SEGA's Yakuza Studio has done it again. The Japanese developer has been on a roll this generation, and it's apparently not stopping anytime soon. Judgment is an entirely standalone Yakuza spin-off that attempts to freshen up the formula by adding detective and courtroom elements to an already rich action role-playing experience. The result is, for our money, one of the best Yakuza-style games yet.
But let's get one thing clear: Judgment is not Phoenix Wright. At its core, this is still a game where you run around the neon streets of Kamurocho, beating up thugs and spending an absurd amount of time trying to master side activities. While new mechanics like collecting evidence, questioning suspects, and chasing down leads play important roles throughout this 50 or so hour adventure, they never give way to the kind of depth that you might expect from a proper detective title.
The lack of depth isn't a huge issue, though. If anything, going through the motions of detective work actually gives you time to reflect on the story and its characters. As such, Judgment does an exceptional job of keeping you hooked to what is quite a complex narrative, absolutely stuffed with twists and turns.
Yakuza Studio really doesn't get enough credit for its writing, world building, and characters. This is some top tier storytelling right from the word go, and although the plot does drag at points -- more on that later -- we're not exaggerating when we say that, alongside the Yakuza games, Judgment has one of the most engrossing, emotive, and intense narratives on PlayStation 4. You just can't look away, and the final act is nothing short of astounding.
You play as private detective Takayuki Yagami, who runs his own detective firm from a tiny office in the red light district of Kamurocho. The setting's obviously perfect for a tale steeped in crime and seedy shenanigans, and it's not long before Yagami finds himself tangled in a web of gruesome murders. Needless to say, Judgment is not a game for the faint of heart. It's a mature title that at times pulls no punches, and you're constantly given reason to believe that Kamurocho is not a safe place to be -- especially when you're desperately trying to uncover the truth.
All of this tension feeds into a truly gripping storyline that's fit to burst with memorable, believable characters. Yagami's stern and righteous, but past events haunt his every move, while his best friend and business partner is a loyal but stubborn ex-mobster called Kaito. We could write thousands of words about each and every central character in Judgment, but we'll keep it short and just say that the cast is phenomenal, both in the way that they're written and in the way that they're portrayed by their actors.
Our only criticism of the story is that, as mentioned, it does have moments where it loses its momentum. Around the midway point especially, Yagami is pulled from one place to the next without making any real progress. Some scenarios start to feel like filler, and there are points where you're forced to complete a side mission or two in order to reach the next main story beat. Of course, when the plot's kicking into overdrive and you're on the edge of your seat you forget all about the filler, but being diverted off course for the sake of padding can still be frustrating.
Speaking of side missions, they're Yagami's main source of income. Both at his office and at a local bar, you're able to accept jobs from a range of clients. The variety on offer is rather impressive: you'll be searching for lost cats, chasing down thieves, solving marital spats, putting thugs in their place, and much more. And these aren't just your usual boring fetch quests -- each case comes with its own small cast of characters, all of them brilliantly realised, and there's usually a comical twist or intriguing revelation to look forward to.
Some of these missions, though, are outrageous, even by Yakuza standards. We won't spoil anything here, but there were times when we genuinely couldn't believe what we were seeing on screen. Some of it is nothing short of hysterical, and some of it is actually quite disturbing. Nevertheless, it's clear that the developer has gone above and beyond. Oh, and the localisation team has done an outstanding job here. Most side cases aren't voice acted, but the text is so flavourful and full of character that it doesn't really matter.
He may just be a detective, but Yagami certainly knows how to defend himself. Gifted in the way of rather elegant-looking martial arts, he rarely shies away from a fight, which is an essential quality to have when most of these cases inevitably devolve into violence. If you've played a Yakuza game before, you'll know what's in store here. Flurries of kicks and punches can be chained together with the square and triangle buttons, while grabbing, blocking, and dodging are all necessary to your survival on the streets.
Yagami's a lot more agile than Yakuza protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, however. His lean frame lets him run up walls and vault over the heads of his enemies, which gives the combat system a welcome new dimension. His dodge is also more effective than Kiryu's dash ever was, as it allows Yagami to sail through incoming blows when timed just right. This added mobility does come at a cost, though, in that Yagami isn't as durable as the Dragon of Dojima.
If you find yourself caught between enemies or clipped by the special attack of a boss, you can lose whole chunks of your health bar in seconds, especially on the harder difficulties. With Yagami's relative frailty in mind, combat does demand a more considered approach -- even on the easiest difficulty, you can't just mash buttons and expect to walk away in one piece. With Yagami, it's all about timing your blows, knowing when to back off, and unleashing your all-powerful EX moves when the opportunity presents itself.
All in all, though, combat is still great fun. Yagami may not be the hulking beast that Kiryu was, but his fluid combos and over-the-top special moves give him a distinct and enjoyable feel.
When you're not bruising baddies or following the main plot, you're free to do whatever you like in Kamurocho. Not every activity is open to you from the start, but there are two main draws: Drone Racing, and a weird virtual reality board game. The former is another fine example of the developer going far beyond what you'd expect from a simple side activity. As the name suggests, Drone Racing has you pilot a drone through makeshift race courses across Kamurocho. It's fast, furious, and far more entertaining than it has any right to be. Quite possibly one of the best side activities in a Yakuza game to date.
The virtual reality stuff doesn't fare quite so well, sadly. And no, there's no PlayStation VR compatibility here -- this is VR that takes place within the game, with Yagami equipping some futuristic goggles before plopping himself onto an imaginary game board. It's just about as crazy as it sounds: you roll dice, move to different spaces, and then complete challenges. Sometimes you have to fight, sometimes you have to pick a lock or win a race. Ultimately, the VR lounge is just a way to pack all of Judgment's gameplay systems into one quick and easy activity, and while it is enjoyable enough, it just feels a bit flat compared to the thrill ride story and eye-watering drone races.
It's also a shame that several activities from previous Yakuza titles don't make a return. The absence of karaoke is a shocker, and we'd love to get back to bowling at some point. That said, the addition of the 'friends' system is a nice touch, giving you a good excuse to go out on the town and get to know Kamurocho's inhabitants. Help people with their problems or regularly shop at their stores, and they'll give you access to new moves, abilities, and items. There's even an all-new 'girlfriend' component, which allows Yagami to go on dates with eligible ladies. It's not all murders and street brawls for our hero.
Before we hop on over to the conclusion, we should mention that Judgment has an optional English dub -- something that's been missing from the Yakuza series since the PS2 days. The good news is that it's about as well done as it could possibly be. There are a few lip-syncing issues here and there since this is just English voice actors having to go over scenes that were shot in Japanese, but it's still more than serviceable. An admirable effort on SEGA's behalf.
Judgment may be a Yakuza spin-off, but that doesn't stop it from being one of the best games in SEGA's series. Barring some gimmicky gameplay additions and some unnecessary story padding, it's an absolutely ace detective thriller. As we've come to expect of Yakuza Studio, Judgment's writing and characters are top notch, and it's arguably a perfect place to start if you're looking to explore the streets of Kamurocho for the first time. Another great showing from a developer that's at the top of its game.