'Judgment': Game Review

Put simply, it’s the best crime drama not on TV.

Sega and Ryu ga Gotoku Studio's Yakuza series, while excellent, is still unfortunately relegated to niche status by most gamers. Luckily, fans know quality when they see it, and with 2016's Yakuza 6: The Song of Life giving legendary series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu a fitting end for his storied legacy, fans have been clamoring for another sojourn back to where it all began: the fictional city of Kamurocho.

Judgment (Judge Eyes in Japan) is a spinoff from the original Yakuza series that doesn’t include Kiryu or any of his compatriots. Instead, it presents a gripping series of interactive “whodunit” mysteries that come in a Yakuza-branded wrapper. Put simply, it’s the best crime drama not on TV, right down to the cheeky “Previously on…” recaps that play at the beginning of each new chapter.

Judgment invites players to step into the shoes of the disgraced former lawyer Takayuki Yagami, who left the hustle and bustle of the courtroom after fighting to free an alleged serial killer. When that same client is arrested and accused of murdering his girlfriend in his own home, Yagami spirals into a deep depression that finds him abandoning his role in the legal world. Alongside his ex-yakuza friend and partner Kaito, he pursues work as a private detective, all the while remaining on the periphery of the legal system, keeping a watchful eye over the law firm he used to be employed at.

The game picks up three years after that fateful event, with Yagami barely making ends meet in his new career. Despite invitations to return to his previous employer, he opts to continue working in the private sector on his own. One particular case finds him working to get to the bottom of a grisly string of murders targeting the yakuza, whose bodies are being found with their eyes gouged out throughout the city. Of course, as is the case with detective sagas and police dramas like this one, things are far from what they initially seem.

There are multiple meaty layers to Judgment that continue to reveal more and more of the darker, grittier side of Kamurocho that's rife with corruption at the highest levels of even the Japanese government. There’s an abundance of head-scratching moments found throughout that continue to throw you for a loop, even if you’re certain you know where the story is going. You’ll always be caught off-guard by a new development or double-crossing scenario later on down the line. It’s addictive, and you’ll want to see where the characters are going next. Those story beats, as well as the fact that the game is masterful at building up to one ending while crafting a different, far more unexpected outcome, are part of what makes Judgment as a complete package so compelling.

The other components include masterful storytelling by way of player input and detective work. While the other Yakuza titles tended to focus squarely on either Kiryu or Goro Majima solving problems with their fists, Judgment offers a fairly even split of important detective work, combat, and side missions.

For those new to the Yakuza series, no prior knowledge of the previous titles is required. While it will absolutely add more color to your experience, especially given how the landscape has transformed over the years from the last Yakuza outing, you can enjoy Judgment as a completely standalone game. For players fresh from their favorite Yakuza game, it's a treat to return to Kamurocho once more and take in the familiar sights and sounds, some of which have been completely transformed in this modern vision of the city. When you're not spending every single moment absolutely obliterating any enemy that crosses your path, it's a lot simpler to appreciate the sights and sounds of the city.

Don't misunderstand, though. The game does feature plenty of combat, though it's no longer the main focus in this side story. Most of your time, however, will be spent parsing detective work. This means you'll collect evidence, gather clues from informants and witnesses, pick locks to enter areas you may not supposed to be in, and even wear disguises in an attempt to keep suspects none the wiser about your presence. It borrows a lot from games like Detective Pikachu and the Ace Attorney series, so if you’ve played those titles, you’ll feel right at home here. It’s far less wacky, though, mind you.

You may need to search a crime scene for a crucial piece of evidence the "other guys" missed. You'll also have to tail characters and remain unnoticed with a challenging mechanic that offers a fun throwback to the simpler days of stealth action games. Sometimes, things don't go as smoothly as you'd hope, and you'll be forced to tail your suspects. Much like in games such as L.A. Noire, you'll have to give way to running them down and wrenching what you need out of them. It’s occasionally hilarious, but always fascinating.

Once you believe you've found your suspect and want to proceed with your case against them, you can engage in interrogations. Using the information you've gleaned from the various trails you've chased, you must ask the right questions and get the right answers from those you deem responsible for whatever case it is you're investigating at the time. These are often the most tense parts of each important storyline, and while you aren’t truly penalized for not conducting as smooth of an interrogation as you possibly can, it’s not unusual to begin sweating bullets once they get underway.

Detective work is satisfying, but so is beating random dudes who come to hassle you up. Most of the time, they’re just street punks, but you’ll also have to face plenty of other stronger enemies as well. Luckily, you’re well-equipped for whatever situation you run into. He may not look it, but Yagami is a brawler, and he has access to two different combat styles: Tiger and Crane. Both are just as brutal as Kiryu's beatdowns, and it's fun to swap between the two. But some of the most exciting moments in combat come from plucking items off the street like bicycles or traffic cones and beating someone to a pulp with it.

Beyond that, you'll have to concern yourself with the new Mortal Wounds mechanic, which can reduce your health meter for the foreseeable future, at least until you can visit a doctor and receive healing. It's an exciting addition to vanilla combat that requires you to remain vigilant and ensure Yagami is combat-ready whenever you can, lest you have to resort to reloading a save.

Should the procedural trappings and combat ever grow tiresome to you, you can play through the 50 Side Cases on offer. These aren't anything new for the Yakuza series, and fans will immediately recognize the quirky tasks available for Yagami that seem like the same kinds of missions Kiryu would have accepted in his stead.

Given that you usually have the whole of Kamurocho to explore, you can always go make your own fun, too. You can spend hours upon hours hanging out in the various Club Sega arcades, honing your skills at drone racing, playing around in a VR center, and competing against others in games like mahjong in between the main story and Side Cases. It's far too easy to lose track of time milling about Kamurocho and playing the day away at the arcade, just like in real life. 

The only real misstep throughout this overall polished package can be attributed to the game’s pacing. Often, you’ll be ready to power through to the next segment to meet new characters and get the ball rolling on the main narrative, but each step to keep things going can occasionally feel like it’s a lot lengthier than it should be. 

Judgment is a fantastic-looking game thanks to the Dragon Engine, and there's plenty of sights to take in throughout Kamurocho. But while it's aesthetically appealing, it owes much of its charm to its voice actors as well. While the Japanese cast is expectedly dazzling, something must be said about the wonderful English voice actors as well. This is the first game since the inaugural Yakuza on PlayStation 2 to include an English dub, and the cast carefully selected for each character absolutely knocked it out of the park.

Yagami himself is voiced by the talented Greg Chun (Overwatch), and Kaito is brought to life by the incomparable Crispin Freeman (Hellsing Ultimate). Add solid performances from Matthew Mercer, Fred Tatasciore and Cherami Leigh to the mix and you've got a dub cast that overshadows even Mark Hamill as Majima. It’s excellent to the point where you wonder why the rest of the Yakuza games can’t include the English voiceovers as an option.

Judgment is a worthy side story to the venerable Yakuza series in every way. From its memorable cast, exemplary police procedural drama, and surprisingly masterful English dub to its hilarious Side Cases and Kamurocho activities, it crafts a living, breathing world you won’t want to leave. If this is your first brush with Ryu ga Gotoku Studio, you absolutely won’t want to make it your last. 

Judgment is available on PlayStation 4 on June 25.