Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios
Platform: PlayStation 4
As cliché as it sounds, the district of Kamurocho is as major a part of the Yakuza series as any of its prominent players. Parts of it have been demolished and rebuilt over the years, but the more I step into the shoes of Kazuma Kiryu, the more Kamurocho becomes a familiar “home” to me in a way few other video game locations have. If I want to fill up on junk food, I know where the Wild Jackson is. If I need to find some special oddity for a hapless stranger I’ve been cajoled into helping, I can probably get it at the Don Quijote.
Which is why, as I played a couple of hours of Yakuza spin-off game Judgment, I immediately felt so comfortable. Despite it being something of a fresh start for the series, Judgment feels more like a new way to absorb the seedy atmosphere and memorable stories that spring up all around Kamurocho, even if you’re seeing them through a fresh set of eyes.
Big Shoes To Fill
Judgment stars Takayuki Yagami (played by real-life Japanese actor Takuya Kimura), a lawyer at Kamurocho’s Genda Law Office who is a far cry from the fierce but kindhearted Kiryu. He comes off as less sure of himself and more relatable, even as the first scene in my demo establishes him as one of the most sought-after attorneys at Genda. When his office rival the office, Masamichi Shintani, sarcastically praises him for being so popular, Yagami demures. He isn’t exactly shy, but doesn’t exude the same sort of loner self-assuredness Kiryu does.
In fact, Judgment quickly establishes that a key part of Yagami’s story will be learning to deal with moral conflict. The reason he’s so in demand is because he was able to get an acquittal in a criminal court case (Shintani notes the conviction rate in these cases is 99 percent), a badge of honor that’s quickly turned besmirched when it’s revealed the person he got acquitted, Shinpei Okubo, has murdered his girlfriend Emi Terasawa and burned down their house. Watching the scene in which Okubo is arrested as the house burns with Terasawa inside, I get the sense this is a situation where, while it may look obvious he did it, a series of unlikely coincidences means this isn’t what it looks like. That seems to happen a lot around this town.
Breaking The Language Barrier
My demo featured English voice acting for every character in cutscenes – a first for a Yakuza game since the original included an infamously star-studded cast, but terrible voice direction. On top of that, the voice acting and lip movements in the English dub have been re-synced to match the English voices. The syncing isn’t perfect (Sega tells me they’re still working on manually getting all the timings just right), but they matched well enough that it didn’t feel like I was watching a dub of a ’70s kung fu flick.
The revamped voice-acting shows off how strong Sega’s localization of recent Yakuza games has been when it comes to capturing the essence of their characters. While some lines and reads are a bit stiff, the localization straddles the line between changing certain phrases to get across their meaning in a way that makes more sense to Western audiences and not losing the Japanese flavor at their core. The English cast is also solid, with Greg Chun delivering a great performance as Yagami that gets across both his occasionally cocksure attitude as well as his vulnerability.
That said, a lot of the incidental dialogue out in Kamurocho was still in Japanese, which was a bit jarring. It may not give you the offer the most authentic experience, but the dub looks to be viable option this time around, especially for newcomers who’d rather not be beholden to subtitles.
We then flash forward about three years, and Yagami has quit his job at Genda to form the Yagami Detective Agency with Masaharu Kaito, a former member of the Tojo Yakuza clan. As Yagami and Kaito track down a suspicious character incognito, Yagami bumps into a group of rowdy street punks looking to pick a fight.
Combat in Judgment doesn’t deviate from Yakuza’s over-the-top street brawls, but there are some slight changes. Strings, combos, throwable objects, and heat actions (now called EX moves) are still in play, but Yagami is a bit more nimble than Kiryu; he can run up to walls and leap off them to perform devastating attacks mid-air. These new attacks don’t seem to change up combat too much, but definitely feel cool when you pull them off. You also have access to two fighting styles, Crane and Tiger, the former of which deals with groups while the latter lasers in on single targets (one cool touch here is that the music changes every time you switch).
Because Yagami isn’t Yakuza, he isn’t immune to the intervention of police, who will eventually swoop in to break up a fight. I tried intentionally delaying a fight to see what would happen if they showed up. It took a while – longer than I expect any single fight in Judgment to last based on my experience with Yakuza – but the penalty is going to jail and paying a ¥10,000 fine. That’s not all that much in the grand scheme of things (especially with the way your purse tends to inflate later on in these games), but a fairly devastating blow early on. After beating up the street punks I gain some SP, which I can use to upgrade and unlock moves. Judgment keeps progression simple by only doling out only one currency, so you won’t be gated by having too many strength points but not enough spirit to unlock a particular skill.
Leaning Into Legwork
Yagami continues to tail his target around town, which introduces how Judgment leans on investigative work to explore Kamurocho’s underbelly. As I come to a side-street intersection where a handful of people resemble the guy I’m looking for, I’m thrown into a first-person view to examine my surroundings and find my target amidst a few lookalikes. After identifying the right person, I need to tail them, (but not too close, lest a suspicion meter begin to fill) for a few blocks and see what he might be up to. When Yagami and Kaito finally corner him he flees, and by pulling off some quicktime events as the camera does most of the tailing for me.
As Yagami catches up with his target he strikes back, which means I have rough him up a bit to prevent him from escaping. Kaito then arrives to take the lead, his Yakuza ties showing as leans a little too hard into subduing the guy. When he threatens to sue, Yagami shows him his lawyer’s badge to scare him off, even though he hasn’t practiced law in three years. It’s an encounter that shows that while Yagami lives by a moral code, his ethics are a bit more fluid than Kiryu’s, which could make for a different kind of tale later on.
After a title card and intro sequence heavily reminiscent of a Japanese TV drama, I’m re-introduced to Kamurocho, as Yagami gives quick overview of what’s been going on recently: The district is as chaotic as ever, with an Anonymous-style gang of thugs roaming the streets and evading police capture, and the public is caught up in a series of murders of Yakuza members, the gang members’ bodies left unceremoniously lying around with their eyes gouged out.
Yagami is quickly thrust into the latter mystery. Although he’s left the Genda Law Office, he still occasionally turns to them for private-eye work, this time swinging by their office with a bag of dorayaki treats to bribe them into giving him potential leads. Ryuzo Genda himself then offers up a divorce case that might be up Yagami’s alley, though it’s quickly trumped when Saori Shirosaki, another lawyer at Genda (who happens to eat all of the dorayaki Yagami brought in before he could hand them out), gets a call about the murder of another Yakuza – the third in three months. Shintani is already on the case, but Genda wants Yagami to join up with him to tackle it.
Before fully diving into the particulars of the slaying, I’m left to my own devices to explore Kamurocho, which offers its own avenues for investigation. After making a beeline to Club Sega to see what games the machines have on them (this time around it’s Virtua Fighter 5, Fighting Vipers, Fantasy Zone, and Puyo Puyo, though none of the machines were working in my demo), I’m able to find hotspots around Kamurocho.
Similar to how they work in Yakuza 6, these areas offer the chance to work up a relationship with the people who hang around for “Friend Events” that take place once you’ve followed a certain person’s story long enough, or lead to short one-off cases. I hit up a few of hotspots on my map, but besides overhearing how a smoker was dramatically affected by seeing a random girl on the street smile at him, I wasn’t able to strike up any interesting side missions during my time with the game, though the KamuroGo app on your phone lets you see what activities you can explore.
Something Of An Ace Attorney
Getting back on track, the suspect in this case is the captain of the Matsugane family (a Tojo clan subsidiary), Kyohei Hamura. Both Yagami and Genda have some ties to the Matsugane family; Matsugane himself paid Yagami’s way through law school, and the Genda Law Office has handled the family’s legal troubles in the past. The police suspect Hamura because security camera footage taken on the last night anyone saw the victim, a member of a the rival Kansai clan named Toshiro Kume, outside of the Amour club with Hamura and some of the Matsugane crew. Worse yet, Hamura himself admits he cleared the club out a few hours before Kume was found dead, explicitly to beat up Kume.
As I investigate the case, tracking down leads at Amour, meeting with Shintani to discuss the security footage, and visit a sauna to check out Hamura’s alibi (he claims he visited it after leaving Amour and was there when the body was found), the pacing of the narrative begins to veer from Yakuza’s, as it focuses more on the timelines, details, and bits of info necessary to solve the case. I didn’t necessarily need to retain too many of those details myself for the most part (several conversations throughout my demo reiterated the finer points of the case), but putting together events that have already happened gives Judgment’s story a slightly different feel.
I also had to use what I knew of the case as I talked with various people about it. A conversation system has you choosing dialogue options to guide the conversation. These aren’t “choices” in that you’re altering the story in any way, but instead choosing in what order to ask questions. This is gamified by a system in which you’re given bonus SP for asking the most salient questions first, with a streak given for multiple correct choices. It’s a fairly small bonus, but it gave me a reason to pay attention, think critically, and approach the situation like a detective would, which made the whole approach feel like an Ace Attorney game.
At Amour, Yagami is told the manager working there the night Hamura had the club cleared out isn’t there today. Yagami then decides to meet with an old friend of his: Makoto Tsukomo, a reclusive informant who makes a living out of tracking people online. Using an app that isolates people based on the GPS coordinates they use while posting on the social-media app Chitter, we’re able track him down by the last post he made, at a nearby Sushi place.
He plays dumb when Yagami meets up with him, but I’m able to cycle through a few bits of evidence I have at my disposal, including the security-camera footage I was able to get from Shintani when I met with him, and he takes me back to Amour and tells me what he knows. The game notifies you when your case file is updated, but the first time I saw the evidence screen, all of those pieces were new to me, as I never got a real sense that I was building up an in-game collection of evidence to use later on. I wasn’t penalized for presenting the wrong evidence, though, so I was able to give it a couple of tries before moving the conversation forward, using the 10 p.m. footage instead of the 9 p.m. footage to seal the deal.
Yagami and the manager then head back to Amour, where the manager explains he didn’t think the way Hamura beat up Kume was all that harsh (certainly not enough to kill him), and that the incident seemed to have ended around midnight, about two hours before the body turned up and perhaps enough time for Hamura to have an alibi.
After following a few leads, Yagami heads back to the his office, only to discover Mafuyu Fujii, a public prosecutor, has come to visit. It’s quickly made clear they had more than a professional relationship going; after Fujii leaves the office, Kaito points out she could have simply called to relay her news (that Yagami’s other legal rival, Keigo Izumida, will be prosecuting the case), but decided to make the trip out to the office (as well as personally tell Yagami she doesn’t think he’s cut out for detective work). Although Fujii points out they never dated, Yagami rushes after her when she leaves to walk her home, only to have his arm put in a hold by chief prosecutor Kunihiko Mortia, who’s accompanied by Izumida himself. After relitigating the details of the Okubo case (Izumida claims Yagami’s defense was full of holes, and Yagami wants to know what, exactly, was so wrong with his defense), the trio of prosecutors head off, leaving Yagami to continue digging into the case.
A Solid Opening Argument
My demo ended here, but even in these brief two hours, I think I have a good idea of what Judgment will be when it releases in the West later this year, and I’m pretty into it. While the gameplay changes and additions get you to think more like a detective instead of an action-movie hero, I suspect there’s a chance they might wear on me across 20 or so hours of play. They’re minor enough that I don’t think I’ll them too much, though, and streamlining progression while offering more options in combat is a solid choice, though I can’t say how these changes will play out long-term.
The shift in perspective, however, is a much bigger deal, and Judgment is a more exciting game for it. Although I missed Kiryu and his supporting cast at first, Judgment’s motley crew is already growing on me, as it can explore relationships that would have been out of place before. And, considering the plot (not to mention the location) doesn’t stray that far from its parent series, I wouldn’t be surprised if a familiar character or two showed up down the line. More importantly, I’m glad Judgment is filled with the same garish streetlights, colorful locations, enticing plotlines, and endearing characters that have made Kamurocho such a strong locale to return to time and again. Add a few side missions that quickly go off the rails thanks to some certified weirdos and maybe some suspenseful trial sequences (with some shocking turnabouts?), and we should be all set.