You can hardly fault a developer for wanting to try something new. After developing several games in the mainline Yakuza series, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio decided to try something different in the Yakuza sandbox by developing a detective game: Judgment! Many long-time fans loved the shift in genre and tone with this title on the PS4, and now Judgment has been re-released on the PS5 with upgraded visuals, loading times, and other extras. Is the upgrade worth it if you already own the original?
A minor subsidiary of the Tojo Clan is in crisis! Takayuki Yagami, a former defense attorney and current private detective, has been hired to help clear the clan’s captain, Hamura, of a murder charge. Yagami’s investigation will take him far beyond the world of Yakuza into the equally shady realms of government, law enforcement, and medical research. What he discovers will challenge his reasons for leaving the legal profession, put his closest friends in danger, and may even change the future of Kamurocho forever!
Kamurocho is one of my all-time favorite video game locations. After seeing it through the eyes of the Yakuza countless times, walking the streets in Yagami’s shoes gives it an entirely different feel. Well-known hangouts like New Serena, Stardust, and Purgatory aren’t accessible, but new ones like the Genda Law Office, Yagami Detective Agency, and the Matsugane Family Office are. Kamurocho has always felt like a living place (and technically is, as it’s closely based on the real-life redlight district of Kabukicho), and seeing this new side to the city only deepens that impression.
Judgment is structured into chapters just like Yakuza, yet it feels much more episodic. This sense is underlined by a “Last Time on Judgment” recap at the beginning of each chapter. If each Yakuza game was a gangster film, Judgment would be a prestige crime miniseries (with a very film noir-esque VO from Yagami). There is much less over-the-top melodrama and more grounded plots and character interactions. The game also has an incredible supporting cast. Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio resisted the urge to include their most popular characters to launch this new franchise, instead populating Kamurocho with intriguing newcomers such as Kaito, Yagami’s former Tojo Clan partner at the detective agency, and Hamura, a gangster with more shades of gray than the average Yakuza villain.
One of the most significant innovations that Judgment brings is that it’s the first in the series to feature an English voiceover since the original Yakuza on the PS2 in 2006. Thankfully, unlike Yakuza’s unintentionally hilarious VO, Judgment’s English dub is exceptional. For those who prefer the original Japanese VO with subtitles (such as myself), you can switch back and forth at any time. I stuck with Japanese my first time playing the game on PS4, but went with English for this playthrough. I must admit it’s tough to pick which is my favorite. Both voice casts do an incredible job with their characters, so you really can’t go wrong either way. I do have my favorites in both casts (Saori in Japanese, Kaito in English), but everyone brings their A-game.
The character of Yagami is a wonderful change of pace from past protagonists we’ve become familiar with. For one thing, unlike Kazuma Kiryu, Yagami isn’t a complete technophobe. His use of technology, including flying his beloved drone and using Bluetooth earpieces for communication, sets him apart from the more old-school Yakuza protagonists. He also lacks the air of invulnerability that Kiryu commands. In his games, the Dragon of Dojima could be tortured, beaten, stabbed, shot, and still get up for more. Despite still being a formidable fighter, Yagami feels much more human and less like an invincible Yakuza-God-Paladin, making for a much more accessible protagonist!
I love that they brought back the multiple combat styles dropped from recent Yakuza entries. The variety in switching styles on the fly depending on the situation makes combat much more dynamic. You have Crane Style, designed for crowd control, and Tiger Style, designed for one-on-one brawls. With tons of upgrades that give you access to powerful moves called EX Actions, you can spend hours mastering both styles. Unfortunately, many of Yagami’s EX Actions are recycled animations of Kiryu’s Heat Moves from previous games. Given how different he and Kiryu are as fighters, I wish that all of Yagami’s finishers were unique to himself and his combat approach.
Though most of the game relies on the classic Yakuza style of gameplay, they periodically change it up with sections in the courtroom. These could charitably be described as “Ace Attorney-lite.” Even the music in these sections is reminiscent of AA! Much like in the ubiquitous legal series, you need to present evidence to turnabout the case and prove that witnesses on the stand are lying. However, there are very few courtroom sections that actually require logical deductions. I wish that the game spent as much time in the courtroom as the streets because that could help cement its identity. As is, the courtroom sections unfortunately feel a little under-baked.
As with any Yakuza game, it’s incredibly easy to get taken off the critical path by substories and other diversions. As Yagami owns a detective agency, you can accept side cases that range from taking photos of a cheater in front of a love hotel to chasing down a perverted groper by the name of Ass Catchem. In the grand Yakuza tradition, some of these cases are cringe-worthy and full of “attempts” to be progressive. Points for trying, but the series still has a long way to go to effectively address sensitive topics like sexual harassment (see: Ass Catchum).
If you had any doubt that Yakuza was in Judgment’s DNA, the mind-boggling number of minigames and substories should put you at ease. Though it’s missing classic minigames like karaoke, fishing, and bowling, you can still indulge in playing video games at the arcade (my favorite is Kamuro of the Dead), hitting a few balls at the batting center, and even gambling at a casino. Judgment also brings some new pastimes to the table, the two most prominent being Drone Racing and Paradise VR.
The first puts your skills to the test as you zoom around Kamurocho, trying to prove yourself in the high-flying world of drone racing. Just like Pocket Circuit in Yakuza 0 and Kiwami, you can collect parts to customize your drone to improve speed, maneuverability, and durability. I found this minigame to be a delight, and it was great to see Kamurocho from a very different angle.
The other big minigame, Paradise VR, is a massive board game that fills the same role as the Coliseum in past games. While spending time in VR is a great way to earn some money and equipment, I found that it lacked the same fun as battling in the Coliseum to refine your combat skills. The interface is also a complete mess, making it way too easy to get turned around and lose which way you are heading on the “board.” More than once, I confidently rolled and went one direction on the board, only to land on a space that I REALLY didn’t want.
Though the upgrades to the PS5 release seem subtle, they made a significant overall impact on me. The framerate is much smoother (now 60 FPS), the lighting is more dynamic, and Yagami himself is more expressive than ever with a new face model (but thankfully, the same actor). Though Judgment uses the same Dragon Engine and many of the same locations as Yakuza 6, Kiwami 2, and Like a Dragon, subtle differences give the game its own visual style. Changes to the lighting have given Kamurocho a bluer, cooler appearance, better fitting the noir feel of the game.
Judgment is a successful spinoff from the Yakuza series that simply demands a follow-up. If Yakuza: Like a Dragon is pulling the main series towards turn-based combat, then Judgment would be an excellent place to continue exploring its real-time brawler roots. If you’re looking for a next-gen title that will deliver much more than just pretty visuals, it’s well worth a purchase on the PS5! If, however, you already own the title on the PS4, your money is likely better spent on other games (You HAVE played Yakuza: Like a Dragon, right?)