Trudging through the streets of Kamurocho, the mass of blinding lights reflected in their perpetually puddle-ridden surfaces (despite there never being any rain on-screen), you weave your way through the crowds overhearing snippets of conversation from locals and tourists alike, your steely gaze centered on the target you’re tailing. You’ve just been swindled out of 100,000 Yen at a shady bar in the Champion District by a smug owner with penchant for host clubs (a fact you’ve deduced from overhearing a heated argument between her and her husband and observing her behavior before leaving), and you’re determined to get your money back from her by catching her in the act of cheating. Inevitably, you snap a photo of the infidelity in action and surprise her with the evidence, fight off her paid-for boyfriend who has been freshly bribed to take you down, and reclaim the cash you got tricked out of. All in a day’s work for Takayuki Yagami, disgraced former lawyer turned private investigator with ties to the criminal underworld and the justice system alike, and much bigger problems at hand than being suckered by a barker.
Judgment is a fresh new look at the world of the Yakuza franchise, taking the usual formula and turning it on its ear by having you take on Kamurocho’s complex world of intrigue by forcing you to work mostly within the law rather than around it. Given that this is an offshoot of the Yakuza series, most of the staples of those games are still here. You’ll shop at Poppo locations around the city, you’ll encounter a wacky cast of characters through substories (or Side Cases), you’ll brawl with random thugs in the streets pretty frequently (which is rather odd for a lawyer, and the game seizes on many opportunities to acknowledge this), and you’ll naturally find yourself embroiled in a twisted plot of murder, double crosses, and the need to clear your name of wrongdoing. New to Judgment are tools and play modes exclusive to Yagami; you’ll use investigation mode to hunt for clues in crime scenes, you’ll tail suspects through the crowded streets and have to avoid raising their suspicion, you’ll engage in high speed chases laden with quick time events, you’ll pilot a drone to snoop on your quarry, and you’ll even do some casual lock-picking along the way. All of these modes certainly add to the feeling of being a PI, and you’ll feel the part as you dig deeper into the mystery of who’s committing gruesome murders of Yakuza underlings around the city.
I like what these modes are going for, but most of them can get pretty tedious after a few run-throughs, especially tailing suspects, which generally is just a matter of keeping them in sight and hunkering behind cover when they turn around to check the path behind them (even people who have little business being suspicious about being followed). This game was probably most engaging on occasions when tailing somebody who had every reason to be careful, and would double back on their paths and behave more erratically in a clear attempt to shake a potential tail, but it still tends to overstay its welcome (especially if you dig into the side cases where this becomes a fairly common mechanic). The first-person Investigation Mode is typically at least story relevant (and there are hidden cats to find in nearly every scene, so bonus points there), but the act of hunting and pecking around for that last detail you’re missing can be really aggravating in some cases. There are abilities you can unlock for Yagami that will help make the exercise less rote (like vibrating the controller when you get close to a hot spot), but I feel these quality of life improvements should be unlocked from the get go so you can feel like you’re actually investigating and not scrounging for the right angle to uncover a particular pixel.
Yagami as a character is fun to watch; he’s confident, collected, and sharp, but he knows his limits and he carries a chip on his shoulder from mistakenly getting a serial killer acquitted, in a moment that should have been career defining but in fact is tantamount to his own professional ruin. In typical Yakuza fashion, Judgment’s story starts off with a bang, slows down a bit to build the world around you and set the stage for the events to unfold, and then starts teasing out details that tell you all is not as it seems. This gets particularly interesting in Judgment as a case Yagami gets pulled in by his old law firm to help out with turns into something much grander in scale and with direct implications for him and people he cares about. Rather than spoil specifics of the plot, I’ll simply say that Judgment’s story does not disappoint on the intrigue front, and in some ways playing the role of a PI helps make the act of uncovering the truth behind this game’s big caper even more exciting than usual, especially if you have any kind of predisposition for procedural crime dramas.
Jugment‘s presentation takes many cues from western procedurals, wearing some inspirations pretty proudly while also carving out its own identity. After the prologue plays out, the game launches into an opening title sequence worthy of a prestige cable drama, putting a big focus on the starring characters, voice cast, and a monochrome palette overrun with flashy particle transitions that really sell the whole contemporary noir vibe the game is going for (even if the backing music is significantly less dark and gritty than what you might expect). The game takes pleasure in experimenting with its format, and while it generally re-uses a lot of Yakuza 6‘s UI elements in function, it makes a point of re-skinning them appropriately and making things overall cleaner and flashier. Some of my favorite visual elements of Judgment (aside from the fidelity of the character models and the world itself) are in the beautiful art deco typeface and monochrome stills used to introduce new characters, and the way that same typeface appears on screen and dissolves in a beautiful wave of photons when a fight begins. Kamurocho is equal parts dingy and flashy, and Judgment leans into that duality heavily in how it carries itself.
The PlayStation 5 remaster of Judgment is an absolute delight, running at a near constant 60 FPS in native 4K. Texture resolution and clarity has been increased, and the post-processing effects have been given an overhaul to make things like depth of field more subtle, and nicer to look at. The lighting model has been improved and is more realistic, resulting in many night time scenes generally being darker, with softer highlights, but the overall contrast and dynamics between light and shadow are more accurate. This also means that while the game isn’t as “bright” on PS5, the color accuracy is also drastically improved, and the overall effect is a much moodier, more vibrant version of Kamurocho. Whereas the PS4 Pro ran at 30 FPS and the launch PS4 struggled even to hit that number, the PS5 version is almost always silky smooth and runs like an absolute dream. There are occasional dips during certain transitions, and some animations (especially in the UI) appear to drop down to 30 FPS, but overall this is a drastic increase in performance and visual quality over the original release. Load times are also exceptionally quick on the PS5, which is pretty much expected at this point but is worth mentioning all the same. The overall effect is an incredibly solid update that runs like a dream and the enhancements are noticeable whether you’re in a high velocity chase or a contemplative conversation.
Judgment represents an exciting new direction for the Yakuza universe, and while it has some rough gameplay edges that one might expect of a first outing, it’s an extremely fun and rewarding experiment from RGG Studio that I feel succeeds more often than not. The writing is rock solid as usual, characters have all of their expected depth and unique motivations, and Kamurocho is as fun to explore as ever. For the Yakuza-curious, Judgment may be one of the best places to hop on board as it starts a fresh new story and cast of characters, and features the most refined set of standard Yakuza gameplay systems, and because it still sports the trademark beat-em-up action based combat, it may prove more enticing to players than the turn-based RPG combat in 2020’s Yakuza: Like a Dragon.
Judgment is an easy game to recommend, especially with the sequel coming out in September, and I’ve had as much fun with it as any other mainline Yakuza title. Plus, it’s hard to argue with getting a full-fat, high quality Yakuza narrative experience in a $40 price point. This is a really promising start for a new franchise, and it’s only going to get better from here. Seeing RGG Studio stretching itself and finding new ways to apply and change the formula it’s already found so much success with is an exciting and welcome shift. Whether you’re racing drones, playing a Mario Party inspired VR board game for cash, tracking down cheating spouses, chasing a local parkour crime gang through the streets, or solving a really thorny murder mystery, you’re going to find yourself having a blast.
A PlayStation 5 code was provided in advance by the publisher for review purposes