Judgment takes no risks with the proven Yakuza formula, resulting in a spectacular, though familiar, trip down the well-worn streets of Kamurocho.
After wrapping up the saga of Kazuma Kiryo with Yakuza 6 and Yakuza Kiwami 2, Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio team is back with a spin-off set within the same universe, Judgment. Despite featuring an all-new cast and storyline, Judgment rarely strays from the established formula set by Kiryu's adventures. For better or worse, Judgment will feel extremely familiar to fans of the Yakuza franchise.
Like the great majority of Yakuza games before it, Judgment is set on the dangerous streets of Kamurocho, a fictional district within Tokyo. It's not a particularly large sandbox, but it is dense with content, from the series' signature side quests, minigames, and other assorted diversions. Since the map is so small compared to other open-world games, and because the basic layout of the city remains unchanged from previous titles, returning to Kamurocho is almost like coming home to longtime fans. Though the minimap certainly comes in handy, many locations can be found directly from memory, at least for Yakuza veterans. There aren't many games which choose a setting and stick with it, which gives this series a unique appeal for longtime players.
Judgment has no delusions as to its identity as a straight-up Yakuza game. Were it called Yakuza 7, few would object. The structure is nigh-identical to previous titles, from the sprawling, delightfully overwrought main storyline, to the genre-bending side quests, which range from heartwarming to absurd, and everything in between. While karaoke and bowling are noticeably absent, it's hard to complain when one can enjoy perfectly emulated versions of Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown, Puyo Puyo, and Fighting Vipers, not to mention Kamuro of the Dead, a brand new rail shooter made within the regular game engine. There's also a pinball machine in the protagonist's office – a pinball machine which is inexplicably made using the Unity engine. There are so many open world games featuring vast, empty spaces devoid of meaningful content. Judgment (like Yakuza) goes in the opposite direction, generally limiting the action to an enclosed area within the city, but making sure there's something fun and new to do on practically every single corner.
The main character, Yagami, is a disgraced lawyer-turned-private detective on the hunt for a particularly nasty serial killer who has been murdering gangsters and cutting out their eyes. While arguably a victimless crime, Yagami's righteous sense of justice means he just can't let this case go, and his quest for the truth ultimately uncovers more than he ever could have suspected. The story fits the sensibilities of the Yakuza series, but strongly benefits from its new main character. Yagami manages to carry a different vibe from previous Yakuza protagonists while still feeling like a natural fit for the series' traditional gameplay loop of constantly performing random tasks for strangers.
The main plot starts slowly compared to previous Yakuza titles, with a linear progression and slow unveiling of plot developments as the main players are introduced. Fortunately, Judgment finds its footing early in Chapter 2, after around five hours of play. Once the Side Cases open up, offering up a 'private detective twist' on the series' trademark Substories, and Judgment happily falls into the familiar rhythm of the best Yakuza games. Thankfully, the writing in these Side Cases remains as varied, wacky, and soulful as ever, imbuing the game with a personality above and beyond comparable titles.
Built on the same Dragon Engine which fueled Yakuza 6 and Kiwami 2, Judgment isn't as cutting edge as the biggest Triple-A titles, but it's nonetheless impressive, with tons of NPCs, gorgeous fighting animations, and excellent motion capture in the numerous and lengthy cutscenes. Judgment offers dual audio options, allowing for either Japanese or English dialogue. While the English option is appreciated, we stuck with the original Japanese, which can't help but feel more natural, given the distinctly Japanese characters, setting, and sensibilities.
While there's a ton of varied content to explore in Judgment, the main crux of the game, as with the whole Yakuza series, remains visceral sequences of bone-crunching hand-to-hand combat. Like Kiryu, Majima, Tanimura, and all the rest before them, Yagami takes down random thugs and criminal bosses with ridiculously over-the-top fighting moves. Thanks to the Dragon Engine, the impact of these moves is enhanced with glorious ragdoll physics which sees bad guys flail as they're thrown across the room, smashing into any number of destructible objects as they crumple into a pile of broken bones and busted glutes. In addition to series staples like multiple fighting styles and Heat Actions (renamed here as EX Actions), Judgment introduces a few new tricks, like the ability to leap off of walls for powerful blows, as well as the ability to spend the EX gauge on a super-charged EX Mode, trading finishing moves for a temporary boost in power and an expanded suite of combo moves.
Yagami ostensibly isn't a ruthless, night stalking vigilante, but a streetwise detective, though this benefits the story more than the gameplay. While his constant sleuthing is great fuel for the slowly unfolding plot, the new bits of detective-focused gameplay usually fall somewhat flat. Tailing missions see Yagami stealthily following targets, and they're as boring as, well, pretty much every tailing mission ever made across the entire medium of video games. The chase sequences return from Yakuza 4, though they're more frequent and automated this time around, shallow Quick Time Events which add little to the experience. On the other hand, searching crime scenes for clues and scouting environments using an RC drone are entertaining and fuel the private detective aesthetic of Yagami's character.
Judgment doesn't feel like a spin-off or minor entry in the Yakuza series; it feels like a brand new start within the venerated saga of the mean streets of Kamurocho. Players who were previously unimpressed by Yakuza's core blend of righteous combat, dramatic storytelling, and eccentrically eclectic subplots will find nothing in Judgment to change their mind. However, fans who can't get enough of Yakuza will feel right at home in the world of Judgment.
Publisher Sega has spent the last few years creating Yakuza games which serve as prospective starting points for newcomers to the franchise. Between the prequel, Yakuza 0, and the remake of the original game, Yakuza Kiwami, fans have had plenty of opportunities to jump in and see what all the fuss is about. Judgment jettisons the entire cast and story of the old games in favor of a fresh start in Kamurocho, making for an excellent entryway for newcomers, as well as an exciting stand-alone story for Yakuza veterans.
Judgment is available now for PlayStation 4. Screen Rant was provided a copy for review on PlayStation 4 Pro.