Is Yakuza by any other name just as sweet?
When Yakuza 6 brought an end to the epic story of Kazuma Kiryu in 2018, it felt like a fitting conclusion for a series that had slowly evolved over time, but had fallen into something of a well-worn groove. Playing any title from Yakuza 3 up to the final entry felt pretty samey – despite the fact that they were all very enjoyable and entertaining. Refinements and improvements had of course been made along the way, but there was nothing really distinctively different from one title to the next. The latest title from Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio however is looking to subvert what you expect from their development team, marking a shift both in protagonist and overall direction.
Judgment casts players as Takayuki Yagami – a hero who is on the right side of the law for once, rather than part of a street gang (although you will have to stray into a few grey areas of the law in order to help the path of justice). A former lawyer, turned private detective, Yagami has had a difficult – with his career path derailed by tragedy – which he must overcome to try to help his clients. The main plot however revolves around our hero getting wrapped up in an investigation where three Yakuza have been murdered and their eyes gouged out – with a rival gang the number one suspects. What starts off as a simple court case develops into a web of intrigue where Yagami will not only have to fight for the truth, but also for his own survival.
Gameplay consists of two halves – the first is one that long-time fans of the Yakuza series will be well-acquainted with. Being set in Kamurocho – the in-game realisation of the real-life Tokyo red light district Kabukicho – as all previous Yakuza games also have been, the location and destinations on offer are all very familiar, but also a suitable back-drop for some criminal investigation. The first half of the game I speak of is exploring the city district, visiting restaurants to replenish your health, game centres and the like for your fix of mini-game action, and encountering an endless supply of street thugs who you can give a swift and thoroughly over-the-top beat-down. So far, so much the same, and that will either be very welcome to series aficionados or a put-off for those who aren’t.
It is in the investigation side of Judgment where the real differences between this game and other RGG Studio titles start to stand out. Your detective work will involve sequences such as surveying locations to find evidence, secretly tailing a person of interest, or making use of a new remote-controlled drone to gather information. These new sections are a mixed bag, with some being much more effective than others. One such example are the chase sequences where you have to use quick-time button presses to dodge hazards, before catching up with your target. This is a portion that occurs pretty frequently and sadly these are a little overlong and repetitive. The same could be said of the tailing gameplay, where you have to stay a certain distance away from your target, dodging behind nearby objects to avoid being spotted when they turn around. If this happened once in a while it would be OK, but many cases involve this action, they last too long, and often suspects bug out and walk in circles for a while instead of going in the right direction – which quickly becomes a real pain.
The evidence-gathering sections are somewhat more interesting – especially for fans of old-school point and click adventure games like myself. They usually involve searching a location for clues as to what happened, or trying to locate a hard-to-find object. You can zoom in and out with a magnifying reticle, which vibrates when you find something of interest. These aren’t especially sophisticated, but are interesting and short enough to never outstay their welcome. Photography tasks are similarly fun, where you are given a list of features you need to capture within your snapshot -such as photographing a cheating husband, their lover and the location where they are meeting – making sure all are clear in your image. Again, this is nothing revolutionary, but it helps to make you feel more like an old-school gumshoe.
Whilst drones can be used for both investigation and photography sections – for those more hard-to-reach places – it also forms part of the traditional mini-game offering we have come to expect from a Yakuza title. The city is packed with things to do as always, but not all of your favourites are necessarily returning. Gone are hostess clubs (usually awkward), Karaoke (whyyyy?) and RC car racing (meh), but you can still slug some balls in batting cages, throw some darts, while away the hours in a SEGA arcade (stocked with more classic titles than ever before, as well as a Kamurocho-themed House of the Dead tribute), or take part in the new Drone races. There is always lots to do, although RGG Studio seem to have got the balance between a compelling main story and the many distractions a lot more finely tuned in this title and last years Song of Life than in many past entries, where it often felt like there was just too much too do.
You can also interact with the local inhabitants in many new and returning ways. Friendships can be struck up with business owners and many other locals, whereby completing tasks for instance will levels up for friendship meter and yield bonuses such as in-store discounts, combat aids and more. Some friends will even develop into potential dates and you can visit nearby eateries or amusements, whilst wooing your partner with gifts and well-chosen compliments. Of course, being a private investigator you can also take on a wealth of side-cases, which are usually a lot more lighthearted than the main story. These are often VERY Japanese, with Cosplay, sexual deviants and cats all featuring heavily – always with a tongue placed firmly in cheek. A series of missions that focuses on the “Twisted Trio” – a group of panty-stealing, bottom-groping perverts – is particularly wacky, clearly illustrating the slightly crazy sense of humour of the series.
Technically their creations have never looked as polished, or ran as smoothly with as many loading screens as possible completely eliminated from the experience. Judgment takes most of the Yakuza formula and adds new twists or refinements, that provide a refreshing change for the series. The only thing that suffers somewhat really is the fighting system. Combat in Yakuza 6 had been stripped down and streamlined, which perhaps made Kazuma Kiryu feel a little too powerful, but made street fights feel really FUN. Judgment tries to bring back a few more intricacies, with 2 quick-switch fighting styles on offer – one for one-on-one situations and the other for tackling groups – and more of an emphasis on blocking and dodging than in the past. These styles do provide very different attacks, including all-new wall run attacks, but sadly it doesn’t feel quite a fluid as in the last outing. Fights feel a little more stiff and as a result not as enjoyable on the whole.
But for a game where street fights are likely to occur every few minutes – even ones involving smashing a bicycle into someone’s face – Kamurocho and its inhabitants are the real stars, as is usually the case. There are so many strange and quirky missions or requests to partake, and such a strong feel of Japanese city culture that you just can’t avoid feeling really immersed in the red-light district. This has always been the strength of the series, and Judgment successfully replicates this feeling, but allows gamers to play the good guy rather than the anti-hero. I would have liked more emphasis on collecting evidence and joining the dots to solve cases, but the “light” investigation sections are still a fun twist on the tried and tested formula.