Sega is advertising Judgment as a very different spin-off to its long-running Yakuza series. In reality, Judgment still feels a lot like a Yakuza title for better or worse, but a strong story and solid gameplay make it one of the best games released in 2019 so far.
Whereas the Yakuza series puts players in the shoes of the titular Japanese gangsters, Judgment’s playable character is Takayuki Yagami, a lawyer turned private detective who also has deep ties to the yakuza. Unsurprisingly, while the story regularly leans into Tak’s background as a lawyer, as he interacts with his old firm, and occasionally even acts as a mediator, the bulk of the narrative is remarkably similar to the Yakuza titles.
Still, Tak’s story is a fascinating one. He was a successful lawyer who won a rare acquittal for a client accused of murder, only for the client to immediately turn around and kill his girlfriend. Disenchanted by the legal profession, he turned to private detective work.
You’ll still spend a lot of time running across Kamurocho (in largely the same map as Yakuza 6), triggering cutscenes, and getting in fights with street thugs. Combat in Judgment is also similar to Yakuza‘s signature martial arts fighting mechanics, but now includes two styles, which are switchable on the fly. Experience points let you buy literally dozens of new moves and abilities to use however you want. While fighting sequences are initially pretty simple to complete, the unlockables kept me invested in the combat right up until the end of the game.
Like with its predecessor, side missions and stories are a big part of the Judgment experience. There are playable arcade classics and plenty of weird, offbeat side quests, such as taking pictures of cats and helping local fast food chains succeed. But Tak is a little brainier than the typical gangster, and this is reflected in some of the ways he completes missions, to decidedly mixed results.
Judgment switches up the Yakuza formula by adding crime scene investigations, lockpicking, and the ability to tail suspects. Both the lockpicking and investigations are incredibly simple. You’ll have to be really bad at the lockpicking to fail at it after the initial tutorial, so it just gets to be annoying how often some buildings require its use. The doors might as well just open themselves.
Investigations are just a matter of looking around a small area for something unusual, which is usually explicitly spelt out for you beforehand. Usually, you’ll need to confront other characters with your findings, but again, it’s pretty obvious what needs to be done in each scene, and there’s no penalty for failing.
Tailing suspects is a little more involved, but not terribly difficult. These sequences just aren’t very exciting and they always seem to drag on just a little too long.
Judgment’s payoff is worth these hassles, though. The game’s main story, a twisting narrative about the search for a yakuza serial killer, is fantastic. I rarely knew where it was going next, and wanted to keep playing just to get to the next cutscene, even when the new mission types were kind of a drag.
Judgment runs on the Dragon Engine, which has been the foundation of the last few Yakuza games, so the production values are consistently high. Character models (based on real-life Japanese actors) are realistically detailed and animate well during cutscenes. But outside of these directed sequences, characters can be a bit stiff while walking through Kamurocho.
Likewise, the English voice acting is some of the best I’ve heard in years, though the performances of one-off characters range from good to questionable. One jarring design choice is that, while the main story is fully voiced, side mission conversations are text only. The problem is that a number of side missions intertwine with the main story, so after having fully voiced conversations with a character for several hours, you might suddenly run into a strangely mute version of that character for a side mission. This isn’t a deal breaker by any means, but more consistency would be nice.
While more evolution than revolution, and not without its flaws, Judgment is an exciting take on the Yakuza formula and an excellent jumping on point for gamers who haven’t yet had a chance to play the beloved Sega series. This is a game well worth checking out in a summer with few high-profile releases.
Judgment releases on 25 June for PS4.