There’s no escaping these eyes.
If you were to combine Phoenix Wright (Ace Attorney) and Kazuma Kiryu (Yakuza) you might just find yourself with Judgment’s detective protagonist Takayumi Yagami, who brings about an interesting change of pace to the Yakuza action-adventure series in a spin-off focusing on the tension and excitement of murder investigations.
Yagami is a disgraced ex-lawyer who throws away his profession after a client he acquits up and murders his girlfriend shortly after being freed from police custody. Torn with grief and believing himself responsible for the murder, Yagami drops his career completely, starting a private detective agency with his partner and ex-Yakuza, Kaito. Taking on odd jobs to pay the bills he helps out whoever will pay him, while slowly getting caught up in a nationwide scandal that will dig up the past he’s running from.
The story is an epic whodunit with unexpected twists and turns at every corner, and its players’ roles shifting and keeping you guessing along the way. Its presentation is highly cinematic with cutscenes both long and excellently directed and its soundtrack creating and holding tension brilliantly. Its 13 chapters feel like extended TV episodes, with its English voice acting bang on the money, and a cast that rivals or perhaps even improves-upon the Japanese recording. The character building is also superb, thriving in the grey and murkier areas of morality, making you feel sympathy for murderers and criminals as naturally as you do the main characters.
The graphics and animation offer further high production value with Yagami’s running animation very smooth and his wonderful mop of realistically flowing hair both looking great and making me feel incredibly jealous at the same time. The only negative in this regard is perhaps the slightly wooden facial movement of the characters in cutscenes, but it’s not terrible by any means.
According to Yakuza series Director, Toshihiro Nagoshi, one of the reasons for the series’ success is that its momentum has been maintained by churning out entry after entry in quick succession. In order to create a high-quality product in such a short development period, the series has had to use the game’s real-life inspired city, Kamurocho, in all of the 7 prior games. While this could be leveraged as legitimate criticism, when its world is as detailed and accurate in its design and contents, it’s very hard to argue against its inclusion. Its depiction of Kabukicho, an area in Shinjuku, Tokyo isn’t 100% accurate, but as a Tokyo-resident, I can attest to countless aspects (i.e. general building design, real shops, seediness etc) being absolutely spot on. Such is the city’s detail that it’s best to play the game with the mini-map switched off in order to appreciate it properly.
Judgment’s activities also offer a level of quality that other Open-World games simply can’t, through a selection of classic SEGA arcade games made available through the in-game arcades. Differing for each entry in the Yakuza series, Fighter Vipers and Kamuro of the Dead (a House of the Dead influenced game) are just two that I’ve sunk hours into, but the arcades also include Puyo Puyo, Fantasy Zone, Space Harrier, Virtua Fighter 5 and Motor Raid. That alone is reason enough to buy this game. Drone races around the city are another fun addition, with the ability to customize your drone and upload your times online.
If you were to describe Judgment in one word ‘variety’ would be it, with the game throwing everything bar the proverbial kitchen sink at you to entertain and amuse, but still within a believable context. The serious main story shocks and surprises, but also happily switches tack after a long dramatic section by busting out its wacky humor. Playing a faux courtroom battle over a stolen dessert while screaming ‘Objection’ (aka Ace Attorney) is just one glorious example.
Side quests introduce some of the 50 characters you can build a friendship with and 4 of which you can romance. If you build enough of relationship with these characters, they may even help you in fights (i.e. a fast-food staff member might throw food across the street for you to use as a weapon). The level of interaction on offer here truly makes it feel like anything is possible for our protagonist.
Accessible to a fault, the fighting system makes it possible to play the game as a button masher, but despite this, still manages to provide an addictive kung fu fighting experience with comically over-the-top violence. Yagami has two different fighting styles that are best used on either individual enemies or groups and also an acrobatic ability to launch off walls with some excellent high-flying wrestling manoeuvres. The series’ finishing moves, now called ‘EX Actions’, have come across from previous entries and are just as beautifully ridiculous as they’ve ever been with plenty of unlockables through its deep upgrade system. While they are relatively simple to pull off, using the environment around you as a weapon, like sending enemies through a shop window, is very satisfying. You can also pretend to be Jackie Chan by getting drunk and doing the drunken master technique. Try to tell me with a straight face that you haven’t always wanted to do that.
‘Deadly Attacks’ that lower your health ‘permanently’ until you visit the sewer-dwelling doctor (that’s not a typo), add an interesting gameplay loop, as visits to the unsanitary ‘professional’ don’t come cheap, necessitating that you work some extra side jobs unless you want to run into a boss fight with a laughably low amount of health. The only real knock on the fighting is that you tend to fight the same group of basic thugs over and over through random encounters without anyone really acknowledging it, which lessens immersion to a degree. Having a Nemeses-like system (from Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor) where enemies mention previous victories over you, but also level up and get promoted within the enemy’s ranks would certainly have been a welcome inclusion.
Despite being one of the game’s main marketed features, the detective gameplay mechanics fail to impress, with the implementation of the investigative gameplay feeling underdeveloped and tacked-on, while never quite committing to giving the player control of the best part of investigating – the ability to theorize for themselves. Tailing people has a frustrating detection system making it feel like a chore and the pointless searching of empty crime scenes and maps seems completely redundant. Even LA Noire, arguably the greatest detective game ever made, failed to make tailing enjoyable, but it at least offered the player an option to skip the scenes. Instead of learning from this, Judgment offers a worse effort, including groups to tail and no option to skip the scenes.
Tension built by giving the player the responsibility to decide the crime’s culprit/motives is completely lost as the story’s secrets are unveiled through cutscenes moments before, making your conversation choices and evidence you need to present far too obvious. This wouldn’t be so bad if there were consequences for failure or difficult story-affecting decisions in other parts of the story, but as there aren’t, the addition of this mechanic feels relatively meaningless, like you’re a middle-man between the cutscenes and the game.
Judgment is a very good game that could have been great, if not for its uninspired detective gameplay mechanics. Aside from that one negative, it offers great drama, addictive action and a variety of activities that rank Judgment as one of the best the Yakuza series has to offer. It’s also a good introduction to the Ryu Ga Gotoku universe without having to play all 7 games of Kiryu’s story, making it a recommended title for new fans as well.