Release Date: June 25, 2019
ESRB: M for Mature
Sega has given an immense amount of love to the Yakuza series on the Playstation 4. From the stunning prequel that is Yakuza 0 to a fitting finale to the series' beloved lead that is Kiryu Kazama in Yakuza 6 players are left with no shortage of avenues to play the series from start to end. Heck, to further cement the PS4's Yakuza entry point status, Sega even most recently announced a collection of the formerly PS3 exclusive Yakuza titles 3-5 now making every mainline Yakuza entry accessible on the same system.
But there a chance one wants to try something somewhat different. Maybe one is getting little weary of seeing Kiryu's mug in the main character slot for so long (how dare you), or perhaps newcomers that are Yakuza-curious are looking for an entry point without the commitment anxiety of a long-running series. Well, good news for either of you hypothetical individuals, because Sega has constructed a spin-off game seemingly with that perspective in mind though the PS4-exclusive title Judgment--A title that is more or less the textbook example of a Yakuza game in nearly way except name and direct narrative ties.
Of course, Judgment certainly attempts to illustrate its own distinct take on crime -focused action game series in various forms. For one, the lead character mantle goes to a new face to the series by name of Yagami Takayuki (who looks identical to the incredibly popular Japanese actor who plays him), who was once an attorney but now plays the part of a detective. The reason for this drastic career shift is due to Yagami deeply regretting helping a convicted murderer free only for them to go and kill their girlfriend shortly afterwards. Which, for those that don't already know, Japan has a 99.9% acquittal rate for murder cases, so it is incredibly rare for the defense to win any court cases making it all the more tragic for the fallen from grace lead Yagami.
Still, despite some broken spirits Yagami tries to make due with his noticeably worse paying gig of detective work. And this is where a good majority of the newer gameplay elements come into play, at least compared to the studio's long-running contemporary Yakuza. Like your typical Yakuza game, however, lead character Yagami has more than his share actiony street brawls. Yagami himself being more nimble than Kiryu like being able to jump off walls to attack and he himself being more inclined to kick foes in the faces of foes more often, which makes for a refreshing contrast to the fisticuff focused Kiryu. Even though... series fans may be more than a little weary of seeing the highly familiar streets of Kamurocho for the umpteenth time during these frequent combat confrontations.
Where the standard gameplay flow takes a turn specifically for Judgment is how it chooses to handle various mini games. In mainline Yakuza entries elements like mini-games are generally buried among the sidelines to be played at one's pace, while Judgment conversely makes a lot of them much less optional and not necessarily for the better. Though interesting from a world-building perspective, mandatory mini-games such as tailing a suspicious individual, lock-picking various doors, chasing a fleeing individual, controlling a drone, or analyzing environments for clues are not all that enjoyable in actual practice. It is also more than tempting to use skill points that one would normally use to make Yagami's combat prowess more entertaining to instead make things like the most dreaded tailing missions less annoying when the pop up during the main story, which is a bad trade-off.
In spite of the many annoyances that crop up from attempting to change up the standard gameplay, a lot of the studio's strengths still shine through in spite of it. For instance, even though the main story takes its sweet time for setup, perhaps too long when addressing the primary story thread about a certain elusive murderer that is referred to as "the mole", Judgment is actually one of the best crime-centered stories the developer has written (and perhaps the most grounded) and with next to no direct dies to mainline Yakuza titles makes it also quite possibly the most approachable story-wise too. Plus, as usual, the sharp localization punctuates this even more from serious story scenes to hilarious sidequests.
Curiously enough, this title is also the first one by the Ryu Ga Gotoku studio to feature both English and Japanese voice acting. Though a solid English dub is surprising enough for a Japanese game, which Judgment thankfully has, the most intriguing aspect about it is that the script is actually slightly different based on the voice acting language one chooses, with the Japanese one being more inclined to maintain certain Japan-specific idiosyncrasies while the English one favoring a more natural conversational flow. And to be frank, I have not seen this approach to localization in a game since Sakura Wars: So Long my Love on PS2, so it an appreciated addition regardless. To add one more praise to the audio, the soundtrack is also quite well done with certain catchy battle themes being the primary treat among the compositions.
Yet, the strongest component of Judgment, aside from the pretty visuals lifted from "Dragon Engine" introduced in Yakuza 6, is actually within its seemingly innocuous sidequests. While one can certainly spend plenty of time playing classic Sega arcade games, like Virtua Fighter 5 or Puyo Puyo, as well as light gun-ish game that slightly pokes fun at Yakuza: Dead Souls, the real star is actually the many character focused sidequests. From taking up optional detective cases, helping random strangers on the street, to even pursuing certain oddly in-depth dating options there is a surprising sense of community that develops as Yagami helps countless people out with their troubles and it is quite rewarding from both a storytelling and eventually a gameplay standpoint as well.
Judgment tip-toes the line from being a very welcome spin-off alternative to mainline Yakuza games to also one that has several glaring annoyances that make it stop just shy of unbridled greatness on its own merits. As refreshing as the shift in lead protagonists, various combat and quality of life gameplay changes, and eventually its focus on setting/storytelling, it is often at odds with the many poorly implemented mandatory mini games that discordantly get in the way of its strong storytelling in particular. Yet, in spite of all of its shortcoming, Judgment can more than testify it being worth playing in the long haul by either long-standing Yakuza fans or would-be curious individuals in general due to its remarkable character and storytelling moments.
+ One of the strongest main narratives from the Ryu Ga Gotoku studio
+ Often great character-focused sidequests
+ Sharp localization that finally features a well-done English dub as well
+ Welcome changes to combat and traversing around the city (when compared to Yakuza titles)
- Search and tailing missions in particular break up pacing in an awkward, tedious way
- Yakuza series fans might be more than a little tired of the familiar city Kamurocho by now...
- Narrative takes its sweet time addressing the primary story threads
Overall Score: 7.5 (out of 10)
Judgment is a solid attempt at freshening up the Ryu Ga Gotoku studio's very familiar gameplay formula. Though it does not always succeed from a gameplay front with the questionable quality of certain mandatory mini games, it does manage to succeed in spite of it with many great character and story moments interlaced throughout its main tale
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher.
Edited by barrel