Not that I’m complaining, but the frequency of western releases from Sega’s Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio is fast becoming hard to keep on top of. Last year we got three – by my count, at least – fully-fledged games, from the anime-themed Fist of the North Star, the handsome remake Yakuza Kiwami 2 and, in Yakuza 6, we saw Kazuma Kiryu’s farewell.
You could, if you wanted, fill a whole year by playing through them all, and who could blame you if that’s what you elected to do? There’s an exuberance to these things, a swagger and polish that’s the result of the same studio tracing the same path for well over a decade. You’ve heard the comparisons between Yakuza and Shenmue before, I’m sure, but at this point in the series’ life they’ve become something else. What if Shenmue was a success, and that Sega spent 15 years investing heavily in near-annual instalments that keep on embellishing the formula more and more?
Well, you’d likely get curious spin-offs like this. Judgment is an all-new entry, with an all-new star heading up an all-new cast – the perfect starting point, perhaps, if you haven’t already succumbed to the Yakuza series’ charms. And in Judgment, those charms are entirely intact – because, if you’re returning to the series, there’s an awful lot that’s familiar.
Your playground is Kamurocho, and Kamurocho alone, and after the multiple locations of Yakuza 6 that can feel a little restrictive. Still, as ever with the series, it’s not about the size of the playground but more the density of it, and here Judgment delivers. If your barometer for the quality of an open world is how easy it is to get distracted as you move from point A to point B, then Judgment’s mini urban sprawl is up there with the very best.
There are bars stocked with real-world whiskies – Woodford Reserve! Hibiki! Jack Daniels! – and conbinis brought to life with staggering detail. Step through the sliding automatic doors of your local Poppo and you’ll hear that muted electric ping that heralds your arrival; there are fridges stacked with appropriate snacks, from the multitude of onigiri to the cavalcade of strange drinks. At the counter is the selection of deep-fried delights simmering away, and hey you can even make friends with the cashier if you’d like, and get familiar enough and they might be called into battle if you’re having a street-fight nearby.
There’s shogi, a drone racing league, a VR board-game, pinball machines, UFO catchers, darts poker and batting cages. There are Club Sega arcades – of course – stocked with the most generous selection of games to date in this series. Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown is there in its entirety, as is Fantasy Zone and a slimmed-down Puyo Puyo. Even better, AM2’s bulky Fighting Vipers is there, as is Motor Raid – a beloved futuristic bike racer that, to my knowledge, has never received a home port before. And if that’s not impressive enough, there’s even a pseudo-House of the Dead sequel in Kamuro of the Dead, a fully-featured, reasonable length arcade shooter that’s in a similar vein to Yakuza: Dead Souls – another of the series’ spin-offs. So yes, Kamurocho might be small compared to other open worlds, but the density of diversions is staggering in scope.
It’s a dizzying cocktail, and all that before we’ve even spoken about the main throughline of Judgment (though, in truth and as with prior Yakuza entries, the detail and distractions are the game). Here, you’re private detective Takayuki Yagami – played by Japanese superstar and heartthrob Takuya Kimura – who unearths a conspiracy as he investigates the murder of a Yakuza. It’s an inversion of the typical set-up for these games, and does allow for a slightly different flavour to the adventure.
And so you’re still poking around Kamurocho’s underbelly, engaging with the underworld, but this time from a slightly different perspective. Is this Phoenix Wright mixed in with Yakuza? Sort of. You can engage in lines of questioning – although there’s not strictly any fail state, rather just an opportunity to gain more XP by finding the right line of enquiry – and tail suspects or search scenes for clues. Is it fresh? Not really, when the new approaches boil down to multiple choice dialogue that feels like it lacks any real agency, tailing missions that are clumsy in their implementation of stealth mechanics and searching scenes that are little more than dumb pixel hunts.
Strip all that away, then, and you’re left with the same old Yakuza, where joyfully overstated combat interweaves with quirky side missions and charting a zig-zagging path through Kamurocho as you lurch from one diversion to another. And it’s great – as ever – and delivered with a richness and style that comes with the heritage and legacy of the series.
It could have been one of the better entries, even, if it wasn’t for the void of personality presented by Judgement’s all-new lead. It was always going to be hard, of course, with Kiryu having built up love and loyalty over the years and leaving some large white leather dress shoes for any new character to fill. It’s hard, too, for a western audience that doesn’t bring the years of knowledge of star Takuya Kimura’s work – the decades of appearances in boy bands, soap shows, movies and television – to have a deeper understanding of how Judgment plays with that baggage. What you get, instead, is a fairly flat lead who’s hard to engage with or care for, casting Judgment firmly in the shadow of the mainline Yakuza games.
And so, despite what initial details might suggest, this isn’t the best place to start if you want to get into Yakuza – and, if you’re more familiar with the series, this is more a slight curio than any indication of where the future output of the Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio lies. Maybe you’ll find clues nestled deep within Judgment, which on its own merits is still a fine video game. It’s just that, for the first time in a while, here’s a game from Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio that feels eminently skippable.