Those familiar with the Yakuza series are acquainted with Kamurocho — a living, breathing area of Tokyo, full of quirky characters and amusing side stories. After finishing the story of Kazuma Kiryu in Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, the team at Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio decided a return to Kamurocho was in order. So they created Judgment, a spin-off game set in the fictional red-light district which follows the exploits of a lawyer-turned-private investigator as he tries to track down a serial killer. How does Judgment stack up against the Yakuza titles? Fear not: the spirit of Kamurocho is still alive and well. Judgment is a worthy successor, even if it does introduce some new gameplay mechanics that ultimately feel repetitive and could use some fine-tuning.
Judgment opens after the main character, Takayuki Yagami (Tak), has just won his first court case defending an accused murderer. Unfortunately, the man he defended appears to kill his girlfriend a month later, and is thereafter arrested. Racked with guilt and disillusioned, Tak leaves the practice of law and becomes a private investigator. The story picks up three years later when he is tasked with gathering evidence to defend the local captain of a Yakuza clan, who has been charged with murder. At the same time, he must also uncover information about a serial killer who is targeting Yakuza from around the city.
Early on, the story is engaging and propulsive. There are some genuine surprises and tragedies, and Tak meets interesting, strange and corrupt characters along the way. The developers crafted a story that slowly unveils answers to various mysteries quite nicely, while revealing larger enigmas as the plot progresses. I felt like a real detective, slowly gathering evidence to draw the right conclusions. Then about halfway through the game, the story stalls. I figured out the answers to some of the mysteries much quicker than Tak did, including the identity of the serial killer chapters earlier than the rest of the cast. Maybe I’ve read too many detective novels, but it was frustrating to watch characters agonize over things that were obvious to me. They also spent too much time repeating the same information over and over again, making sure I understood what was happening. It feels like the developers ran out of story; the narrative, and Tak’s credibility as a detective, suffer as a result. I still enjoyed the story on the whole, but the writers would have been better served cutting a few chapters out of this lengthy game.
My frustration with the detective elements of the story extends to the new gameplay elements introduced in Judgment as well. At times, you must stealthily follow people around the city. Get too close and the target will notice you, but if you let them out of your sight for too long, you lose them. Other times, you go into a mode that is almost like a point and click game, where you have to move the camera around and find clues. There are also a number of dialogue scenes where you are asked to present the right evidence to prove your theory. There’s even a lock picking mini-game. Early on, these activities were a fun way to exercise my chops as a detective, but they seemed a little easy. I hoped that later in the game they would take off the training wheels, but they didn’t. After the tenth time, the tail missions felt excessively long and boring. The point and click elements were also frustrating; most times, I ended up waiting until I happened to hover over the right thing to click on. The most damning part of the detective work, though, is that none of it requires any thought. At most, I had to remember what someone said earlier, but other than that, the game put all the pieces together for me, sometimes ad nauseum. With some more development, these elements could work well, but as presented here, they’re half baked and annoying.
The gameplay doesn’t suffer at all with regard to combat, though. Just like the Yakuza titles, Judgment is a brawler at its core, and fighting feels smooth and intuitive. Similarly, the last couple of Yakuza entries have utilized a physics-based combat engine that has improved on the battle mechanics, and it’s been refined even further here. You have two different combat styles to choose from, one for groups and one for single enemies. Both styles have you string different types of hits together to create combos and attempt to block attacks in between. You can pick up weapons during battle as well, but you can’t hold on to them after the brawl is over. There’s also an EX Gauge that, when charged, allows you to enter a super-powered state, delivering quick blows that deal more damage; alternatively, you can use the charge to unleash QTE attacks, depending on the situation. Random street battles, clearing missions, and hitting in-game achievements grant you skill points, which you can use to add additional attacks to your arsenal or get other perks, like increased damage or making some of the mini-games easier. Needless to say, battles are a joy in Judgment. Even later in the game when random battles became even more frequent in Kamurocho, I never tired of the stylish and over-the-top combat.
The real draw of Judgment, though, is the return to Kamurocho, with its vibrant citizens and myriad side activities. The city feels alive. There are a variety of storefronts and people all over town. As you explore Kamurocho, you make friends who help by joining you in battle on the streets, offering additional items in shops, or even giving you a massage at your office. You can play a ton of different mini-games, including a virtual board game, drone races, or batting cages. Unlike the main narrative, the side quests are universally a delight. They range from the outrageous — like helping a teen icon chase down his wig (he would prefer it if you called it a hat) multiple times throughout the city as it flies away, or trying to nab a thief who steals panties with a drone — to the heartwarming, like finding a woman’s boyfriend only to discover he was trying to surprise her with a ridiculous date. Unfortunately, the repetitive gameplay found in the main story limits the effectiveness of the side content, but the well-told stories leaven the melodrama of the overarching narrative nicely. It’s also worth noting that the side stories are only voiced in Japanese; if you’re using the English dub, this might bother you, but I didn’t have a problem with it. I spent over 50 hours in Kamurocho, and according to the game, I only saw about 40% of the side content. There’s so much to do here, and almost all of it is worth your time.
The graphics not only help make Kamurocho come alive even further, but also make the rest of the game stronger as well. The motion capture they’ve used for the characters makes them wonderfully detailed, with expressive faces and natural movement. Everything looks great in motion, and the detail helps the town (and the game as a whole) come to life. Occasionally, there are some hitches with the graphics, notably some slowdown and lag as you transition to different scenes. It doesn’t happen that often, but it’s enough to hurt the presentation a little.
The sound design is even more effective at immersing players in the world of Judgment. Music is used sparingly but effectively, mostly over cutscenes or other dramatic moments. The jazz-infused tracks layered over moments where you’re performing your duties as a detective help make this feel like a true noir-inspired detective story, and other tracks got my blood pumping. The English voice acting is also universally excellent. But really, it’s all the ambient noise that makes the sound design a winner. From the bone-crunching kicks delivered to thugs on the street to the chatter heard as you traverse the city, the level of detail pulls you even deeper into this world.
Judgment feels like a Yakuza game through and through. In fact, the most effective parts of Judgment are pulled from Yakuza: Kamurocho, combat, and all the side stories. The parts that don’t work as well are the new detective elements. That said, Judgment maintains everything that made Yakuza shine, and this spin-off is also the perfect place to jump in for those who have never played a Yakuza game before, or those who want to take another trip back to the wild and wonderful world of Kamurocho.