Judgment on PlayStation 4
One minute in Judgment I’m investigating the scene of a grisly murder where a Yakuza has had his eyes gouged out, the next I’m pretending to be an actor who’s pretending to be a vampire. There’s a serious rift between the silly and the serious in Judgment, but it never feels awkward or forced, because the game masterfully juggles this balancing act of tone and ideas to make for one truly unforgettable experience.
As someone super familiar with the Yakuza series I often get asked the question of how to start with it; after all, it’s a pretty daunting series to look at with six different main entries, a prequel, remakes, and spinoffs. My answer to that question is now Judgment, as it uses the same tried-and-true formula of the Yakuza games, but introduces a brand new story and cast of characters.
You play as Takayuki Yagami, a former lawyer who now works as a detective in Kamurocho, after a client he defended and acquitted is convicted of murder. A series of murders hits the city, and as Yagami and his friend, Kaito, start to investigate they’re pulled into a plot that brings the past and the present together.
Judgment’s story is described as a “legal drama,” and that’s what it is for all intents and purposes. It’s a slow-burn story filled with plenty of mystery and intrigue, and the pacing certainly matches that. While things do pick up in the later chapters, much of the story is spent building intrigue and putting the players in place.
And while the main story is good, it’s the characters of Judgment that really draw you in and get you invested. Yagami, Kaito, and everyone else immediately feel like fleshed out characters with complex motivations and backstories, and they’re only fleshed out even more by the game’s side content.
Yagami himself is a bit more characterized than Kazuma Kiryu of Yakuza, and he has a strong sense of justice and doing what’s right. Across the game Yagami gathers allies to help him, each of whom have their own stories and interesting personalities.
Performances across the board are simply fantastic, and Takuya Kimura’s performance as Yagami is a particular highlight; he’s a talented actor, and that talent is on full display here. I also found myself pleasantly surprised by the game’s English voice-overs, which still keep the spirit and style of Judgment alive.
I still preferred playing Judgment in Japanese as it felt more traditional, but after playing about a third of the game in English I can say that I’d be just fine if that was the only option.
When I said before that Judgment uses Yakuza’s gameplay style, I meant it. This is as close to a Yakuza game as you can get without being called Yakuza. You still roam around the city of Kamurocho, which has a ton of different restaurants, mini-games, and people you can interact with.
You fight random groups of thugs in third-person action combat, where Yagami has two different styles to swap between, Crane and Tiger. Crane has wide sweeping attacks that are great for taking on multiple groups of enemies, while Tiger focuses on hitting one or two enemies with a flurry of attacks.
Off the bat these two fighting styles feel a bit more restrictive than past Yakuza games, but Judgment does a great job of iterating on them and opening up new abilities throughout the game. Yagami has a few unique skills that make this game’s combat more fast and fluid, like being able to do a wall run and leap off toward an enemy, or leapfrog over an enemy and hit them with a surprise attack.
An EX Gauge takes the place of the Heat Gauge, letting you build it up to use hilariously devastating attacks, like grabbing an enemy’s head and using it to run around and kick other nearby enemies. All of the game’s skills are bought using SP, one singular currency that you earn for doing anything and everything.
You get SP by simply playing the main story, playing mini-games, completing Side Cases, completing a checklist of objectives off of a “KamuroGo” app and much more. Literally, almost everything you do rewards you with SP, and Judgment does a great job of letting you constantly have points to spend, thereby giving you even more options or enhancements.
The main gameplay loop of Judgment does introduce some new gameplay elements, themed around the idea of Yagami being a detective. At certain points, you’ll need to tail a target ensuring you aren’t spotted, pick a lock, pick disguises, present evidence and more.
Most of these gameplay elements are small and merely there to serve the story, and overall they don’t add a ton to the experience. The good news, however, is that they’re always unobtrusive and you won’t have to spend much time on them.
As much as I enjoyed the main story of Judgment, the side content is what truly blew me away. The game has an absolutely brilliant friendship system that sort of expands on the cooperative heat actions you could do in the past couple Yakuza games.
Basically, there are 50 “friends” you can make around Kamurocho, represented on the map by a handshake icon. Sometimes you can simply talk to them to becomes friends, other times you’ll need to do a fight or side quest-like experience.
These friendship events are organically built into the game, many of them seamlessly flowing in and out of the story, while others require you to seek them out. Every friend you make gives you one point into City Reputation, which thereby unlocks more friend events and Side Cases as it gets higher.
There are other tangible rewards, however, as friends will greet you around town, giving you an EX Gauge boost, and some of them will even jump into battle to help you. Others, on the other hand, offer unique services like putting food in your fridge that’ll restore your health for free.
This friendship system adds an incredible amount of variety and depth to both Yagami and the city of Kamurocho, fleshing them out in ways that I’ve never experienced before in a Yakuza game. Judgment also does a fantastic job of incrementally feeding you this side content, making sure that you always have something new to do in each new chapter.
Of course, just like the Yakuza games there are plenty of little mini-games to indulge in, and Judgment certainly doesn’t disappoint in that regard. The highlights this time are a crazy neon-filled VR board game called Dice & Cube, a lightgun style game called Kamuro of the Dead (a reference to Yakuza Dead Souls), and a high-speed drone racing league.
There’s plenty of old stand-ins too, like darts, gambling, the batting cages and more. As if all of that side content wasn’t enough, Judgment also has four subplots involving girlfriends that Yagami can start dating, each of which has their own stories.
With Judgment it’s clear that RGG Studio has gotten a better handle on the Dragon Engine, as the game looks just as gorgeous as Yakuza 6 and Kiwami 2. There’s a film noir kind of lighting that’s used in the game, giving off a bit more of a moody look to Kamurocho, which I assume was intentional.
Facial animations look smoother than ever before, and while there’s still some awkward physics it’s mostly fun things, like sending a thug flying into a rack of bikes with a finishing blow.
I also feel like I need to give special mention to Judgment’s soundtrack, which somehow manages to blend some crazy techno/dubstep with moody detective noir, no small feat.
I said this before, but the way Judgment balances its wacky side content with its dramatic main story is seriously impressive. More than ever before, I found myself immersed in the city of Kamurocho, and I could have easily spent even more time with Yagami and his crew.
With an entirely original story and streamlined side content, Judgment is easily the best place to get introduced to the Yakuza formula, and for longtime fans it’s the best Dragon Engine game yet. Either way, it’s one you shouldn’t miss out on.
Score: 4.5/5 – Great
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