Ryu ga Gotoku Studio made a name for itself with the Yakuza series, which reached more critical acclaim in the West in recent years. The condensed take on the open-world genre led to a refined, polished universe densely packed with personality and charm. Thankfully, the upcoming western release of Judgment carries that same level of charisma, despite the change in characters and story.
Judgment, known as Judge Eyes in Japan, takes place in Kamurocho, a fictional take on Tokyo’s red-light district. You play as Takayuki Yagami, a former lawyer who became a private investigator. Story takes center stage in Judgment, as made immediately apparent in the 15-minute demo I played (twice). Starting up the demo throws you right into a cutscene, which sets up the fact that Yagami is tailing a suspicious individual.
Partway through the investigation, some neighborhood punks show up to challenge Yagami, calling him an “old man.” This kicks off a combat sequence, which presents a familiar feeling for longtime Yakuza fans. Through Yagami, the classic beat-’em-up gameplay stays alive and strong, similar to Kiryu in Ryu ga Gotoku’s previous titles. However, Yagami feels more agile than his predecessor, as he uses a series of flourishing kicks and acrobatic maneuvers to dispatch his enemies.
Despite feeling faster than Kiryu, Yagami’s attacks still carry a sense of bone-crushing, satisfying weight behind them. That feeling gets amplified with EX Actions. After building up some meter, Yagami can perform some context-sensitive attacks. For example, if you have an item in hand, you can absolutely destroy any poor individual with a stylish finisher. If you grab an enemy and drag them toward a wall, they’ll soon be intimately familiar with said wall. Performing these EX Actions never got old in Yakuza 6, and with Yagami’s more dextrous take on combat, I’m eager to see what new animations Ryu ga Gotoku has in store.
Judgment takes the gameplay a step further with Yagami, considering his new occupation as a self-proclaimed private investigator. After dispatching the thugs, I ran ahead to the last place the suspect was seen. Afterward, I had to compare a rough police sketch with the people in the vicinity. The camera shifted to a first-person view, and I zoomed in to scan every nearby face. You can expect other bits of detective-like gameplay to show up, like stalking suspects and chasing down belligerent criminals. It all adds a new layer of welcome gameplay that rewards you for thinking critically.
Of course, the studio hasn’t forgotten the wacky charm that made their Yakuza games so beloved. From the demo’s main menu, you could choose other options besides the main story. One option featured an on-rails zombie shooter that harkens back to arcade classics like The House of the Dead. Another turned Kamurocho into a VR dice-based board game, where you roll dice to move a certain number of spaces. In the demo, they seemed out of context, but these likely represent a fraction of the wild mini games that you can find scattered across Kamurocho.
However, there’s one aspect longtime Yakuza fans might question: the voice acting — specifically, the English voice acting. Historically, Yakuza games have only had Japanese voice overs with English subtitles. Judgment, on the other hand, comes with dual audio. The English audio track has an accompanying subtitle track that matches it perfectly. On the other hand, the Japanese audio comes with a different set of subtitles that conveys the nuances of the language.
While Yakuza purists might shudder at the thought of an English dub, the cast has some all-star actors. Big names like Matthew Mercer (Leon S. Kennedy from Resident Evil, Yusuke Kitagawa from Persona 5) and Yuri Lowenthal (Peter Parker from Marvel’s Spider-Man, The Prince from Prince of Persia) make up part of the cast. Furthermore, everyone’s performance felt spot on, and in some cases, in-game cutscenes are slightly tweaked to match the lip flaps. All in all, the English dub seems like a respectful, faithful localization of Judgment that I’m likely to give a try.
To put it simply, fans of Yakuza will find a lot to love in Judgment. The detective gameplay elevates Ryu ga Gotoku's work, but the studio remembers the wackiness its games are known for. For newcomers to the series, Judgment might be the perfect place to jump in. Kiryu Kazuma’s story is over, but Takayuki Yagami’s is only beginning.
Judgment releases exclusively on the PlayStation 4 on June 25 in the West. It’s already out in Japan.
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