Despite the reboots, the remakes, the prequels, the sequels, and promising to myself more than a few occasions that I would, I’ve never played a Yakuza game. As I said, I’ve wanted to. I bought Yakuza 3 on PS3, I’ve dutifully grabbed Yakuza 6 on sale and made sure to download Yakuza 4, 5 and Kiwami when they popped up as part of PlayStation Plus… and then didn’t play them.
It’s OK though, because the spin-off Judgment (or Judge Eyes in Japan) is coming to give me another opportunity to step onto the growing Yakuza bandwagon, another chance to redeem myself and finally sink into the bustling hive of scum and villainy that is Kamurocho.
What sets Judgment apart from the other Yakuza spin offs, like Yakuza: Dead Souls and Yakuza Ishin, is that it doesn’t star Kazuma Kiryu and the other regular cast of characters from the series. I’m sure they’ll have some cameos (there might even have been some within the opening slice of game that I played, I wouldn’t know), but the lead is private detective and Takayuki Yagami, played and modelled after Japanese actor Takuya Kimura. In a bonus point for accessibility, it’s also getting a full English dub, as opposed to the subtitling that Yakuza games have relied on.
The game opens with a phone call. Saori Shirosaki, the receptionist at Genda Law Firm answers as banter goes on between the three lawyers there. Yagami’s at the tip of every potential client’s tongue, having just managed to get an accused murderer off the hook despite the courts’ 99.9% conviction rate. Then it all comes crashing down. Despite having just been acquitted, his former client, Shinpei Okubo, has been arrested again, and this time there’s no shadow of a doubt that he did it.
We pick things up a few years later, with Yagami pursuing a rather different line of work with his own private detective firm. He and his ex-Yakuza partner Masaharu Kaito are tailing some guy for a client. It’s the tutorial, running you through some of the kinds of activities that we can expect to see through the rest of the game, from brawling street punks to cookie cutter open world stealth and tailing, and even a bit of drone cam action. It’s merely OK at these points, but the detective agency premise and the way that the seediness of the world comes through in this opening helps keep it engaging. Thankfully, that’s just the beginning of what this game offers.
You see, this entire tail, chase and brawl sequence has been showing just how deeply tied Yagami is with the local Yakuza gangs. Even back to his days as a law student, he was bankrolled through uni by the mob, ended up at a law firm that gets a lot of mobsters for clients, and now as a P.I.? Maybe he’s slowly sliding into life as an enforcer? There’s still a more honourable slant to Yagami, it seems, it’s just that he doesn’t necessarily trust his own judgement anymore. That his eyes can’t necessarily be a judge of character.
Thankfully, this isn’t just a game of shaking down debtors and stores, and a meaty, grisly string of serial killings ends up in Yagami’s lap to investigate. When a lot of the game’s environments and the feel of the gameplay will be familiar to Yakuza fans – right down to being able to step into arcades to sample mini-games and being regularly accosted on the streets for brawling that has a good deal in common with the split combat styles of more recent Yakuza games – it’s the investigation aspects that can really stand out.
The real cornerstone to a good sleuthing story is in interrogating suspects, victims and witnesses. When it’s a string of gang murders that Yagami is digging into, asking the victim is a bit trickier than usual, but speaking to the other two categories is much more doable. The interesting quirk here is that it’s not just a straightforward back and forth, and simply checking all the boxes from the conversation options won’t do you much good. You can confront witnesses on conflicting statements, but even in regular conversation picking the right questions and sticking to the relevant topics gets you bonus experience to drop into your skill tree. So, it’s not important to ask the accused Yakuza captain Hamura how the police treated him, but it is important to ask about the scuffle that he had with the deceased earlier in the night and gaps in his version of events.
Investigating a scene, such as the back alley of a club where a bit of rival gang pummelling might have occurred, you naturally have to search for relevant clues. Instead of retaining a third person view, the game draws you into the first person and gives an almost visual novel style of investigation as you scour the environment for things to look at. You can move freely in these moments, so there’s a bit of effort to hunt down some of the more hidden objects, and the stray cats that also give you bonus experience. Sadly, I don’t think you can pet the cats.
Judgment is a fascinating game for Sega to make, taking the world, ambience and playful nature of the Yakuza series and then blending it with new characters, a new kind of redemption story and the film noire vibe that running a detective agency can give you, even if your PI is sporting a very modern looking leather jacket and carefully styled JRPG worthy hair. Most importantly though, I think I’ll take this latest opportunity to stay in Kamurocho this summer.