Judgment Preview | Good enough to get you to finally play Yakuza

Yakuza is one of those series where most probably intend to play it but never quite get to. Despite all the glowing praise, I’ve opted to ignore it and keep on playing — and criticizing — the many other open-world games out there that are not called Yakuza. Judgment (also known as Judge Eyes), the upcoming title from the Yakuza studio, changed that. Not only was the demo enjoyable in its own right, but it also finally caused me to finally start a series that I kept ignoring.

Although, it is set in Yakuza universe, Judgment’s story takes place on the other side of the law. Well, mostly. It follows Takayuki Yagami, a private detective and lawyer. Although his time as a lawyer gets cut short after a former client he defends is subsequently arrested for allegedly brutally murdering his girlfriend and burning down their apartment.

With Yagami now shamed out of the profession, he uses his private investigator skills to see what is actually going on. This makes things more complicated as the city’s criminal underbelly starts revealing itself and introducing shady characters. And the seedy underbelly serves as a character, much more than what Yakuza has done according to Jonathon Stebel, associate PR manager at Sega.

“This one is definitely much more narrative focused than Yakuza,” he said. “Yakuza is much more about a single man. It’s about Kiryu. The name of the series is kind of a misnomer because the name of the series is Yakuza but it’s not about the gangs. This one is much more focused on the world itself.”

Judgment Preview | Cleaning the streets

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Digging through the seedier parts makes Judgment a more serious game than its sillier Yakuza brethren. It’s unlikely that it’ll have horny men in diapers or youngsters that ask you to buy naughty magazines for them. Stebel admitted that the game is quite serious, as even the stylized intro credits are “heavily inspired crime dramas” and other similar pieces of media.

“I think Yakuza fans will have a few issues with it because there’s not as much wackiness but overall it’s a much more well-rounded experience,” he said.

Yagami embodies this tone. He’s a bit more a complex character than Kazama Kiryu from the Yakuza games. His past of being a noble lawyer that helped innocent people escape a near certain conviction seems to go against the fact that he doesn’t mind overstepping the law and working in a moral gray area to get work done. Acting like a normal likable person gave his less than legal moments more weight since each moral half contrasted with the other. Those two opposite sides conflict well and appear to be at the core of Yagami’s character; a prime source of dramatic tension as well as the chance to make an interesting, deep character.

“Yagami is a much more three-dimensional character than Kiryu is,” said Stebel. “Kiryu is an unstoppable force and does what he has to do. Yagami gets beaten up. He’s dirty. He walks that line between lawful and evil. It’s just a more complex game than Yakuza.”

Judgment Preview | Meet the crew

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While there is good reason to mourn the goofy bits in the Yakuza games, the drama here seems to be compelling enough to carry the game due to a multitude of reasons. Cutscenes are filmed like a dramatic television show, meaning boring, static shots that are typical in poorly directed video games were nearly absent. Characters are lively and demand your attention through their performances and many different personalities. Lip syncing also seemed great on both the English and Japanese voice tracks, which is something that many games don’t fully (and understandably) commit to.

Having both Japanese and English voices is quite a feat that the studio isn’t used to doing. Yakuza hasn’t had English voice tracks since the first game and they weren’t received well, as Stebel admitted. But despite being already out in Japan, the team is more focused on making the English more believable too.

There are subtitles for the Japanese audio and dubtitles for the English script. The Japanese audio also has more direct localization subtitles too, which might be less “human” but is a type of localization Yakuza fans are more used to. This approach has taken the localization team’s years of experience, according to Stebel. While some might scoff at English voices in a game so heavily ingrained in Japan, it sounded great and will hopefully broaden this game’s appeal.

Judgment Preview | Part-time investigator, full-time ass kicker

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Whether it’s English or Japanese, Yagami speaks well with his fists in either voice track. Judgment is a brawler much in the vein of the Yakuza games, mainly Yakuza 0. Players can switch between two styles: one that hits hard and one is mainly for crowd control. Both coalesce to give Yagami a healthy amount of options in how he beats his opponents.

And there will be plenty of beating. Fights are hilariously brutal as the special Ex Moves let you thrash people with traffic cones, bikes, and whatever else is around. Normal attacks aren’t quite as flashy but they are varied, as there are normal combos, grabs, and a ton more to unlock in the extensive skill tree. The breadth of combat options isn’t compensating for mediocre controls; it feels fantastic to play. Yagami’s punches and kicks are responsive and, much like Yakuza, remain a fantastic modern interpretation of the brawler genre as its fisticuffs seem to have both flash and substance.

Judgment Preview | Video games inside video games

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Despite fighting being one of the central gameplay mechanic, Judgment also has another recurring element from the Yakuza games: a big explorable Japan with many things to do. Kamurocho (which is a one-to-one recreation of the actual city, according to Stebel) is filled to the brim with different mini-games to partake in. There’s a pinball machine is a direct copy of an actual pinball machine from the 1940s. Hitting the batting cages also returns as well as mahjong, shogi, and many other types of lighthearted distractions.

These help fill out the world and break up the action gameplay and tense narrative scenes. It makes the world feel lived in and also gives you something else to do. There are traditional, deep side missions too that will also be a respite from the main story but those were not in the early hours of the game. However, Stebel promised that they will involve intricate cases and be woven in nicely to the critical path.

“Mini-games” does not describe some of the other distractions in Judgment; there are full actual games too. Arcades are stacked with old Sega games like Space Harrier, Motor Raid, Puyo Puyo, Fighting Vipers, Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown, and more which you can play as long as you’ve got a couple bucks to spare. And these aren’t slashed demos; these are full, uncut arcade versions that even reward you with experience for playing. I was even able to play through all of a Virtua Fighter 5 arcade ladder and see the ending. Some of these have been in past Yakuza entries, but the novelty of being able to lose yourself inside of a video game inside of a video game has not worn off.

Sadly, Yagami doesn’t get to spend all of his time gaming. He has to solve crimes too, which makes sense, given that he is a private detective. This is expressed in some of the mechanics. Sometimes you’ll need to tail someone and blend in or gather evidence by looking around for items of interest. However, these mechanics aren’t as strong as the brawling or mini-games.

As Assassin’s Creed has taught us, tailing people is tedious and boring at best and frustrating at worst although it never got too difficult in Judgment. Searching for clues is fine but it mainly devolves into finding the moving thing putting your cursor over it. You can’t forget clues nor does there seem to be a punishment for failing. It’s a mechanic to move the story forward and since the narrative is linear and appears to tightly knit together, it doesn’t allow for skipping parts or experimentation. Telling a specific tale is fine especially if it keeps up its quality throughout but it does seem like it comes at the cost of deep detective mechanics and player agency.

There are other simple mechanics, like the auto-runner sequence, that are just fine but none of them distract from Judgment’s overall presentation and positive qualities. It borrows enough from its spiritual predecessors to have a strong base but seems to deviate enough to carve out its own path. Brawling is fluid and looks cartoonishly brutal and the early parts of the narrative are strong enough to inspire confidence that the rest will hold up its end of the bargain. It was promising in a way that made me finally break down and play Yakuza but we will have to wait until summer to pass final, well, judgment on Judgment and see if it lives up to its inspirations.