Judgment Review Impressions: This Is Not a Yakuza Game

Judgment looks the part, but hides key changes from its sister series beneath the surface.

Between attending E3 and the game’s massive runtime (more than 70 hours in some cases), we just haven’t had time to complete Judgment yet. But we still wanted to write up our initial impressions to help inform your purchasing decisions. That’s why we decided to write this “review impressions” piece, based on the first 12-15 hours of Judgment. Please know this is not a comprehensive look at the entire game, but still reflects what we think is a solid overview of what to expect. Thanks!

Judgment isn’t really a Yakuza game. It’s set in the same fictional territory — the outwardly seedy, secretly wholesome Tokyo district of Kamurocho — as its predecessors. But the differences between the two are immediately obvious. For one, you don’t play as the yakuza legend, Kiryu Kazuma, or any of his cohorts. But just like Kamurocho itself, there are layers at work here. The differences between Judgment and the “main” Yakuza games run a whole lot deeper than just the protagonist.

Said protagonist is named Yagami Takayuki: a delinquent turned lawyer who changes careers yet again early in the game. The Japanese criminal justice system has an exceptionally high conviction rate, see, and Yagami accomplishes the nearly impossible. He gets an accused murderer acquitted. Minor stardom quickly turns to public shame, however, when Yagami’s client goes on to immediately murder his girlfriend.

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Disgusted with himself, the protagonist spends the next three years becoming a private investigator with his ex-yakuza BFF. That’s where Judgment more-or-less begins. It’s also where things get awfully complicated. There’s a serial killer, a gang of masked teens, and drama in the Tojo Clan. You might think a detective like Yagami would thrust himself into the middle of all that; you’d be right! The hero jumps headfirst into the intricate web of events — using his wits as much as his fists.

And that’s exactly why exposition isn’t the only dense thing about Judgment. Yagami is an investigator, not a martial force of nature like Kiryu. At least the plot establishes as much. You can still get into third-person beat-em-up scuffles with street toughs. And boss battles against mid-level yakuza lieutenants still crop up periodically. But there are a lot of investigatory mini-games gumming up the works, too.

And I mean a lot. The first chapter of Judgment isn’t just front loaded with tutorials and side objectives. It nearly buckles under their weight. There are not one, not two, but three types of lock opening mini-games (two for lockpicking and one just for selecting the right key to open doors). That’s not even including keypad locks, where you hunt for door codes in the environment and memorize them to progress. There are also stealth sections where you tail targets, pseudo-races where you chase them down, and first-person pixel hunts that force you to pick out objects in the environment. The list goes on.

Judgement Game Review

Forced Interaction

And that’s exactly what it feels like: a list. The opening hours of Judgment feel like the developer trying to cram as many features into one game as possible. That might sound par for the course in a Yakuza adjacent game, but there’s a cost. Far less time is given to character development.

By contrast, I think back to the opening of Yakuza 0. That game wove its relationships into the “meaningless” minutiae of wandering Kamurocho. The introduction to karaoke, in particular, showed a night in the life of Kiryu and his blood brother Nishikiyama. We got a sense of why they liked each other and what the stakes of their straining relationship really were — while also learning that this world lets you do all kinds of fun side activities.

Endlessly forcing the issue with equally infinite (and mandatory) new mini-games isn’t nearly as endearing. In fact, Judgment just isn’t as immediately endearing as the main Yakuza games. Period. At least not at first… Yagami can’t benefit from 14 years of established fiction to jump start his charm, like other characters in the series. He’s new! But he definitely starts to come into his own, even just after the first couple chapters.

Layers Upon Layers

Kiryu and his playable cohorts are legends in Kamurocho. Whereas Yagami is kind of a schmuck. The trademark subtle storytelling of Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio gets this across with aplomb. We see him take hits, avoid combat where possible, and try to sneak or disguise his way through problems. One early interaction even has him wincing and hissing as a seemingly average man grips his wrist in a show of strength. It’s hard to imagine any of the macho men from Yakuza proper showing that kind of vulnerability. Even so, there’s a conviction behind the character that feels even more interesting because he’s not a powerhouse.

When things do go sour — either because the story demands it or you choose the wrong dialogue option in a critical moment — things do look and feel very Yakuza-like. You lock onto enemies and square, square, triangle them into comas with a flurry of punches and kicks. Combat stances return from Yakuza 0, as well. Though Yagami uses crane- and tiger-style martial arts.

The more formal techniques aren’t just superficial, either. The controls will be familiar to anyone who’s played a recent Yakuza game, but the weight behind the blows feels totally different. Yagami carries forward notable, physics-based momentum. It’s actually kind of unwieldy. Unloading even a basic combo can drag you halfway across whatever impromptu arena you battle in. Even just walking carries a similar inertia. The combined result is a bull in a china shop feel to Judgment that I’m not sure I like.

Judgement Game Review

A Very Different City

But there’s an even bigger issue; Judgment is just… dry. Working more-or-less within the law (literally, when the game shifts back to scenes of courtroom drama) doesn’t lead to much over-the-top tension. At least it’s nothing compared to the melodrama of Yakuza games. The cutscenes are just as long and full of charged dialogue as ever. But they far less frequently end with men ripping off shirts to reveal intricate tattoos, seconds before they beat love and understanding into each other (perhaps backlit by burning buildings; it’s a coin flip).

The sub-stories, side quests separate from the main plot, are also much more down to earth. Previous Yakuza games cut the tension of the violence-charged campaign with battles against adult men in diapers, teaching a dominatrix how to be more confident, and chasing down sentient vacuum cleaners. Really. The side stuff in Judgment is still character-driven — usually with Yagami supporting one stranger or another. But they’re far less memorable. Helping a hotel concierge with her English just isn’t as iconic as helping fake Steven Spielberg shoot a music video for fake Michael Jackson. It can’t be.

The sense of place, however, is still strong. I like building up relationships with the citizens of Kamurocho over time. Stopping by eateries to regain health with mouthwatering JPEGs of delicious food is still satisfying, too. And I like Yagami, despite his incessant need to mini-game around every problem. The Yakuza devs still have that relaxing sense of inhabiting a world on lock.

Even so, after the first few chapters, Judgment feels like an odd place to jump into Kamurocho. It’s a slow burn without the same kind of payoff as “normal” Yakuza games. And without that mix of melodrama and off-the-wall nonsense, the payoff is a very different thing. It’s a self-serious mystery that simply wears a Yakuza skin. It’s a nice change of pace, and just as polished as you might expect. Just make sure to change your expectations accordingly.