Venerated developer Ryu ga Gotoku Studio returns with a brand new IP in the form of Judgment. While we say new, anyone who is a fan of the Yakuza series will immediately be familiar with the setting of Judgment, as the latter is a spin-off of sorts.
Many elements of this game will be recognizable to long-time fans, but there are enough new things here that set it apart from the franchise it is based on.
You take on the role of Takayuki Yagami, a former ace defence attorney who turned private eye for reasons the game discloses very early on. The noir detective setting is certainly a very welcomed breath of fresh air and fits very well with the franchise thematically. While you technically now serve to uphold justice, your connections to the underworld and line of work mean you often have to deal with members of the organized crime.
Regardless, this is a standalone title that you can play without knowing anything about the Yakuza games, even though there are some callbacks here and there. Kamurocho looks as good as ever before, and the slightly warmer colour palette makes the city feel more contemporary as opposed to the more retro neon look of the Yakuza games. In terms of narrative, Judgment takes a far more grounded and gritty approach, whereas Yakuza has always been over the top.
For the first time in a long while, you have the option of playing Judgement in either Japanese or English voiceovers. As this is the first time yours truly is playing through the game, Japanese was the preferred option. Sega did a pretty good job with the English voice cast, so if you prefer dubs for any reason at all, you probably will not be disappointed.
When the Dragon Engine made its debut with Yakuza 6, there were many issues with it that left fans less than pleased, particularly with framerate and the combat system. Yakuza Kiwami 2 more or less refined it, and Judgment takes it to the next level. Absent since Yakuza 0, combat styles make a return here.
Protagonist Takayuki Yagami is able to freely switch between Tiger and Crane stances, the former for single foes while the latter is better suited for crowd control. Making a return are staple Yakuza mechanics such as the interactive environment where you can pick up objects to beat your foes and Heat Moves, which are known as EX Actions in Judgment.
Side Cases now take on the role of Sub Stories, and there are plenty here. As you might come to expect, these take time away from the main story and incorporate many of the new game mechanics that will be touched on later.
The friendship system from Yakuza Kiwami 2 was also brought back and fleshed out slightly more. Most of these involve interacting with the many businesses in Kamurocho, completing minor tasks, or engaging in conversations. This adds to the charm of the game and makes the NPCs more endearing and involved.
Where Judgment stands on its own is its investigation system, starting with the conversations that have been tweaked to become part of a wheel where players can pick the best questions to ask when interrogating persons of interest. There is a lot of leeway here compared to something like LA Noire, as you are not required to have the perfect lead to make progress into the case. The narrative plays out the same regardless of the choices you make, so there are no dead ends. You are rewarded with more skill points for making the right call, but these are minimal and can be collected easily.
As you might expect from a game of this nature, you occasionally have to trail key individuals for questioning. It requires players to stick close enough without raising suspicion. Along the way, the target will turn around to see if they are being followed, so you will have to either blend into the crowd or hide behind corners and objects to avoid detection. Once you have cornered them, a QTE-laden chase sequence ensues, a system not seen since the earlier Yakuza games.
As a detective who operates in the grey zone, you have some tools at your disposal that the law usually does not have access to. First off is your trusty drone, which you will depend on to spy on individuals. The way the city is designed – with its multi-storey buildings that are not too tall and are all close together – makes this the perfect tool for the job, as the drone is able to zip in and out with relative ease. Once in a while, you will also be required to pick locks to gain access to places that you will not normally be able to. This is a nice little distraction, but they are not as tense as they should be, because there is no real punishment for failing and you can just take your own sweet time.
As a first attempt at a new IP, Judgment is easily one of the better titles that Ryu ga Gotoku Studio has put out. There are some areas that are rather rough in terms of gameplay, but these will definitely be ironed out in future iterations. Fans of narrative-driven action games will find much to enjoy here, and people who like the Yakuza series will appreciate a lot that the game has to offer as well.