Last year, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio head Toshiro Nagoshi claimed that Judgment’s gameplay and story was going to be ‘drastically different’ to Yakuza. Here are three pairings that are drastically different from one another: an energy-saving light bulb and the Spice Girls, Loyd Grossman’s thai green curry and a filing cabinet, a trainee barista and a bottle of Domestos. Your enjoyment of Judgment can be summed up in the answer to one simple question: do you like the Yakuza games? If you answered ‘yes, I do like the Yakuza games,’ then you’ll most certainly enjoy Judgment, because it is far from ‘drastically different.’

This isn’t just for those that played catch up with Kazuma Kiryu after Yakuza 0, though. Judgment is for those of you that watched from afar, curious and captivated by the ridiculousness, but cautious of an already established franchise. Yes, the similarities are plentiful, and a shift in certain areas would have been appealing, but Judgment tells its own wonderful story that doesn’t require a Bachelor's degree in developer Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio’s past.

In the Tokyo district of Kamurocho, over the course of four months, three Kyorei Clan yakuza have been brutally murdered. It’s initially believed that these killings are a result of a turf war with the Tojo Clan, but disgraced lawyer-cum-detective Takayuki Yagami isn’t convinced. Each victim has had their eyes gouged out, so as far as he’s concerned it’s clear there’s a serial killer on the loose, knocking off members of the Kyorei Clan, and he’s hellbent on finding out why. It’s a juicy murder mystery that’s laced with thrilling moments, and it makes you question who you can trust right up until the conclusion. There’s more than enough twists and turns to keep you engaged throughout.

As deliciously and reassuringly melodramatic as Judgment is, one reason its story is so successful is the contorted, yet valiant, goal of the antagonists. There are few true villains in Judgment; instead, there are people with the best intentions that have been lead astray. Cogs in the machine have begun to turn a blind eye to corruption, because they’re being told the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the insignificant. It’s a spicy moral dilemma meatball. Obviously there are some bastards sprinkled in, too, and yeah, they’re just bastards. Well-voiced bastards, it must be said.

If I was playing Judgment for fun rather than work, I’d probably have opted for the Japanese VO track. I’d become accustomed to playing Yakuza that way, so I was more than sceptical when I found out Judgment had English-speaking voice actors. It just felt wrong. Although, after 50+ hours of listening to Hamura’s snarl, Shono’s wobble, and Saori’s aloofness, I can’t imagine playing it any other way. Even when it all gets a bit soap opera-y, the fiction believes the delivery is true. Every emotional yelp, each indulgent monologue, and all silly interactions are authentic, because everyone in this world has confidence in what’s coming out of their mouths.

English VO work isn’t the only thing that sets Judgment apart from its sister series. Yagami is a detective, rather than a yakuza, so he can occasionally get to the bottom of issues without using his fists. Often, missions (delightfully referred to as ‘cases’) will incorporate a few aspects that refreshingly diversify play. Chase sequences – as seen in some Yakuza games on PS3 –  see you leg it down the street after someone (or something, like a toupée … yep), following on-screen button prompts. They’re a nice breather due to their infrequency. Likewise, the first person search mode breaks the action up by having you scour an area for items and persons of interest. And the two variations of lock picking are surprisingly satisfying. There’s also a conversation system wherein you have a number of dialogue options, and if you make the right choice, you’ll get an SP bonus. All in all, mostly pleasant activities that serve their purpose. The tailing missions, not so much. 

I get that stealthily pursuing a suspect from a distance is something a private investigator would be called to do from time to time, but it’s rarely fun in video games, and Judgment is no different. Hugging a street sign or car bumper, while you wait for your mark’s suspicion bar to go back to zero, is terribly boring. The target’s rigid path means there’s little for you to do but follow the orders of the game by hiding in the highlighted areas, and just wait for it to be over so you can get back to the bits that don’t completely kill momentum, like the many terrific side quests.

Judgment’s optional missions are split into three categories: Side Cases, Friends and Girlfriends. Side Cases, as the name suggests, are paying jobs that Yagami picks up from the general public; Friends are people that are dotted about the city, looking for you to fix what ails them; and Girlfriends are a small group of love interests that Yagami can date. As you progress, you’ll see all three intertwining – a solved Side Case resulting in a new pal, say, or a Friend showing up while you’re on a date. This gives more weight to these substories, as well as the characters within, and makes the world feel more alive.

Like Yakuza, the theatre in the main story is beautifully offset by the absurdity here. There’s a haunted flat that a couple want you to look into, a chance to dress up like a vampire, a cringey celebration of a steakhouse owner, and a lot more on top. When Judgment applauds the wackiness in humanity, it’s an absolute joy. When it zeroes in on sleaze, it’s not.

Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio is so good at being a bit cheeky. That bawdy comedy that was popular here in the ‘60s and ‘70s is utilised so well in the Japanese developer’s games… for the most part. It does get uncomfortable when sauciness becomes sleaze. Like the Yakuza games, I’m aware that certain things won’t translate to a Western audience, and that’s fine. Part of the studio’s allure is that what they make likely wouldn’t work in the hands of a European or American developer. But there are a couple of lingering camera pans over characters, as well as some choice lines of dialogue, that feel troublesome. It’s clear the team has the ability to show restraint, so it’s a real shame when they opt to lean in on creepiness.

Also disappointing are the new mini-games. If you’re familiar with the Sega studio’s back catalogue, you’ll be happy to see returning distractions, like baseball, darts, poker, mahjong, and arcade games. And it must be said, hitting a home run or getting a nine-darter is as satisfying as it ever has been. It also means the mediocrity of Dice & Cube and drone races is more pronounced when other, better activities are vying for your attention. So, Dice & Cube is a weird board game filled with fistfights and lock-picking, and is both completely average and, thankfully, mostly ignorable. Drone races see you and a group of others fly your awkward little robots along dull, makeshift tracks overtop Kamurocho, and these, too,  can mercifully be disregarded for other fun exercises, like punching and kicking.

Takayuki Yagami has two fighting styles: Tiger and Crane. Crane incorporates wide, sweeping kicks that are better utilised against a group of thugs; while Tiger’s more concentrated punches are what’s recommended in a one-on-one situation. Yes, the combat is really like Yakuza, but little changes, like the ability to perform moves off of walls, make enemy encounters feel more fluid than Yakuza 6. There are few things more satisfying than launching yourself off a shop window and driving your boot into the face of an unsuspecting goon.

Judgment isn’t ‘drastically different’ from Yakuza. It’s set in the bustling Kamurocho, features a story that’s loaded with intrigue, and grunts that drop iron plates when they fall. I can’t help but feel like a trick was missed by not going further with the fact that Takayuki Yagami is a detective; the game seldom trusts that you’ll be able to piece together the clues of a case, and insists on you following a waypoint instead of using your brain. With that said, the things that set Yagami apart are more hit than miss: the English VO track is sublime; most of the investigative wrinkles are pleasant; and this story is his, not Kazuma Kiryu’s.

Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio

Publisher: Sega

Available on: PlayStation 4

Release Date: June 25, 2019

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