There’s a lot of places you can start with any game from Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio. The Yakuza developers are known for their game style, storytelling, and comically hilarious side quests that only seem to get more insane by the game. The team has managed to nail down a formula that is beloved by players across the world now that the Yakuza franchise has become an international hit. But you’d have to imagine they would want to take that formula and branch out a little bit, wouldn’t you?
That’s where Judgment comes in. Released in the United States in June of 2019, Judgment received solid reviews, but a bit of a mixed reception from players. I personally talked to some who didn’t gel with it even though they loved the Yakuza games. So now with the game remastered for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, I decided to form my own opinion. I might be in the minority, but allow me to take your time to explain why I have fallen in love more with Judgment than any Yakuza game.
Detective in Kamurocho?
Judgment follows Takayuki Yagami, a former defense attorney now turned detective after he is disgraced in the law world when a client he defended turns up killing his girlfriend the day after his freedom. He runs his detective agency with his partner and friend Masaharu Kaito, who also happens to be an ex-Tojo clan member. What starts as a simple murder investigation turns into being caught in the middle of a full-on war between the Yakuza and members of high Japanese society.
That is the least I can give away without spoilers. If you have played any story from Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, you know that they are masters at telling tales with twists and turns to keep players interested and guessing. Judgment is no different and has personally become my favorite they’ve ever done. It manages to strike a more serious but balanced tone than the Yakuza games do. I understand that people love that the Yakuza games go nuts sometimes. I do too! But the restraint to do so in Judgment makes emotional gut punches hit harder. Multiple twists and beats caught me off guard because they are executed with precision and tonal understanding of that moment in the story. It also strikes a great balance of levity throughout the game as there are lighter moments after serious story parts that help players take a breath. They don’t get as ridiculous as Yakuza’s side stories, but that helps Judgment stand on its own with its detective tale.
All the dub performances in the game do a wonderful job to help drive the emotional core of the game. Greg Chun as Yagami gives a powerhouse performance. He must strike a tough balance of when to be serious in moments and when to lighten up repeatedly throughout the game. Chun is definitely up to the challenge though and proves it consistently between scenes of heavy crime drama, and lighthearted side quests. It’s hard to describe without spoiling the mystery, but Chun shows off a wide range of emotions with all the material he is asked to portray in the game.
Other standout performances are Crispin Freeman as Yagami’s partner Kaito, Steve Blum as mobster Higashi, Brian McNamara as lawyer ally Genda, and Fred Tatasciore as mob boss Hamura. Freeman gives Kaito a typical Yakuza hard-ass tone but manages to convey a serious heart of kindness in tender moments. Blum nails the feeling with Higashi of a man who is stuck in a very crummy scenario against his will. McNamara immediately makes you wish he was a wise older relative you had in your life to give you advice. Then there’s Tatasciore as Hamura. I can’t give too much away, but Tatasciore’s performance is so cold, complex, and calculated that it made Hamura jump into a top tier of my all-time favorite villains now.
A more refined approach.
I wouldn’t fault anyone for looking at any gameplay of Judgment and thinking it was just a copy-paste job from the Yakuza games. Hell, the game even takes place in Kamurocho. But the word I consistently thought in my head with the gameplay is refined. It feels more focused than Yakuza. Combos and attacks are not as quickly executed as they are in Yakuza games, but I found myself loving that. The slower timing made button commands for combos much easier to execute and pull off correctly in fights.
The multiple styles of fighting mechanic from Yakuza is in Judgment as well with two styles to choose from. Crane for large groups, and Tiger for one-on-one brawls. Both feel different and work as they are explained to the player. Tiger is much more effective in boss fights or mini-bosses due to its short-range but powerful force. Crane works in large fights with its speed and wide reach of attacks to take out multiple enemies with ease. Figuring out both in tandem is essential for surviving later in the game as enemies become more adaptable to your actions and combo executions.
The fighting mechanics don’t stop there though. Like Yakuza games, you can pick up a wide arrange of items on the streets to use to your advantage in fights. Bikes, signs, poles, bats, anything is fair game and can be an effective strategy to take down bigger enemies. Two new fighting mechanics for Judgment are the wall strike and EX gauge. Wall Strikes allow Yagami to run up any wall do a powerful punch or kick that can stun enemies. It’s a solid idea, but admittedly it can be frustrating because its aim can miss frequently and leave you open for counterattacks. The EX-gauge allows you to either pull off specific powerful moves or go into an invincible state if built up long enough. Becoming familiar with the EX-gauge becomes pivotal in taking down bosses as they will be able to do the same and can take you out quickly if you are not prepared.
Yagami on the case!
The massive change that is exclusive to Judgment in terms of game mechanics is the detective elements. A major one is sequences where you must tail individuals without getting caught. Many saw this as slow and tedious on release. But I found it to be tense and a nice change of pace from constant fighting. The game is forgiving if you happen to be seen or don’t hide quick enough. This makes the tailing objectives not too stressful, but just enough to have to play on your toes.
Another element of detective work is investigating crime scenes either using a first-person view or with a drone. The first-person view investigations are standard and not too difficult to figure out. The drone though is honestly the weakest mechanic in the game to me. It’s not bad, but it is difficult at first because the developers decided to have your drone affected by real-life issues like wind consistently blowing your drone around. You can upgrade later to avoid this, but at first it is incredibly frustrating to navigate.
What’s Judgment Kamurocho without some things to do?
I’ve spoken quite a bit in this review about how Yakuza is known for its wacky side quests. Some are so insane that have become part of gaming culture by becoming memes (including this jam). Some of you might be wary about Judgment not having the same amount of fun in their side quests based on my discussion earlier on how the game hits a more serious tone. Well, fret not! While the side quests and activities don’t get as insane as Yakuza, they still are lighthearted in tone and very fun to complete. Most are found in your office or the law office hub and are dealing with shenanigans or more lighthearted detective fair such as finding a husband cheating on his wife or getting back at a con artist that stole money from you.
You can also make relationships with people around the city and find mini-games and arcade games to play like in Yakuza. I really preferred the friend progression in Judgment more though as it is much easier and less time-consuming to make friends. The mini-games are all unique and fun like playing darts, racing your drone across the city against others, or playing SEGA arcade games such as Fighting Vipers, Virtua Fighter 5 Final Strike, and Outrun.
If this all seems overwhelming, I thought the same at first. But Judgment makes everything manageable with its upgrade system in the form of KamuroGo! KamuroGo is an app on your menu that allows you to gain experience points for doing everything in the game. From making friends to specific combat moves to playing minigames, everything gives you experience if you try it to upgrade Yagami. It’s a very excellent way to incentivize the player into trying everything the game has to offer as the reward is fantastic for doing so. And for someone who is a completionist like myself, the fact the game tracks every stat by how many times you’ve done it towards what you need for completion is very appreciated! Hands down, it is one of the most thought-out and well-executed menu reward systems I’ve seen in a long time.
I should also speak quickly about the next-gen upgrades compared to its original release on the PlayStation 4. The retouched visuals all look fantastic on PlayStation 5. It gives a lot more life than I would have thought to Kamurocho. The most obvious upgrade though is the smooth jump to 60FPS and virtually no loading times. In my playthrough, I noticed no dips in frames or loading times. For sinking over 20 hours, no technical issues or glitches is a thing to be celebrated by itself. Even if you bought the PlayStation 4 version, it’s worth the price to make the jump to next-gen. Even though I do agree that it should have been free to people who already purchased the game.
Another case to solve?
At the end of the day, Judgment is a worthy spin-off to the Yakuza franchise and deserves to continue as a series on its own. The detective tale is strong and engrossing. With enough twists to keep players guessing till the end. But even with its engrossing story, you’ll get lost for hours just exploring the city on side quests and mini-games that never feel tedious or boring. If the rumors are true that a sequel is coming, I welcome it with open arms. Just like Yakuza wasn’t appreciated much at first over here, I hope this re-release can give Judgment the same treatment of new fans.