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‘Judgment’ Review: No OBJECTION here

Judgment is so well written and localized that it fully deserves the level of recognition that any standard Yakuza game gets.

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Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio don’t make perfect games; they make special games. Anyone with a vested interest in the developer’s Yakuza series will be well aware of the cult-level of fandom that surrounds these quirky, violent, and gripping titles. Despite the hugely increased Western exposure Sega’s given these games in the current generation, being a fan of RGG Studio’s work still feels like something of an exclusive club for those who ‘get it’; those who can embrace the weird and wonderful world of Kamurocho and its oddball denizens. As a spin-off (of sorts) with the same virtual setting, and built in the same game engine, Judgment probably won’t be signing up too many new club members, but those already ingratiated into the insanity will find a lot to love.

Judgment may be set in Kamurocho, but its plot is completely new and doesn’t have any links to the Yakuza titles. Players take control of Takayuki Yagami, who’s currently working as private investigator after his first, and only, criminal case as a defense lawyer saw him secure the acquittal of a murder suspect who, upon his release, went on to kill his own girlfriend. ‘Tak’ runs the Yagami Detective Agency alongside his partner Masaharu Kaito, a former Yakuza member of the Matsugane family. Because of course there are Yakuza in this game.

If Judgment didn’t do this, we’d all be rightly disappointed.

Considering series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu is rarely ever actually in the Yakuza, the Japanese gangsters probably have about as much of a role as antagonists in Judgment as they always do. This time, as well as constantly starting fights with Yagami, the Yakuza secure their role in proceedings via the distinction of being murdered by a serial killer and having the eyes gouged out of their corpses. In their quest to uncover the truth, Yagami and his partner find themselves fighting – both figuratively and very, very literally – against myriad foes, including a variety of Yakuza clans, the local police department, prosecutors, the Ministry of Health, journalists, and more.

Being a private investigator means Yagami can’t focus on just one serial killer to pay the bills, and there are 50 side cases to fill out the lengthy main plot. They’re mostly brilliant, genuinely intriguing, typically hilarious, and stuffed full of the type of risqué material that has become a staple of RGG’s games, and Polygon writers’ nightmares. It’s pretty standard for one of these games to present an incredibly complex and dramatic plot supported by utterly ridiculous side quests, and for the non-sensationalist fan this is both a mandatory inclusion and the source of countless memorable moments. I’ll certainly never forget roping a vampire into doing community service, or chasing down a bald male idol’s “hat” (see: wig), only to have him apologise and explain that, “it’s a really fast hat.”

The noise this ‘hat’ makes when it blows in the wind is comedy gold.

It can be a little jarring to see so many shockingly sex-related story beats end with well-meaning humility, but the writing quality of RGG consistently bails them out of controversy. The women of Kamurocho are almost constantly being stalked, harassed, or just plain paraded in front of horny salarymen. It seems that RGG is aware of the outside world’s perspective of this facet of modern Japanese culture, and is often quick to condemn anything that could, and should, be seen as out-of-touch. They could, of course, just take it all out in the first place, but where’s the fun in that? Yagami is the player’s window into the debauched world of the Tokyo underbelly. His insightful reactions humorously pick apart this questionable culture in a way that likely mirrors your average westerner’s attempts to fathom characters like Ass Catchem and Judge Creep ‘n’ Peep.

Yagami can gain boosts by both drinking and smoking, engage in illegal underground gambling, have four girlfriends on the go at once (which I did purely for the trophy), and is absolutely not averse to smacking seven shades of Shichifuku Street out of anyone who messes with his cause for justice. You know what, though? If Judgment, and the Yakuza games before it, didn’t throw open this window into wacky Japanese culture with the enthusiasm that it does then it just wouldn’t be credible, and would be a damn sight less fun. It might be shocking, but it’s a truly joyful experience that pokes fun at itself with snappy, witty writing and a bevy of interesting characters completely devoid of tired tropes or insipid dialogue. It’s all turned up to 11, and that’s why I love it.

What sport do you think you should play based on your butt?

Being built in the Yakuza 6 engine ensures that general gameplay feels, well, pretty much exactly like Yakuza 6. Naturally, Yagami has his own unique fighting ability – which he employs a darn site more than he does any actual detective work – that consists of two styles: crane and tiger. Crane is a faster, more agile fighting style and is recommended to be used against large groups of mooks, whom you’ll be squaring off against 90% of the time. Most of the EX special moves for this style are focused around crowd control, whereas the tiger style is better suited for one-on-one battles (aka bosses) and is a much more visceral and power-based approach.

There are tons of potential weapons lying around all over the city, including the obligatory bicycles, and Yagami has easily some of the best EX special moves of all RGG’s games. Befriending local shop owners allows for context-sensitive help, usually in the form of some variant of burning hot food to throw in the eyes or force down the gullet of some hapless schmuck. Better still are the tag team moves available whenever Yagami has a buddy in tow, and the cherry on the icing on the cake is the traffic-based finishers – one of which is probably my favorite of all time.

This is awesome, and it’s not even the one I mentioned as my favorite.

It’s not all fighting, though, and the main appeal of Judgment is in its potential for a more methodical, puzzle-based, detective campaign. It’s, unfortunately, a potential that isn’t as well-realized as many would have hoped. There are a couple of lock-picking mini games which are completely unremarkable (and barely used after the first couple of hours), a scene-analyzing first person mode used to dig up clues, and a tailing mechanic. The latter is employed the most by far, and my word does it get boring by the game’s end. Slowly walking after a target that will routinely turn around out of trepidation is not fun, and it’s made even less fun thanks to the wonky hiding mechanic that supposedly lets Yagami duck behind obvious cover points to avoid detection.

I say obvious cover, but I believe that my definition of obvious differs from that of the developer’s. Sometimes a car will be cover, other times it won’t be, and you’ll be stuck standing with head poking over the top of a car smashing the circle button expecting Yagami to do the thing he’s done dozens of times before. Same goes for certain light boards and walls. It’s basically a crapshoot that often left me running around in the open like a total maniac, and an obvious one at that. For some reason, each target has a meter that tracks how much they’ve noticed the really conspicuous man flailing around behind a car and knocking people over, so if that meter never gets filled then you can just duck behind whatever bit of cover is the correct one and they’ll react like they didn’t see a thing.

Okay, Maybe a Few Objections…

The biggest disappointment is that it leaves Judgment feeling like another Yakuza game with a few uninspired additions rammed down your throat, rather than the standalone experience it tried to market itself as. The detective angle definitely works from a story perspective, but it barely alters the gameplay in any meaningful, or satisfying, way. Unless you count flying a drone directly upwards to press X by a second-floor window, or wearing a disguise to walk into a room and press X by someone you want to spy on.

10/10 would one-liner again.

Undeniably worse than the misstep of not fully utilizing the investigative elements is the inclusion of the Keihen Gang invasion events. These happen way too often, and are guaranteed to always abruptly halt whatever story process you’re making. They essentially boil down to the owner of a Chinese restaurant (I have no idea why) texting Yagami telling him that the Keihen Gang are back causing mayhem, and you’re then left with a threat meter to try and whittle down.

I say try, but you’ll basically be forced to do this, as Yagami will be jumped by goons every 20 seconds or so, and there will be up to four gang leaders chillin’ on random corners waiting for a good ol’ fashioned, mano a mano slobberknocker. These bastards all have the ability to deal mortal wounds to Yagami, which manifest as a permanent health drain that requires an expensive medical kit to remove. Yay. It’s a completely needless bit of padding that can really spoil the flow of player progress. Worse still, the rewards for fighting them off, and the overall impact on the game’s narrative, are completely negligible and not worth anyone’s time.

Dice & Cube is another of the new mini games. It sucks.

Time is something that you better have ready if you’re wanting to fully beat Judgment, as anyone familiar with the Yakuza series will already know. I beat the game after just over 50 hours, completing all but three side quests and missing a couple of the 45 friends Yagami can make in the city, and that was still only listed as 63.7% completion. Kudos, as well, to the new drone races mini game, and the brilliant arcade ‘light gun’ game Kamuro of the Dead.

You certainly can’t complain that Judgment doesn’t offer value for money. In a world where most games are intent to charge real-world money for extra character skins or maps, Judgment is content to take your initial investment, throw a 50-hour campaign at you and still make time to include a full version of Virtua Fighter 5.

Oh, for crying out loud, lads. Can’t the drone race stay sacred?

When all’s said and done, though, Judgment lives by its story, and what a story it is. Ryu Ga Gotoku are operating at an absolutely astounding level right now. Their consistent flair for creating truly nasty bastard villains, infinitely likeable antiheroes, excellent character development, believable relationships, snappy dialogue and jaw-dropping drama is, for me, completely unparalleled. Add that to the flawless Japanese voice cast, and the considerable work that the best localization team in gaming has to put in, and it’s a truly incredible piece of work.

Judgment has all the nonsense of a typical RGG game, but it’s all offset against an impressively modern and intelligent narrative that expertly piles a lot of emotional weight onto the notion of true justice. It questions the role of a defense lawyer, weighing up the value of finding the truth vs. simply disproving the prosecution. It also raises the very topical issue of uncovering the truth against those who wish to stifle it for ‘the greater good.’ It’s mature, it’s gripping and it’s genuinely thought-provoking. Fundamentally, this will last a lot longer in the memory than some dodgy tailing mechanics. Not perfect, then, but undeniably special.

Judgment isn’t quite the Yakuza-meets-Phoenix-Wright we were hoping for, but it’s held together masterfully with the recognizable formula of terrific fighting mechanics, a jam-packed open world, and an incredible story starring yet another brilliant protagonist. The game is so well written and localized that it fully deserves the level of recognition that any standard Yakuza game gets.

Crotchety Englishman who spends hundreds of pounds on video game tattoos and Amiibo in equally wallet-crippling measure. Likes grammar a lot, but not as much as he likes ranting about the latest gaming news in his weekly column.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Ricky Fernandes da Conceição

    July 22, 2019 at 6:25 pm

    This game looks awesome. 50 hours is long but since there isn’t much out this summer, I think I am going to pick this game up asap.

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