In 2005 the Yakuza series was brought to life on the PlayStation 2 and absorbed an audience which has only snowballed over the last few years, garnering an increased amount of interest from western audiences. 2019 sees the release of Judgment, a spin-off in the series that invites an injection of new ideas and concepts that bring a lot of variety to the table, but fundamentally nothing new.
Judgment puts you in the shoes of a former lawyer turned detective, Takayuki Yagami. Following an event three years prior which turned his life upside down, Yagami is now on the hunt for a serial killer in the series staple location, Karamucho. A perpetrator he has nicknamed ‘The Mole’, who appears to be the suspect of a series of murders involving the victims’ eyes being removed from their body. The Yakuza series has always centered around a story of power play within the crime syndicates, so it’s refreshing that Judgment’s story focuses on a more outside approach, crafting a story that’s more accessible for newcomers while still retaining its foot in the door for Yakuza series veterans. Throughout the games thirteen lengthy chapters, you will begin in engaging in a variety of objectives that the game slowly feeds to you before becoming a more streamlined affair. It may seem in the early hours that the plot feels meandering and without focus, and while that may be true it becomes a means to an end to give you a taste of the games various mechanics.
Naturally, being a detective plays a vital role within the campaign as you use your deduction skills to analyze and scan crime scenes. This is portrayed in the style of point and click sequences, tailing missions, presenting evidence to best suit your argument and other mini-games that try to convey the feeling of being a real-life detective. Presenting evidence is the best of the three as it forces you to ensure you’ve been paying attention to the story and can often incentivize you with a handful of skill points for declaring the correct evidence the first time. The other methods, however, are unfortunately some of the weaker aspects of the game. Scanning crime scenes at first seems as though it will introduce an interesting new mechanic but is weighed down by its unnecessary hand-holding through the sequences by telling you what items you need to find, some sections may give you a bit more freedom, but they’re so few and far between you will be craving more.
Perhaps the worst of the bunch though is the inclusion of tailing missions which should have been left back in the ’90s where they belong. More often than not you will be following a suspect for a lengthy period of time before they dramatically look backward for no reason, searching for your presence. It’s at this point, you will have to quickly find a piece of cover for your character and wait before the suspect decides to move on. These missions are thrown at your far too frequently and become stale almost immediately due to their dated mechanics and they ultimately drag down the narrative and create some serious lulls in the storytelling. Occasionally the game will throw a chase sequence into the mix to counteract these tailing segments, but this just boils down to a basic on-rails section incorporating a few quick-time events. Other mechanics such as lockpicking, safe cracking and using disguises are used so sporadically that they don’t feel like new mechanics welded within the game’s structure. Aside from tailing none of these components are bad, they’ve just been better utilized in other games and bring nothing exciting to the table.
What Judgment does excel in, much like its predecessors in the franchise is the side content. Kamamucho yet again feels like a living breathing world filled with larger than life characters and addictive day-to-day activities such as visiting the local arcade or competing within a virtual reality board game. Accompanying this is the side missions which are structured mostly as investigations which utilize your investigation methods often in more exciting ways than the main campaign. One minute you’ll be in a game of hide-and-seek using clues from your phone to track down a missing child and the next you’ll be hired to help a book publisher crack an enigma code so he can gain the rights to another book he can publish.
There are a huge quantity of stories like this and are told as either side-cases or friend events which is a mechanic which involves you becoming friends with many of the residents, building your friendship with them over a multitude of story arcs. Judgment is certainly one of the strongest in the series to display this and encourages you to invest yourself into this world with its increasingly unusual array of people. It can be easy to lose track of the main story as you use your in-game phone app to track a list of objectives useful for further developing your character. These tasks can range from trying all the food in a restaurant, to gaining a high score on one of the many arcade games such as Puyo Puyo Tetris. The world can be your own virtual slice of Japanese culture and at times a truly mesmerizing and bizarre experience that begs to be indulged.
Combat in Judgment infuses a more technical approach than past entries. Boasting only two combat stances it can feel as though this would be a more watered down system but rapidly shows you that is not the case. Your first style entitled the ‘tiger-style’ is your more traditional ‘one on one’ stance which deploys hard-hitting attacks onto a single opponent and deadly combos. On the other side, you have the ‘crane-style’ which is useful for tackling groups of multiple enemies with its far-reaching movement and free-flowing ability to traverse the field. Both styles have enough opportunity to be used and are frequently upgraded through the games skill system. Skills are gained from completing an array of objectives such as combat encounters or completing any of the in-game achievements which invite you to try every aspect of the game to further hone your skills. The combat feels a lot more grounded than past entries (although a handful of environmental special moves known as heat actions, useable via gauge built up the more you attack, portray a more fun tone) and that may be orchestrated by the game’s darker story. Furthering the combat is the inclusion of mortal wounds which are inflicted when an enemy uses their own heat action against you to hit massive damage, unforgivingly bringing down your permanent health in battle until you use a health kit which can be fairly expensive in the early portions of the game. This pushes you to use a more defensive approach and crafts a more intense experience. I found this to be a refreshing take on the formula and quickly no longer missed the use of more extravagant fighting styles.