With the first Yakuza saga wrapped up, the studio behind that wonderfully weird franchise has brought some new characters into their world for standalone romp Judgment. It’s part detective story, part beat ’em up, part collect-a-thon… and all gloriously bonkers!
It’s easy to throw shade at long-running franchises like Call of Duty for heading back to the well year after year, making sure a steady stream of games continually ticks over to keep the brand alive. But as fans of Japanese games will know all too well, “sequelitis” is nothing especially new. The Final Fantasy series has clocked up 15 instalments and some extras, making it the champion to beat, while Persona is relatively young with six main games plus some spinoffs. But the much-loved Yakuza series has been a bit of a dark horse in the sequel stakes, possibly because of its almost complete exclusivity to PlayStation consoles. Since the original Yakuza way back in 2005 on the PS2, the series has gone on to spawn seven main games and a handful of spinoffs, always selling strongly and winning an ever-growing legion of fans along the way.
The Yakuza games held an overarching character story that tied the instalments together – and while it’s never really been a problem for new players to drop in midway through and start playing at any point, it always feels a bit weird coming in halfway through and trying to figure out what’s going on (try deciphering the Kingdom Hearts storyline if you jumped in at the most recent release!)
Judgment, then, plays two roles. As a game set in the same universe as the Yakuza series, it’s a way of “rebooting” the franchise after the main story’s been wrapped up. But for new players, it also means that you can come into Judgment having never touched a Yakuza game in your life. And for anyone diving in for the first time, that makes this a great place to start.
“…you can come into Judgment having never touched a Yakuza game in your life.”
In Judgment our hero is Takayuki Yagami, a man with defiantly fabulous and un-messable hair whose career as a hotshot attorney was cut short when he made a terrible mistake – keeping a murder suspect out of prison only to see him go right out and commit a horrifying killing. Yagami’s faith in the system is shattered and he leaves the legal world entirely, opening a private detective agency to take an active role in solving crimes and (hopefully) easing his troubled conscience.
What this means for you the player is a romp through the streets, shops, bars and clubs of fictional city Kamurocho (loosely based on a real-life Tokyo entertainment district) in pursuit of a main storyline involving the seedy underbelly of the area and some vicious crimes. As a detective, your main tasks are somewhat different to those of the Yakuza games – this time, you need to search out evidence, tail suspects without them noticing you, pick locks and all the other things an investigator does in pursuit of the truth.
But Yakuza studio Ryu Ga Gotoku wasn’t about to just plonk you down in Kamurocho and give you a case to solve. Far from it. Just like its predecessors, the city in Judgment is loaded to the gills with stuff to do as you make your way around the main story. Aside from a heap of side missions – some of them extremely funny – there’s plenty of collect-a-thon action here for those that love to tick all the boxes, including the challenge of eating everything on every menu in every food outlet in the city. When investigating your cases, you’ll also run into a surprising number of cats while looking for clues. Investigating all these cats pops a trophy, because as a dedicated cat counter you of course want your entire Playstation friends list to know. If you’re looking for a diversion or two, many of the game arcades in the city contain working machines with the actual games ready to play. Tired of investigating? Pop in for a quick round of Space Harrier or Fighting Vipers.
As you make your way through the city, reading the anxiety-riddled popup thoughts of its citizens, you’ll frequently be targeted by roaming “street thugs”. They seem to have one mission in life – to beat you up (and only you – perhaps they really don’t like your fabulous hair!) That sets the combat portion of the game into motion, where the Yakuza beat-em-up has been enhanced and streamlined into something almost like the Batman games. But in Batman games you can’t grab a bicycle off the street and smash it into an assailant’s head. Of course, in Judgment you can (and, as you should, you get bonus points for it!)
The game world isn’t quite an “open” one, but it feels a lot like one – like a hyperreal, neon-splashed GTA5 in miniature, designed by Pikachu after an all-night binge and populated by citizens who act like the cars in Burnout Paradise, always making sure to jump in your way at the very last moment so they can get upset when you pinball off them on your way to find another clue – and that awesome sushi.
“…like a hyperreal, neon-splashed GTA5 in miniature.”
Judgment is a great point of entry in another way, too – it’s the first time a game from the Yakuza universe has been given an English voice option. Japanese games that offer English do tend to hire some of the most terrible voice actors on the planet, but not Judgment – there’s a stellar team of well-known voices here, including Greg Chun and Matthew Mercer (better known as Winston and McCree in Overwatch). One actor you won’t be hearing or seeing is Japanese star Pierre Taki, who originally played Hamura in the game. After an arrest for drug use, he was removed from the game entirely, a new actor and character model quickly added to replace him. It’s a credit to the developers that you’d never know just from playing the game.
There’s a ton of fun to be had as you romp through the stories and world of Judgment – and you’re unlikely to find a more diverse game this year. It’s technically a detective game, though comparisons to the Ace Attorney series are misleading – yes, you get to solve cases and yes, there are moments in court (you even get to yell “OBJECTION!” and do Phoenix Wright’s famous finger-point). But this is an ambitious, weird and often hilarious mashup of bits from several genres, a sensory overload of stuff to do that’s easy to get into and always seems to be enticing you to come back for more. Judgment is a game that feels like a reminder about why video games are awesome – and a breath of fresh air in a world where too many games are taking themselves way too seriously.
Judgment is available now, exclusively for PS4.