If you know anything about me, you know this world is a far better and sexier place with me around. But that’s not super relevant to this post. You might also know that I’m a big Yakuza fan. Like, the series, not the organized crime bastards. I love the games. The extreme manly drama, the pitting of the romanticized noble criminal ideal against the wicked pragmatic crimelords that exist in the same sphere, the excellent and fast-paced action, the city district we’ve gotten to know so well that it’s almost a character in itself, the placing of dark story beats right alongside impossible to take serious goofiness, it fills a very warm place in my cold, dark heart.
However, the series is in a place of big transition right now. Yakuza 6 broke the mold in a lot of ways. The biggest, after 20 some years in meat-time and with us watching through Kiryu’s eyes over an in-universe time period from the late 80s up until the end of the new 10s, and the developers decided it was time to close the book on him. They closed the book in a way that they can and almost certainly will open it up again, but for the time being, the developers are serious that whatever Kiryu’s future involvement, he’s not going to be the center of the story anymore. Which, honestly, has been a long time coming. With the series kind of trying to hold onto at least something of a realistic sense in its conflicts, they’ve long had troubles with managing Kiryu’s in-universe power level. Yakuza 1 started with him being feared, and saw him, with some complicating factors on his side, just rampage through the strongest yakuza family in his area. Yakuza 2 had him as an absolute legend, and saw him as the muscle of a small group that conquered like four crime families. Yakuza 3 had to have an absolutely ridiculous plot bringing in the CIA just to up the stakes enough to where his power standings at this point was. Yakuzas 4 and 5 had to sidestep the issues by having Kiryu as the member of a team of player characters with the least direct involvement in the plot just to keep things feeling threatening, and even then 5 still had Kiryu end a gang war single-handedly take on every single member of another crime family. At the same time. And win. At the end of the first act. So yeah, his power level was a big in-story issue, and there was only so long they could stave it off with prequels and side games. So it makes sense that they’d see him retire from his main character role at the end of 6.
But we still need our Yakuza fix. And sure, there’s Yakuza 7 coming out, but what if that’s not good enough for you? What if you want a completely new perspective of the Yakuza series? What if you were really curious about what a Yakuza game would be like as seen through the lens of Phoenix Wright?
Judgement is a Yakuza game through and through. And it manages to be something different at the same time. The gameplay is familiar. The setting, which has been so integral to the series, is familiar. The spirit behind the game is familiar. But now, we’re looking at it through a new lens, and in a game that’s willing to break the traditional franchise rules. Let’s jump into that.
Given that the Yakuza series isn’t exactly the biggest, most popular thing around, unlike myself, let’s go over the basics of what a Yakuza game is. Yakuza is an open-world action game featuring your character alternatively fighting and helping various Yakuza goons and families. Locations are very compact for an open world game, opting for smaller but denser play areas than usual, and are filled things to do, from going to the arcade and playing video games inside your video games, to getting to know and help out various civilians through sidequests, to being confronted by yakuza goons or street thugs every other minute and needing to fight your way out, leading to it being a 100% realistic simulation of real life in Japan. It’s a very cinematic series, you can tell they really put a lot of effort, resources, and focus to their cutscenes, and they feature very complex plots with BIG MANLY DRAMAS and some incredibly wild shifts in tone. Over time, Yakuza has featured a lot of locations, but every game spends a significant amount of its runtime in Kamurocho, a crime-ridden red-light district of Tokyo based so heavily on the real-life Kabukicho, you could show up in the real place and know exactly where to find some of the product-placed shops. And yeah, product placement is big in Yakuza, and you’ll often see real life shops, vending machines, drinks, hostesses, pornstars, and more popping up in the game. Frankly, I would find this level of product placement incredibly irritating in a Western game, but here, given that it’s from and targeted to a culture I’m not native to, it actually feels more like it adds to the realism of it. If there’s ever been a game that does product placement right, it’s Yakuza.
So, in any case, that’s the series as a whole. How does Judgement work with that? Well, let’s start with the character of it, because that’s where I’m most interested. Judgement is set in the same district of Kamurocho that the series really revolves around, having you behind the mind and body of Takayuki Yagami, a private detective that used to be a criminal defense attorney who made big waves in the Japanese courts, that just like in real life have an obscenely and inhumanly high conviction rate, by actually managing to successfully defend I client accused of murder, only for his criminal law career ends up in the gutter when said client is convicted of murdering his girlfriend shortly after he’s released. Yagami doesn’t get much in the way of success, at least before you take the reins, although he does have a consistent client in the Genda Law Office that he used to work for. This connection leads to him working for the defense team of a Tojo Clan yakuza accused of killing a rival yakuza clan member. In gathering evidence, he gets put on the trail of a local serial killer, “The Mole”, and things go a bit crazy from there. Plot, as is par for the course for the Yakuza series, gets very complex, with lots of interrelated characters, groups and events, several major plot twists, and a whole lot of different motivations to keep track of. The series does often involve real world social problems to some extent, and this time around, you will learn so much about dementia and alzheimers, to the point that you have to wonder if a key member of the development team was facing that in their own life while getting the game design document together for this one. There’s a big theme around extremism, of doing evil in the name of a good cause, and the costs of doing that. Overall, I found Judgement’s story to be one of the better ones in the Yakuza series. Games with this kind of complexity in general, and the Yakuza series in particular, can get a bit overwrought, losing track of their central ideas, underserving their concepts, or getting things so impenetrable that things just stop making sense. Judgement actually handles its complexity really well. It does some really interesting things with repetition, having you go through similar story beats in different scenarios or from different perspectives in a way that actually keeps bringing new things to it and avoids actually feeling repetitive, while giving you the opportunity to get really well accustomed to the huge variety of characters and concepts, just by virtue of having them constantly present. Interestingly enough, this is also a fresh start for the series, plotwise. Yakuza as a whole has a habit of diving deep into its own history, to the point that every game includes hours of optional synopses of the things that come before it so newcomers can do their homework before hopping on. Judgement, however, doesn’t call on much of any of the prior plot. You can see a few signs of previous events here and there, but there’s no major recognizable characters showing up again, moments where prior knowledge help you understand anything are rather minimal, and overall, newcomers can just pick up this one with no problems at all.
I find Judgement hits a really interesting place in terms of overall tone. As I said before, the Yakuza series in general shifts its tone like crazy without popping the clutch, and you definitely get that here. It’s a bit more subtle about it for the first many hours, but then you’re fleeing for your life from a group of yakuza that were on the verge of summarily executing you and you find a skateboard and then start pulling sweet tricks out of nowhereand yeah, the crazy tone shifts haven’t gone anywhere, and they’ll be your constant friend throughout the series, pairing incredibly serious dramatic events with moments of absolute absurdity. More than that, though, Judgement is simultaneously a darker and lighter take than most of the rest of the series. Rather than dealing with the conspiracies and sinister but overall hesitant-to-kill crime families, the main antagonist here is a straight up serial murderer, and your role is going to expose you to a lot more dead people than there was in the past. Police, prosecutorial, and government corruption is another major theme we’ll see here, and even a lot of the authorities that are ultimately on your on your side are shown to have rather loose morals. The yakuza in this game are largely free of the influence of the more honorable rogue characters that filled the previous games, now they’re mostly the type of people who, well, who would undertake criminal acts for personal financial gain. The few ‘good’ yakuza, who would have been very prominent in previous titles, have either been relegated to uselessness or kicked out of their clan.
At the same time, however, Yagami gets a lot more support from his community than Kiryu ever did. He builds a lot of close connections, and people will, in turn, happily and willingly help him, many even going to great, personal risk to do so. It’s been well established that Kamurocho is kind of a yakuza-controlled cesspool, and yet, you see more average folk than ever fighting their way through it and making a good, honest time of themselves. You get some bonds there that are honestly very touching. And perhaps most of all, they’ve dropped the betrayal and body count significantly, in this game. There’s way fewer people with dark hidden backstories, way more people you can trust, and although there’s plenty of notable deaths there, way more people than I expected survived. There was one character in particular I spent the whole game convinced he was going betray me and/or die at some point, because he fit all the emotional cues that Yakuza usually pulls for that. And they knew that. They played with it. They teased things quite a few times, but he never wavered, was always there, and honestly shocked me by surviving the whole way through. And there’s a distinct line of hope in there. The few earnestly good characters may waver sometimes, but they stay good, they stay dedicated, and they make real change because of it. Happy endings all around. In spite of the more dour subject matter, there’s a real line of hope running through it, and that dichotomy makes for a really interesting progression.
I find Judgment really shines in term of characterization. I truly, honestly got drawn into the people you’re working with here. Your lead, Yagami, has a casual charm to him that makes him seem like the kind of guy anyone would hang with, while also bearing a consistent set of morals and motivations that make his actions seem really natural. Kaito, Yagami’s sidekick, is so similar to Kiryu in personality, role, and fighting style that the story doesn’t feel like it has a lack for its longtime protagonist being missing, while also providing for a lot of meaningful forward momentum through showing where Kiryu’s big dumb uber-honorable brick fights in the thinking man’s game. Yagami and Kaito play incredibly well together, and the way they’re written and acted you can feel the bond between them. Even beyond those main two characters, you can see a lot of rather realistic conflicts, fears, bad decisions, regrets, and recoveries in the expansive cast of this game. They behave in very realistic ways, and it feels like all the major characters get very well-rounded throughout the game.
Gameplay in Judgement is based on the engine of Yakuza 6. Yakuza 6 was an odd duck of a game from multiple angles, but its gameplay especially so. Usually, with this series they’ll use the side games that never actually get released in the west to experiment with new features and work out the kinks in their systems before putting them in new games, but they didn’t with Yakuza 6. It was an all new engine full of untested features, and as such, it lacked the level of polish that other games in the series had. Judgement is basically the version of that we would have had, if they’d gone with their usual development practices, being a more polished version of 6’s engine. As with many games of this ilk, you’ll move between a couple of game modes, and combat is the one with the most complexity, so let’s start there. When you’re one one of your missions, or if you just happen to bump into some jerks on the street, you’ll get your opponents name wiping over the screen and the fight’s on. Combat controls are largely going to be rather familiar, you’ve got your light attacks, heavy attacks, grab, and dodge buttons, as well as lock-ons and guards. Combat starts off being rather slow-paced, but as you upgrade yourself and move through the story both sides will develop until it ends up getting rather intense. Mixing that up are your EX Actions, for which you could build up meter and store a couple of charges that you can use to execute a powerful move in a brief cinematic if you’ve gotten the enemy in the right situation. There are a lot of those moves, and they range in style from the practical and brutal (running up and punting an enemy in the head) to the rather unrealistic (jumping on top of the enemy and flipping them over into a DDT) to the outright bizarre (forcing a way too hot snack into your opponents mouth, which does way more damage than most of your head trauma moves). Combat ends up being a mix of managing your offensive combos, defensive options, and overall resources, and can see quite a bit of shifting. The engine gets deceptively deep as you go through it, and it still feels fresh even after tons of hours put into it.
Every playable character in the series has a very distinct combat style. Yagami is big into kung fu. The style switching mechanic from Yakuza 0 makes a return here, although you’ve only got two styles to work with, Crane and Tiger. Tiger style is fast and focuses in on a single opponent, while Crane attacks are sweeping and will hit multiple opponents. Unfortunately, the style switching in this game doesn’t have quite the depths that Yakuza 0’s had, as there’s not really much in the way of decision points there. You just use Crane style whenever you’re fighting multiple enemies, and Tiger against bosses, or when you’ve got a single opponent separated from the pack. It’s not like there’s a lot of fast thinking or hard decisions involved, it’s always clear what your best option is going to be. Yagami’s playstyle is normally at it’s best when he’s on the move, he’s not a straight brawler like many other characters. Instead, his options open up when he’s bouncing off the walls, leap-frogging over enemies, or playing hit and run. Standing still and trying to power through enemies, by contrast, leaves him more vulnerable than previous characters were.
I find it interesting that a lot of the personality differences between Yagami and previous characters are really highlighted by gameplay mechanics. For one, given that he doesn’t have the same yakuza backgrounds many of the others have, he doesn’t have their protections, either, and if fights go on for too long you’re going to end up running from the police. Yagami also follows the law more strictly than other characters, and absolutely will not pick up any dropped guns, bladed weapons, or explosives, and for that matter tends to have less options in fighting with weapons than hand-to-hand in general. He’s also not an absolute tank like Kiryu or some of our other fellows from the past, and will lose chunks of his maximum lifebar to damage from guns, bladed weapons, or boss’s special attacks, requiring either medical treatment or special items to get that back. However, on the strength side, Yagami is a friendlier and more community-minded sort than our previous protagonists were, and not only will story missions usually have him with some of his comrades joining him in battle, but you’ll make friends that will jump in on your random encounters if they happen to be around, as well.
As always, there’s a complex system of character progression, although Judgment’s is a lot more straightforward than some of the games have gotten. There’s only one type of experience, and you gain it from pretty much everything. Win a fight, get EXP. Progress the story, get EXP. Eat a burger, get EXP. Mack with one of your girlfriends… well, you get the idea. You get largely a shopping list of options to pick from and can use your experience to buy whatever’s on there, as long as you have enough EXP to afford it and the move unlocked. You’ll have several options unlocked at the start, some will unlock automatically as you go along the story, some you have to find skill books or QR codes in the game world to unlock, and some have other locked moves as prerequisites. Your upgrades cover a lot of different areas in three categories; basic stats, new moves, and special navigational things. The system leads to dramatic improvements in your character, but it is a bit unbalanced. Stat increases are appropriately powerful and expenses, while unlocking new moves is also vital to your success and really opens combat up for you, but most of them are trivially cheap in comparison. And the navigational stuff seem out of place here. Outside of the odd sidequest that might require those upgraded abilities, it’s hard to argue for things like the ability to regain health by listening to music in your office or to hold more drink opposed to the ability to punch faces harder.
As is suitable for an open world game, there’s tons of sidequests and minigames here. Minigames take lots of different forms. There’s a bunch that, being a PI, Yagami has to use just as general course over his job. Trailing people is one that pops up all the time, needing to stealthily follow someone through a crowd to get the scoop on them. It works a bit better than you might expect, and is definitely not an afterthough, although still seems a bit underbaked and it definitely slows down the pace of a lot of things, so you’ll need to have some patience to enjoy them. You’ll also frequently examine crime scenes, question people, and present evidence, a la Phoenix Wright. Given the linear nature of the story, you don’t usually fail if you get a wrong answer, but you do get EXP bonuses for getting the right answer to questionings and presenting evidence on the first try. You’ll also get some running scenes where you’re either fleeing from somebody or trying to chase someone down, in which Yagami automatically moves forward along a set route, while you move him to the left and right and hit action prompts to dodge obstacles. All these are usually pretty serviceable, and do serve to shift your perspective on the action and properly set the energy of the scene pretty well, and although they’re not exactly fully-fledged gameplay modes of their own, they do have enough depth to them to last as long as the game has you through them, and they’re short enough that their flaws aren’t really a bother.
And then, of course, most Yakuza games seem to have some sort of large-scale minigame that’s overall pretty ignorable but is content-rich enough to last you for quite a while if you chose to go for that. In Judgement, that’s drone racing. It’s a fully-fledged racing game where you craft your own parts and build your own drone, that you then race in time trails or leagues of 5 different difficulties among 10 separate tracks. For those who’ve played Yakuza 0, it’s basically an update to the Pocket Circuit there, except your craft your parts instead of buying them, and you can actually control your racer. I’m sure there’s tons of rewards to be had from it, but honestly, I didn’t spend a lot of time on this one. The races, at least at the beginner level, didn’t really have the kind of tension or energy I usually like from my racing games, and went on a bit too long for a system where it seems more of your success comes from planning out your parts rather than on your in-racing skill. I probably would have enjoyed it more had they gone through faster. Those of you with more patience for racers might have a better time with it.
And there’s a bunch of other minigames that you can jump into here, should your interests take you that way. There’s plenty of traditional casino games as well typical Japanese games of chance here, you’ve got darts, shogi, mahjong, baseball, a Mario Party-esque VR game that can fill your pockets with lots of cash, plenty of classic Sega arcade games like Virtua Fighter 5 or Puyo Puyo, and a House of the Dead pastiche styled after the series’ ill-fated Yakuza: Dead Souls. There’s a lot to keep you busy here, even if you get tired of the core gameplay itself.
Given Yagami’s job as a detective, sidequests seem to fit in his story pretty easily. About half the official sidequests are just jobs you’re commissioned to do. Sidequests tend to be pretty quick and to the point, and generally are a lot more light-hearted, if not outright comedic, compared to the main story. They tend to only come a few at a time, and can give you a nice break from the main plot when things start getting a little too heavy there. On the other side, if you’re bothered by the giant flips in tone the game takes, taking time of from your extreme murder crime drama to help track down a pervert that draws power from groping or dressing up like a vampire and doing a press conference. Like I said before, Yagami is a friendlier sort than we’ve been behind before in the game, and making friends makes up a lot of side content as well. There’s 50 potential friends in the game, for which you do various tasks for to build relationships with, and once they’re your friend, you typically get some benefit from that. Some of those benefits are pretty worthless, like having a new menu item added to a restaurant, while some can be rather powerful, such as having friends step in and help you out in battle. Having a certain amount of friends is also a prerequisite for most of the sidequests you take through your agency. It can take quite a bit of time to rack up friends, and the way to do so isn’t always obvious, nor are the stories you get through that always particularly interesting. Overall, the sidequests are good enough, but I’d say the friend events aren’t especially engaging in general. You can at least make a lot of progress on the friend side pretty quickly.
Early on in the game, Yagami runs afoul of the Keihin Gang, the local group of goons that are a bit tougher than your garden variety goon but not quite as powerful as the Yakuza families. And that leads to what’s probably my least favorite component of the game. About once every hour of gametime, the Keihin Gang will decide to go on the manhunt for you. This will set the amount of enemies in the game world sky high and seriously slow down any progress you’re making through it. If you choose not to fight off any of their bosses and just wait them out, characters in game will chew you out for it. The bosses aren’t complex enough and don’t have the character of some of the other repeated enemies in previous games, so they’re just not interesting past the first few times of fighting them, You can’t take care of them for good until you’ve completed almost every other bit of major content in the game. It gets to the point where every time you get the text that they’re after you you’ll feel a flash of frustration, knowing the game world is going to be more a pain to navigate for the next while.
But, overall, Judgment is a really good time. It’s a fresh take on a game series that I’ve sunk hundreds of hours into, and it keeps a lot of the good from the series, polishes up some parts that didn’t work right, and adds a lot that just feels new and novel and game-changing. It’s a sequel that’s not afraid to take risks and break the boundaries set by previous games, but it does so in a way that’s really true to what a Yakuza game is. It also shows, really well, how to use subtleties of gameplay to reflect and add to the plot, and to integrate both story and gameplay in a way that each side enhances the other. I’d honestly say Judgment is one of my favorite games in the Yakuza series, and I’d wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t picked it up yet.