As a Yakuza game in all but name, Judgment takes the crime drama beat ‘em up series into the courtroom.
Re-releasing for the PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and Google Stadia, Judgment officially brings the Yakuza series to current-gen consoles. A spinoff of the brawler gangster games, Judgment puts players into the shoes of a former lawyer turned private detective, taking on the streets of Kamurocho. New protagonist Takayuki Yagami fights just like any character in the Yakuza games, with the added benefits of his patience and eagle eye as a detective and his sharp legal acumen as a former defense attorney. His close allies within Kamurocho’s yakuza families send Yagami down a rabbit hole of conspiracies. A serial killer’s victims tie into a much larger political drama filled with high stakes and heart-wrenching twists and turns. Brand-new players who haven’t touched the Yakuza games will find an easy entry point in Judgment as the game’s story is almost entirely removed from the mainline entries. The game also features English voice acting for those who don’t like reading subtitles or who just prefer English dubs. Altogether, Judgment brings a fresh main protagonist, a fresh story and cast of characters and not-so-fresh detective mechanics together with a familiar Yakuza coat of paint—to varying degrees of success.
For the most part, Judgment plays exactly like a Yakuza game. Yagami has two unique fighting styles—tiger and crane—one designed for single-target combat and one for multiple enemies. He’s a deadly whirlwind in battle, taking out his enemies in style with powerful combos you can unlock through skill trees. Yagami can use the environment to his advantage, like jumping off walls and using his momentum to take down thugs. He’s a force to be reckoned with on his own, even outside the courtroom.
Combat can feel overly punishing in the form of mortal wounds. When enemies start glowing, any attacks they land on you inflict mortal wounds or special damage to your health bar. You can’t recover from these wounds through regular means. You can only heal the damage by using limited and expensive medical kits. Avoiding mortal wounds sometimes leads you to be more strategic in battle, but more often than not, this ends up feeling like too much of an inconvenience, especially at higher difficulties.
Fortunately, Yagami has plenty of ways to blow off steam outside of battle or scripted story sequences. Wandering around Kamurocho, you’ll find several mini-games and side activities, like finding stray cats, playing mahjong, blackjack, and poker, taking part in a virtual reality board game for potentially awesome cash prizes, customizing Yagami’s drone for races around the city and more. Due to budget constraints with Yagami’s popular Japanese voice actor, karaoke is sadly missing in the lineup of classic Yakuza mini-games. There’s also the added constraint of Judgment’s map being limited to Kamurocho, with no other playable cities to explore. Another city could have added more of a variety in activities. After several games in Kamurocho over the years, it’s easy for longtime fans to get burnt out by the location.
Judgment attempts to make up for things with new detective-focused gameplay mechanics. During the main story and during optional side cases, Yagami can study crime scenes for clues, compiling his findings into special briefs in the menu. You can review these briefs at any time, helping you recall just about any details of Judgment’s many conspiracy cases, murder victims and so on. Finding clues is as simple as moving the cursor around and waiting until you notice a prompt to examine an item further. There are also tailing missions where you’re forced to shadow a target from a distance. The game’s pacing slows to a crawl during these too-numerous sections, where you must follow a paranoid target who turns around too often or outright runs around buildings in circles just to waste your time. Once you’re in the courtroom, you don’t have much freedom to influence the outcome of a trial. Yagami will prompt you to choose the right pieces of evidence to help make his case, or you may have to recall certain truths to pick out holes in a witness’ testimony. It’s too simplistic, as if the game doesn’t trust players to get into the details, only allowing them to pick out a few pieces of the puzzle here and there.
Judgment’s main story is an intriguing, emotional journey—when it manages to stay on topic. A series of grisly murders in Kamurocho leads Yagami to uncover a larger conspiracy within Japan’s government. He meets a cast of solid allies along the way, though their relevance and personal connections to the plot are thin at best. Unfortunately, the story spends too much time meandering with the characters, trying too hard to make sure you like these people. For example, it’s cute when you show up to your old law office, finding your colleagues embroiled in a quaint drama over who did or did not eat the cake left in the shared refrigerator. This leads Yagami into a mock court battle to determine the true culprit. But moments like these have nothing to do with the actual plot or anyone’s character, for that matter. They’re frivolous, feel-good tales that could have been cut out entirely or relegated to amusing side quests to supplement Yagami’s paid side cases as a detective.
These off-topic activities insert themselves into the main plot way too often. They disrupt the otherwise stellar pacing of the murder mystery, usually showing up during awkward or irritating times. There is no meaningful character development with these shenanigans, only adding to the problem that no one in the cast has a solid emotional connection to the plot. They mainly feel like pointless chores and padding, killing the story’s momentum. There are some uninterrupted sequences when the narrative is amazing, leaving you to dig into the shocking twists and reveals, but these sequences are too far and few in between, leaving the story feeling scattered and disjointed as a result.
Graphics and Visuals
Realistic and true-to-life with its bustling population, Kamurocho has always looked impressive, and Judgment is no exception. The sheer amount of detail hidden around every corner gives you the sense that you’re actually present in the city, surrounded by the lights and the nightlife. After so many games set in this location, the developers have it easy by this point, gradually adding onto what they’ve established throughout the Yakuza series. The same goes for the outstanding cast of characters, their unique designs and how emotive and expressive they are during cutscenes. Just like the mainline games, playing Judgment is like watching a full-blown film set in Japan’s criminal underworld.
Music and Sound
Judgment offers the choice between either English or Japanese voices, with subtitles as an option for those who enjoy them. The Japanese voice acting is remarkable, as is expected from a Yakuza spinoff. Even those who aren’t native Japanese speakers should find the dub engaging to listen to. The English voice acting, on the other hand, doesn’t sound as natural or authentic, but it is still a fine option for anyone who prefers English dubs instead. As for the soundtrack, Judgment exists in a strange space where it’s trying to experiment with rock and electronic sounds—eventually evolving into the more modern and bombastic tracks in Yakuza: Like a Dragon. The music is nowhere near bad, though it sounds like you would expect from moment to moment, especially during investigation sequences.
In the grand scheme of things, Judgment gives Yakuza fans and newcomers tons to love, at once giving a sense of novelty and familiarity. There’s the polished brawler combat, a detailed map set in reliable old Kamurocho and a unique narrative premise with a private detective taking on Japan’s larger political powers. But with a messy main plot, limited side activities and shallow detective mechanics, Judgment suffers from too many missteps. To top off the narrative issues, Yagami and his companions have few genuine emotional stakes keeping them going. They can always choose to simply let the murder mystery go instead of sacrificing their lives and livelihoods “just to solve the case.” Too often the smarter solution is for Yagami to simply give up and move on with his life. He is stubborn and doesn’t want to give up, but his place in this universe feels just as optional as the many tangents the plot loves to go off on. Behind its many flaws, Judgment has the potential to be so much more than it is. With plenty of fine tuning, a stronger sequel could bring this spinoff up to the star quality it deserves.