sleuthy activities to advance the plot.

The most basic element of this would be the interrogation sequences. If you’ve ever played an Ace Attorney game, this will feel pretty familiar. During these cutscenes, you’re presented with a number of responses to choose from. You’ll be able to advance the plot despite the order you choose them, but choosing the right order will prove beneficial to you since you gain additional SP by doing so.

When the situation calls for it (which seems to be somewhat frequent), Yagami will tail the suspect in a number of situations. It feels somewhat similar to the car tailing segments from LA Noire, but on foot instead. The main aim here is to not arouse the suspicion from the suspect, so keeping a safe (but not too far) distance from them is key to victory here. If they do pick up that they’re being tailed, a bar will fill up that will trigger a fail if filled completely.

You can avoid this by taking cover on occasion behind numerous street objects for the most part, but the system is pretty forgiving despite this. There was a time where I was tailing a suspect and ran right in front of him, and it did not trigger an instant fail. Instead, I was able to retreat to cover and complete the segment with no issue.

Sometimes you’ll have to chase down your target in an on-rails sequence that’ll have you doing quick time events to dodge obstacles and people. There’s not much to it, really. Just move Yagami left and right at will and execute the QTEs to get past it. Not the most engaging, but it’s there and relatively entertaining.

There are times when you’ll get to investigate parts of a crime scene to scrounge up evidence. Oftentimes, you’ll just be using your own sleuthing skills to look around a crime scene or eavesdrop on unsuspecting schmucks. Other times, you’ll be taking pictures via your phone camera or your drone for places you can’t quite reach. Controlling the latter can be a bit awkward at first, but I was able to get the hang of it myself in a decent amount of time. You’ll also find yourself picking locks as well. The way they go about it can seem a bit obtuse at first, but it eventually clicked for me once I had a rhythm down pat. Yagami will also don various disguises when he needs to infiltrate a place that calls for a specific role, which is a neat change of pace from storming into a place and laying waste to everything in your path.

When it comes time for Yagami to throw down, it’s the familiar Yakuza gameplay you know and love but with a bit of an improvement. Instead of one simple style in past Dragon Engine games, you can choose between two fighting styles with the ability to swap at will like 0 and Kiwami. The Tiger style focuses more on strong attacks on single targets, while Crane style focuses more on balanced combat surrounded a group of punks.

Heat Actions make a return here as “EX Actions,” and they’re still just as intense to watch as before, and you can use all your gained EX to trigger a continuous EX barrage on your foes if you so desire. Some of these actions are ripped straight from previous games, so for people like myself that have played a few of these games, it can come off as a little distracting and a tiny bit lazy.

Like other Yakuza games, you’ll be able to expand your skillset by gaining what’s known as “SP” this time around. Honestly, it’s relatively easy to come by in this game. Much of it can be gained by playing the game naturally, but you’ll find that the numerous side activities that you can engage in will also net you this SP as well.

Many of the distractions seen in previous games make yet another return here as well. From hitting some dingers in the batting cages, playing old SEGA games (Fighting Vipers/Virtua Fighter 5:Final Showdown/Motor Raid/Fantasy Zone/etc.), gambling, and so on, there’s plenty to keep you busy if you choose to go that route. All the game’s arcade offerings perform just fine in controls and graphical accuracy, so no worries there if you find yourself sinking time in Sega’s arcade backlog.

The premier distraction here would definitely be the drone races. If I had to give it an equal from within the franchise, I’d definitely say that the slot car races from earlier Yakuza games would fit the bill here. You spend a decent amount of time here customizing your drone with various parts and models to get an edge on other players. However, the actual racing itself uses the control scheme from the investigation portion and plays out like an airborne kart racer of sorts without the power ups to go with it. You get boost rings and a turbo option, but that’s about it. Much like the slot car races I found myself obsessing over, I did the same with the drone races. It also helps that you have more control over that compared to what came before it.

Modern Day, Modern Aesthetics

Ryu Ga Gotoku elected to continue using the Dragon Engine for this release, and still shows that it’s a solid tool to use graphically. Considering that Yakuza 6 and Kiwami 2 have also used this engine to graphically pleasing results, it comes as no surprise that it was used here. Visually, it looks about as gorgeous as the aforementioned games, though the same framerate issues from those two games also rears its head here as well. While everything looks impressive and animation is fluid, some may be irked at the fact that the framerate doesn’t go any higher than 30 FPS. While I’m personally used to it, it also doesn’t seem to get in the way of gameplay anyway. Since there’s a variety of graphical styles due to the numerous Sega arcade games in the Club Sega locations strewn around Kamurocho, this might help some take the edge off.

One of the big things to note here is the return of an English dub in a Yakuza game, something not seen since the release of the original game back in 2005. For those worried that the English dub may not live up to the standards that the Japanese dub crew tends to put forth, fear not. The vast majority of story-related characters in this dub actually do the game justice, for the most part. I can feel confident that the cast took their roles seriously and delivered on a level that was appropriate for the script they were given.

However, there were some oddities that kind of threw me off. It seemed like the entire focus was mainly on the story cast. You can kind of tell the difference between the delivery of the main cast and some of the more minor characters in terms of quality. While the former cast gives a strong delivery, sometimes the latter doesn’t always land. Like when a foreigner character speaks to Yagami, it comes off more like an awkward Gedde Watanabe impression more than anything else. Not to mention the weird contrast of a Midwestern-sounding English voice actor playing a Japanese man that talks to a foreign far-eastern man that also sounds like your racist uncle’s worst impression of one. Even then, you’ll find Japanese dialogue from the “extras” of the game in much of the stores around Kamurocho.

Long Arm of the Law

In the end, Judgment acts like it wants to do its own thing with the franchise while also doing its best to respect what came before it. I don’t necessarily think that this is a bad thing, but sometimes it feels like they don’t feel very confident straying away from what works from previous entries. That’s not to say that it isn’t worth your time, though. Far from it.

Lately I have been finding myself singing the praises of the Yakuza games to my fellow peers, and some may have felt a little turned off by the franchise due to the localization efforts. Some may feel a little more comfortable with dipping their toes in as a result of the excellent English dub presented here. However, it’s also nice to see a spinoff of a franchise maintain the same quality of the games that came before it as well.

If you’re looking for a more accessible bar of entry to the Yakuza franchise, this is a strong entry with the studio stepping outside of its comfort zone a little bit. Thankfully, their experiment is a success.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review copy provided by Sega for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.