Judgment is the new game from the studio behind the Yakuza series. I love the Yakuza games. With that series moving in a different direction, Judgment seemed to be an interesting experiment.
Judgment ends up trapped between the game it is and the game it wants to be. Built from the same framework as Yakuza 6, it ends up playing very similarly. But at every turn, it seems to want to be something different. Something maybe more thoughtful. It just can’t be that because it is still, at its core, a brawler.
Judgment simply does not work as well as the Yakuza games. The biggest reason for that is the change from playing as Kazuma Kiryu to Takayuki Yagami. Yagami is just orders of magnitude less interesting of a character than Kiryu is. He might have worked fine in a role like the various other playable characters from Yakuza 4 or 5, but he wouldn’t stand out amongst those guys either. He’s not even on the level of Akiyama or Saejima.
The biggest problem is that he just seems more knowing and worldly than Kiryu. Part of what makes Kiryu interesting is how he reacts to everything as if he’s never heard of it before. Part of that comes from him spending a decade in prison. He simply accepts everything new he finds and works it into his understanding of the world. Yagami is more cynical. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it changes the tone of some of the wackier moments. In the main story it is mostly fine.
As far as the gameplay, the attempts to graft some investigatory stuff onto a Yakuza game ends up with a game that feels unfortunately modal. It is a somewhat fractured experience. You going into investigation mode to look around, chase mode, follow mode, fight mode, explore mode. Each one operates a little differently than the others. The Yakuza games were once more like this, but lately they’ve felt more cohesive. This feels like a step back.
I am being way too negative. There is a whole lot to like here. The fighting is still fun. The game is still packed with things to do. There are a half dozen arcade games to play, the usual array of mini-games and the same Kamurocho to explore.
The mix of story between sidequest and main plot is not as good here as it is in Yakuza games, I really did enjoy this game as a 20 hour action movie. I like the idea of doing the investigative work, of exploring this fake section of a real city from another point of view. It feels kind of like what this studio was trying to do with Yakuza’s 4 & 5, when the game minimized Kiryu and brought in other characters. Judgment is at its best the further it gets away from that other series. It brushes up against the problem that video games mostly only understand how to interact through violence. That leads to the story getting full on preposterous as it goes, and calls for a final boss fight that makes less sense as an ending than the courtroom scene that preceded it.
I don’t want to spoil things, but Judgment starts with Yagami being hired to investigate for his former law firm. They are defending a Yakuza boss accused of murder. Yagami’s investigation turns up evidence that it was impossible the guy did it, but also evidence that he knew more than he was letting on. So Yagami keeps looking. Looking into the Yakuza family, looking into an encroaching family, looking into a medical research organization with high connections and shady dealings. Soon, more bodies show up, and Yagami is pulling on the thread of a giant conspiracy. One that reaches deeper than even he knows. It is pretty good stuff; ridiculous but in a fun way.
Judgment might not have ended up being exactly what I wanted, but it confirmed that I want more of what Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios is putting out. And I am very interested to see what they do with the Yakuza series now that they have moved on from Kazuma Kiryu.