There’s no denying the explosion of popularity the Yakuza series has experienced since Yakuza Zero’s Western release in 2017. I’m not ashamed to admit that my first foray into the series wasn’t until halfway through last year, but I quickly breezed through all the titles available on PlayStation 4. While HD remasters of older games like Yakuza 3, 4 and 5 are coming to the PS4, Ryu ga Gotoku Studio has been hard at work on a spin-off set in the same universe titled Judgment. It’s an inherently different view of Yakuza’s world concept, with a thrilling mystery to unravel as a small-time detective in a crime-ridden Kamurocho.
Set in current-day Japan, Judgment follows Takayuki Yagami, a former lawyer turned detective in Kamurocho as he delves deep into Tokyo’s criminal underbelly following a series of grisly murders that are more than meets the eye. I won’t delve much deeper into the plot than that because it’s undoubtedly the strongest aspect of the game; it twists and turns in so many unexpected ways, and never fully divulges its answers until the finale. It’s a thoroughly engaging crime-drama romp with meaningful character arcs that all come full circle by the end. It’s hard not to admire Tak’s firm determination to find the truth, or his right-hand man Kaito’s clumsy but loyal demeanour. It’s one of the best stories that Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio has told so far, which says a lot considering the Yakuza series’ pedigree.
Judgment’s gameplay is somewhat of a mixed bag. Its core loop revolves around combat and investigation. Yagami has two combat styles he can switch between: the Crane style, built for large groups of enemies, and the Tiger style, which is more focused on single-target altercations. While there’s plenty of unlocks and numerous contextual actions that you can trigger by building up Heat as you fight, there’s a sense of repetition and shallowness that sets in after a few hours with it. Much like Yakuza Kiwami 2, Judgment opts for style over substance, and while you can do some cool-looking stuff, there isn’t much room for player expression and experimentation within the confines of its mechanics.
The investigation aspect, meanwhile, is a bit more fleshed out, but some parts of it are far better than others. Inspecting crime scenes for clues is as enjoyable as it sounds, and chase sequences are short-lived but fun while they last. There are also a few sections where you investigate using a remote-controlled drone outfitted with cameras, which is much more interesting than it sounds when you’re looking for an objective through the use of different angles and vertical navigation, but Judgment struggles mightily when it comes to its tailing missions; they’re few and far between, but they’re needlessly frustrating and drawn out. The mechanics never feel like they work like they’re supposed to and the missions are always a chore to get through.
Much like the Yakuza games, Judgment’s open world is a perfect example of the old adage that less is more. Each corner of Kamurocho is packed with mini-games, side-cases, places to eat, shops to browse and goons to fight. There’s enough content here to keep you busy for hours, and while most of it is throwaway fun, the more substantial stuff is well worth exploring. Much like Yakuza’s sub-stories, Judgment has a plethora of interesting side-content where you’ll take on cases for Kamurocho’s general populace. The vast majority of the cases I chose to tackle – whether they were as trivial as hunting down a missing pet or as dangerous as finding bombs planted in high-traffic lanes throughout the city – were engaging and made the more pointless missions well worth playing through.
From a technological standpoint, Judgment also left me with mixed opinions. On the one hand, the game looks stunning. The facial details and character models are nothing short of gorgeous and stand as an example as to why Ryu ga Gotoku Studio is the best in the business when it comes to this stuff. That’s not to say there isn’t a trad-eoff, however, because Judgment only runs at 30 frames per second with the occasional drop here and there. It might not be a deal-breaker for some, but others will see it as a tradeoff they don’t want to make.
If it seems like I’ve wailed on Judgment quite a bit throughout this review, that’s because I have. There’s an undeniable mediocrity to some of its parts, but a degree of excellence to others. It sports an enthralling crime thriller narrative that’s guaranteed to keep you engaged for its near 20-hour run-time, despite its somewhat repetitive and shallow gameplay loop. It doesn’t quite reach the bar that Yakuza Zero set back in 2017, but it doesn’t need to. Judgment separates itself with unique strengths and weaknesses not found in most of the core Yakuza games. If you’re interested in what Judgment has to offer, I implore you to give it a go.
Judgment is a far cry from what came before it in many ways, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It brings a fresh focus to the crime melodrama from a different perspective on the Kamurocho fans have come to know and love over the years. It might suffer from some repetitive and shallow gameplay, but that doesn’t stop it from being a game worth experiencing if you like the franchise from which it hails.
Harry reviewed Judgment using a PlayStation 4 code purchased at retail.