While there are many forms of critique, for many, the purpose of a game review is essentially binary: should you play the game? It’s something you have to decide for yourself, after absorbing all the information you can to make your decision the most accurate and fair one. So in a way, what you read should be presenting the best case for each side, letting you make the final…
Yeah. Judgment. You knew where I was going with this. Let’s get to it.
Judgment is the latest game by Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, the team behind the series known in the West as Yakuza. In it, you still fight and explore and investigate mysteries around the pseudo-fictional district of Kamurocho, but the focus of the action shifts from the yakuza themselves to a detective and former attorney who… has a lot of ties to the yakuza. Takayuki Yagami chases down leads (sometimes literally) as he solves cases around the city both within the main story and outside of it.
You’ve seen this game. You’ve seen this game a whole bunch of times. This is a Yakuza game in which the person who’s sort of with but not totally in the yakuza is a slightly different person. You’ll punch and you’ll kick and you’ll have magical powers that let you glow and accomplish superhuman feats in combat. They mapped a different face on him this time. You’ll run around the same city, with a lot of the same aging assets, and somehow after tons of these games you still can’t go into many of the buildings or talk to very many people. Sega and RGG Studio are asking you to play another near-identical game, and with all the remakes and the compressed release schedule to catch up with Japan, they’ve done that a lot lately.
But Yagami fights differently! Sure, there are similar styles from time to time. Sure, hitting someone with a traffic cone results in basically the same thing. But Yagami is more nimble than Kiryu, and the jumping and wall moves and general kinetic feel to his combat… these things make a difference. And unlike a lot of Yakuza games, he starts off as a competent fighter with a larger suite of moves and it doesn’t take a ton of grinding to make him better. The skill tree in this game is much simpler, meaning it gets straight to the point and doesn’t make you spend on his attack a hundred times. He also moves differently in general, climbing on and over stuff as he moves through the city.
Yagami’s movement is really a first draft of what it should have been. Sure, you can run and jump onto cars, but the moment you do, you immediately lose all momentum. It feels rough. Hitting people from walls is easier said than done, and the time it takes to set up often could have been used to get in one more punch and ultimately deal more damage. There’s even a second stance to his combat that’s supposed to offer more one-on-one options, but it… doesn’t seem to make very much of a difference? Sure, you get some different moves, but they don’t open up that many gameplay possibilities. And you do chase people around the city, but what could have been a fun exploration of Yagami’s movement and your knowledge of the city ends up being… a series of on-rails quick-time events.
It’s true that the chases aren’t great. Yakuza has always been a game with good side stuff and bad side stuff, and Judgment is no different. But that does mean we get good side stuff! Somehow the various drone activities work well, combining the Pocket Circuit appeal of tweaking a little gadget for performance with actual racing action and even investigative sequences. The racing in particular feels like it rewards learning the city and its architecture, as anticipating when you’ll need to make a hard turn or duck under a gate can save you valuable time. The arcade games are great as usual, too. This release sports classics, like Space Harrier, Fantasy Zone and Fighting Vipers; more modern releases, like Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown and Puyo Puyo; and even a few oddballs, like the obscure Motor Raid or the totally original Kamuro of the Dead.
Saying “even investigative sequences” and then moving on to talk about the racing again is fairly telling about those investigative sequences, huh? These are essentially point-and-click segments, with or without the drone, in which you look around until you find the thing the game wants you to find. You can’t move on without the key evidence and there aren’t many red herrings, so it doesn’t end up being very rewarding. The systems aren’t built to handle failure, so they just avoid it entirely. This is a game that gives you a false sense of agency, instead telling the story it wants to tell, beat by beat. Which would be fine if it didn’t pretend otherwise. This remains true when you present the evidence you find to make your point: this is certainly not Ace Attorney, even when it makes clear that it really wants to be.
Underneath the pretense of player agency lies a story that’s once again interesting. Yeah, it has similar factions to the previous Yakuza work: various crime families, the police and whatever part of the seedy underbelly of the red light district is involved at the moment. But the team knows how to tell an intriguing narrative. The main story starts big and doesn’t stop, and Yagami’s history and skill set do make him a much more logical person to investigate than, say, a teenager in the ’80s who can punch okay but doesn’t know anything about real estate law. You know, as an example. It also makes sense that the people of the city come to him with their problems: not only is it literally his job, but he’s a calmer, more intelligent guy and that comes through in play. He’s less likely to be tricked and more likely to pick up on subtle cues. Still, it’s a game. You’re still a few steps ahead of him sometimes.
The game’s worst segments are the tailing ones, in which you’re trying to remain unseen as you follow a person of interest. These could have been cool. These could have been about blending into the crowd, wearing disguises and finding natural cover to remain out of sight. Instead, they’re basically also quick-time events, as there are very specific glowing spots you can hide and they are limited and essentially offer you one place at any given moment. So you go to the glowing spot, hit the hide button, wait for a character model ahead of you to stop their “suspicious glancing” animation and do that again for the next five minutes or so.
The studio’s games have found success by covering up shallow gameplay with fun writing and quick action. This is shallow gameplay with no writing and incredibly tedious action.
It’s true, the tailing segments are awful. But the segments that do have writing are just as fun as usual. Along the way, you’ll meet some colorful, memorable characters that make exploring the city and stumbling into side stories that much more appealing. Even when they’re minor, the quests to befriend Kamurocho’s denizens are fun and add some depth to the world well beyond the explicit in-game reward of sometimes getting a special combat action when they’re nearby. Like the consummate professional making suits at Le Marche, or the caring brother who means well but doesn’t always make the best decisions. Or the mysterious woman at the bar! It’s legitimately enjoyable just to spot them as you venture around town, even when they’re not actively part of the narrative.
Judgment is not going to wow you with an impressive new combat system or a narrative that is nothing like those you’ve seen before. It’s very much a product of its genre, both in terms of gameplay and storytelling, but what it delivers on both fronts is a solid version of each. Perhaps it’s because it stays so firmly in RGG Studio’s wheelhouse that it delivers what it does so effectively. Like Yakuza 0 before it, it’s a solid entry point for those looking to try out a game from the team for the first time, and perhaps it could be a foundation for exploring new and different areas in the future.