The team behind the Yakuza series create a detective-themed spin-off featuring everything from eyeball-gouging serial killers to drone racing.
If you’d asked someone back in the heyday of the Mega Drive what they thought Sega would be doing in the space year 2019, we don’t think there’s anyone that would’ve guessed PC strategy games, no consoles, and almost no Japanese games. They do still have the Sonic franchise, and the occasional retro-related release, but the only non-PC series that maintains a consistent quality of releases is Yakuza – a crime thriller about the Japanese mafia. It’s not exactly Alex Kidd but not only have most of the games been very good but there’s a definably old school Sega feel to it, that we’re happy to see continue in this new spin-off.
Known in Japan as Judge Eyes, this is set very much in the same universe as Yakuza and is by the same (internal) developer. But rather than playing as a member of the Yakuza you instead take on the role of disgraced lawyer turned private detective Takayuki Yagami, who’s struggling to track down a serial killer in the mean streets of Kamurocho – the franchise’s fictionalised version of the Kabukichō district in Tokyo.
That’s a very common set-up for a movie, TV show, or novel but in the world of video games crime and legal thrillers are extremely rare. And purely on that basis Judgment is a breath of fresh air before it’s even begun. Its similarity to Yakuza, in terms of setting and gameplay, can undermine that appeal, but it’s still an impressively enjoyable roller coaster ride through the underbelly of Japanese society.
There have been Yakuza spin-offs before, with two games set in the samurai era that never made it to the West and one involving zombies that most would have preferred had stayed in Japan. But those games were treated liked What If? scenarios, with no real connection to the main series. Judgment is a proper side story though, with the serial killer targeting Yakuza members, thereby creating direct parallels to the main series.
As if the Kamurocho setting wasn’t clue enough, Judgment is very obviously based around Yakuza 6 in terms of reusing many of its assets and having a similar combat system. Yagami just so happens to be a dab hand at martial arts and, as in Yakuza 0, can switch styles on the fly between one that’s best used one-on-one and another that’s better suited to defending against groups of ruffians. He’s more acrobatic than Kazuma Kiryu though and has a lot of moves that involve jumping off walls and enemies to perform spectacular finishing moves.
All of which is in addition to the usual Yakuza trick of being able to pick up anything that isn’t nailed down, from bicycles to advertising stands, and smacking bad guys in the face with them. Although the way battles start is now more seamless than ever, with no transition and the option to simply run away if you don’t want to get involved.
The excuses the game has to come up with, as to why groups of thugs are constantly trying to beat you up, soon becomes rather unconvincing, but there’s not quite as much combat as the regular Yakuza games. There’s also a decent range of other action sequences, including crime thriller mainstays such as tailing a suspect or frantic chases through back alleys and busy streets. The former can seem frustratingly unfair at times though, with harsh punishments for failure.
But overall Judgment recreates the fantasy of being a private detective very well and while in real life it’s apparently an extremely unglamorous vocation here you get the Hollywood version where everyone you talk to is excitingly seedy and every task involves some sort of personal danger.
The problem with being a detective though is that simulating the more cerebral side of the job is extremely difficult. No action game wants to stop things dead while you try to figure out clues and create hypotheses, with the only game that’s really managed it properly being the extremely abstract Return Of The Obra Dinn.
As you’d imagine Judgment has nothing in common with that game but, given the main character’s lawyer background, it does take more than a few leaves out of Ace Attorney’s book, as you piece together evidence in a simplistic but still non-trivial manner. It works fine but there’s too many times when it devolves into pixel hunting – sweeping the screen for interactive objects that are almost invisible to the eye – which is a common problem with the genre.
Based on its core gameplay Judgment is an enjoyable but relatively shallow experience, with very linear story progression and a lot of repetition. But, much like Yakuza, its compelling storytelling is able to take up a lot of the slack, with an interesting, conspiracy laden plot and engaging characters. A new friendship system allows you to get know the game’s principles over the course of the game, some of which can end up helping in battle as computer-controlled allies, but some of the cut scenes are extremely long and will test the patience of even the most avid fan.
The other appeal of Yakuza has always been the mini-games and side quests and while Kamurocho is not large by open world standards it is incredibly dense with things to do, from real arcade games like Virtua Fighter and Fighting Vipers to everything from poker matches to drone racing. There’s also the obligatory romance options (but not karaoke or hostess clubs) and side quests that range from the hard boiled to the enjoyably absurd.
Judgment is rough around the edges and not every mechanic is as enjoyable as you might hope, but that too is very much in keeping with the Yakuza series as a whole. The franchise is set to get an overhaul with the next Yakuza, which will feature a new main character, and we wonder whether Judgment might have benefited from releasing after that rather than before. It’s more than good enough to justify a sequel though, not to mention encourage other games to explore the sorely underrepresented world of the private dick.
In Short: A fun spin-off that takes some of the best parts of Yakuza and weaves a story that’s at least as compelling – even if a lot of gameplay elements are becoming overfamiliar at this point.
Pros: A great story that stays just the right side of ridiculous. Fun side quests and tons of hidden secrets and diversions. Enjoyable combat and simple but effective detective sequences.
Cons: The setting is overfamiliar and the combat gets repetitive, with too little enemy variation. Tailing sequences can be frustrating and some mini-games aren’t much fun. Very long cut scenes.
Formats: PlayStation 4
Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio
Release Date: 21st June 2019
Age Rating: 18
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