“Weird as it feels to say, I have a lot of fondness for the characters of the Yakuza series. I only finally experienced the series to any real degree when I reviewed its most recent chapter last year, but I already appreciate that Kazuma Kiryu is nothing less than an institution at this point. The thought of carrying on Sega’s hard-boiled franchise without him seemed utterly blasphemous, even to me.”
After initial speculation, it turned out that Judgement wasn’t meant to be a replacement for Yakuza, nor was its protagonist Takayuki Yagami intended to replace Kiryu. Instead, “Project Judge” was to be a side story in the world of Yakuza, focusing on different characters, narrative beats, and gameplay elements—and that’s exactly what it’s ended up being.
As the game kicks off, we learn of Takayuki’s past as a lawyer, as well as his fall from grace due to a tragedy involving one of his former clients. Now, Tak is trying to make ends meet as a detective for hire, scouring the streets of Kamurocho for both clients and targets. When in need of some extra cash, Tak also plays the role of enforcer, bodyguard, or debt collector, which keeps him in constant contact (for good or bad) with the local yakuza gangs. It is through the yakuza—and specifically Kyohei Hamura, a higher-up in the Matsugane Family—that Tak finds himself directly involved in a string of gruesome murders that have all of Kamurocho on edge.
While Judgment still has connections to the various yakuza families and the wars that go on between them, coming at those events through Tak is a genuinely fascinating experience after having tried the main series. Where as Kiryu was a yakuza himself, and thus had personal ties to everything that unfolded, our hero here provides the chance to see things from the outside. Though Tak (and us players) will run into various mob officers around every corner, that’s far from the sole influence on his personal life or the primary force that ends up pulling him in different directions. Kiryu’s arc from young yakuza upstart to older, more mature man who just wants to get away from it all is still interesting to me, but I also ended up really appreciating Judgement’s alternate take on the Yakuza universe.
It’s a shame, then, that Tak’s actor isn’t nearly as compelling as his character is. For the lead role in Judgment, the team tapped ex–Japanese pop star and current actor Takuya “KimuTaku” Kimura, a household name in his home country for having been in the immensely popular boy band SMAP. As someone who adores Japanese television (and especially J-dramas), I’ve got a lot of tolerance for watching former pop stars and idols try to act—but I can’t give Kimura a pass here. Part of what makes Tak so interesting is how he contrasts Kiryu, as his more upbeat, smartass attitude is quite a change from Kiryu’s more stoic, serious nature. And yet, Kimura plays the character way too flat far too often. I came to genuinely like Tak due to his actions in the game and the way he was written, not because of his actor’s performance. Even my wife commented multiple times on how poor of a job she thought Kimura was doing—and as a native of Japan, she’s far more accepting of her country’s “talent” than I am.
In contrast, pretty much the rest of the cast (both in terms of characters and their voice actors) are great, feeling very much like people that would exist in the Yakuza universe without just being repeats of who we’ve seen before. I especially have to express my love for Tak’s partner Masaharu Kaito, who was probably my favorite character in the entire game due to his balance between suave badass and surprisingly soft-hearted nice guy. And, if you want to try a different take on all of the game’s characters, Judgment offers up both the original Japanese dialog as well as a full English dub. It’s near impossible for me to play a game like this in anything but Japanese, but Greg Chun’s portrayal of Takayuki might be just what you need should you happen to agree with me about Kimura’s efforts.
Kiryu and Tak may be very different people mentally and emotionally, but physically they both share the ability to throw a punch or twenty when the time comes. Much like the Yakuza games, there are plenty of street brawls waiting in Judgment, and the game’s combat system will be very familiar to series fans while simultaneously not just feeling like a repeat of what’s come before. Things get far more interesting, however, when our protagonist is far away from combat. Given that Tak is a detective, completing missions and progressing through the main storyline often requires more brains than brawn. At any one moment, Tak may need to change into a disguise, tail a suspect to see where they’re going, look for clues at a crime scene, find a particular person in a crowd, question a witness, or partake in other investigational activities.
It is in these moments when Judgment shines the brightest. Shifting away from the “fight your way through every problem” style of the mainline Yakuza games is a change of pace I ended up liking way more than I expected. To be clear, I still have a deep fondness for Kiryu and his adventures—but this is a great alternative to those more action-focused experiences. Judgment is absolutely at its most enjoyable when it is at its slowest, and nearly every moment of detective work had me awaiting the next.
Unfortunately, the game’s best element is also the source of its biggest disappointment. Judgment is just too Yakuza, and the team seems to have been hesitant to let it escape from the shadow of its parent franchise. At first, Tak doesn’t do a whole lot of fighting as he wanders the streets of Kamurocho, but as the game progresses, and he has more run-ins with both local yakuza families and various gangs of street punks, I just couldn’t help but wish I was off doing more detective work instead. What began as a curious side project is now the start of what I hope will be more releases, but if Judgment is to have any life beyond this first game, it should—no, must—be allowed to stand more on its own. Double down on the detective work. Have the mysteries in need of answers be more involving and detailed. Let Tak lean more into his mental prowess than his physical skill.
There’s one other point that I want to address about Judgment, and it was where some have found their biggest complaint about the game: the recycling of Kamurocho. Reusing the same portion of Tokyo we’ve seen numerous times now at first seems—to use a popular internet term—lazy. Now, having played the game for myself, I couldn’t disagree more. Admittedly, it may be because I haven’t gone through the bulk of the series at this point, but returning us to Kamurocho here seems to me like a very calculated decision. For the franchise, and its players, this is now a very familiar place, one that almost becomes a character of its own. Setting a spin-off project there makes Kamurocho feel less like a world created for any particular game and more like a real-life location where an endless amount of stories might be told. That point I mentioned earlier—seeing the world of Yakuza through a different lens—only works in part because we’re now seeing the actual world of those games in a different way as well.
It’s a bit ironic, of course, that I’m praising Judgment for one of its connections to the Yakuza series right after having derided others. That, however, is just the duality of this game. One one hand, it’s a side story no doubt meant to tide fans over until the next “proper” chapter, while on the other, it’s an experience that works hard to stand on its own. It’s a game about one man trading blows with countless gangsters and hoodlums, yet it’s also a game about that same man solving even the smallest of cases with some good old-fashioned detective work. At the end of the day, however, what Judgment is in all of its moments is enjoyable—and whatever wishes I have for what it could have been, or may become, never seriously tarnish what it actually is.
Making a spin-off to a beloved niche series that then drops its most popular character seemed like a crazy idea at first, but Judgment is a success beyond what I could have expected. Though it never quite escapes the shadow of its older siblings, this tale of a fallen lawyer and his refusal to let go of the truth provides an experience that has a lot to offer both Yakuza fans and newcomers alike.
M - Maturew
|Judgment is available on PlayStation 4. Primary version played was for PlayStation 4. Product was provided by Sega for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI. Check her out on Twitter and Mastodon.