Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio | Publisher: Sega| Release date: June 25, 2019 | Genre: Action/Adevnture | Reviewed On: PlayStation 4 Pro
Game was purchased personally at retail.
Toshihiro Nagoshi is a Sega veteran with a background in film production and it shows in the Yakuza series (Ryu Ga Gotoku in Japan) with its focus on story, great cinematography, and intriguing cast of characters. He first started as a CG designer under Yu Suzuki and now is the Chief Creative Officer at Sega. He worked on influential titles such as Daytona USA and Shenmue. He also headlined the Yakuza series. It has been going for 14 years and inspired by real-life Kabuchiko and Roppongi Hills. Next up is a new spin-off called Judgment which released internationally in June. Judgment, adds the combat/exploration aspects of the franchise with the investigative/procedural elements of games such as Ace Attorney, Hideo Kojima’s Policenauts, and Yuji Horri’s Portopia Murder Mystery.
The three mechanics that hold Judgment together are investigation, exploration, and combat. Investigation is the new addition that focuses on the legal angle of the Yakuza universe. These mechanics do immerse you into the sensation of being a detective. This mechanic is mainly conveyed through asking questions or displaying evidence supplied from your findings. You also do search crime scenes to gather evidence to strengthen or dismiss cases. You get an experience bonus if you ask the right questions. The finding system is a bit simplistic and is basically a find the hotspot mechanic which is a holdover from adventure games. At the start of the game, however, you’re limited to a hint system. Lastly, there’s also the tailing system which is a stealth mini-game that is very lenient on how easily you get spotted. It does nicely fit with the detective/crime thriller angle.
Exploration is the sandbox. You can explore the 2018 version of Kamurocho which includes various shops, arcades with such Sega classics such as Space Harrier, Virtua Fighter 5, and Motor Raid (which is an arcade game like EA’s Road Rash but in full 3D with more of a sci-fi vibe). This marks the first time that Motor Raid has been ported to a home console. The restaurants have various food items that recover your health, unlike in Yakuza 6 where it increased your stats only. The friend system from Yakuza 0 also makes a return, but can now be used for specific attacks like if you find them roaming the city or are near/in their specific building. There is also a wealth of side stories that are funny, sad, and do lighten up the mostly serious mainline story. Kamurocho does give you breathing room and helps with the pacing of the story. This does help extend the game after the end of the story.
The third mechanic is combat which is a main tenet of the Yakuza series and it’s no different here. Instead of the Heat system for context-specific attacks, you get EX. Unlike Heat it doesn’t empty when you incur damage. There is also a boost mechanic that you use to burn the EX gauge to break certain enemies’ guards and extend your combo. Also, the combat system is more simplified with an auto combo system which also extends your combo chain. The other difference from Yakuza 6 is that you only have two forms of fighting, they’re Crane and Tiger which looks like a mix of Kung Fu and Drunken style. Crane is mainly used for crowd control while Tiger is used for tougher enemies such as bosses. It also increases the chance of breaking an enemy’s guard. It’s an overall intuitive combat system that can be picked up by new players.
As with most games these days there is a progression system. You get your usual additional stats/combo strings but the majority of them are perks. Examples of this are getting an increase in the amount of time you have before losing someone during a tailing mission or steadying your hand during a doorknob bypass. Some like the Search Mode can be upgraded with abilities such as ‘Detective’s Hunch’ which vibrates when you find a hidden area. Target lock shows an outline of your mark in search mode. Both of these felt like they should have been a feature. Overall, the progression is pretty typical with a few questionable design choices.
The graphics are solid and make good use of the Dragon Engine which was introduced in Yakuza 6 and Yakuza Kiwami 2. It uses more Physically Based Rendering to give the buildings of Kamurocho and the surrounding areas in Tokyo a hyper-realistic look which is in line with Yakuza proper. The models of the characters also use subspace scattering which gives the mains realistic skin. The facial animations are hand-animated but are expressive and don’t go into the uncanny valley. You also have a large environment and a mostly locked framerate at 30 FPS, but it does dip to the 20’s when there is a lot of action.
The localization is well done which was produced by Scott Strichart who has worked as a localization manager on such games such as Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch and recent Yakuza entries. The quality of the localization shows with each voiced character and NPC having a distinct voice in voice acting and text. The spoken dialogue feels nuanced and is theatrical when it needs to be. It’s backed by a great dubbed voice cast which such veterans as Steve Jay Blum, Matt Mercer, and even a cameo from James Hong from Big Trouble in Little China. Gone are the days of Michael Madsen being in every PS2 game, even Yakuza. The team put in the effort to even include the original Japanese if you prefer a more literal reading.
The story which is the heart of the game is well told and paced. You play as Takayuki Yagami (Greg Chun) who is a disgraced lawyer because a young man named Shinpei Okubo got acquitted and is then convicted for murder in a separate incident. Yagami then becomes a Private Investigator and partners up with an ex-yakuza brawler named Masaharu Kaito (Crispin Freeman). Yagami at the start is brash but hides a growing sense of justice throughout the story. They are teamed up with Ryuzo Genda (Brian McNamara) who ran the main character’s law office, Masfuyu Fuji (Cherami Leigh) a prosecutor who is also Yagami’s ex.
The plot revolves around the murders of various yakuza and governmental officials and its relevance to AD-9. AD-9 is an up and coming drug that is a miracle cure for Alzheimer’s disease. The game does deal with contemporary themes such as Japan’s aging population, how the death penalty is used and the conflict between justice and politics. There are also questions late game where the theme of “do the ends justify the means” pops up. It’s all very enthralling with the only pacing issue being a somewhat sluggish start. This can be forgiven because the game needs time to set up the characters, tone, and setting.
Overall Judgment shows that you can have an adventure in Kamurocho without Kiryu, Taejima, and Akiyama. The investigation mechanics are a bit too simple and it has some questionable decisions for the progression system. These things can be overlooked because of Judgment‘s strong story, presentation, fighting mechanics and intimate sandbox. It may even turn you to a fan of Yakuza which has been heating up in popularity in the West. Definitely, a strong narrative-focused sandbox game that you can sink your teeth into.
Final Score 8.0/10
Edit: A video version of this review will be live next week.
Edit 2 8/13/19 : Shorter video review added.