10 years since the donning of the Ryu ga Gotoku Studios label, the Japanese outfit headed by Toshihiro Nagoshi has seen massive growth. While the talent's roots date back much earlier, its rebranding as the signature franchise signaled a new beginning. After a rough transition into the PlayStation 3 generation, Ryu ga Gotoku churned out yearly high-quality releases (though not every game came stateside). After over a decade of perfecting their formula, the Yakuza well began drying up. With such an incessant release schedule, reinvention was needed. Judgment was the perfect opportunity, but it's yet another Yakuza game in everything but name alone with half-baked detective elements.
The Serial Murders
Yakuza games live and die by their stories. Franchise veterans know the addictive pull of a far-too-fleshed-out minigame consuming 10 hours when one meant only to dip in. The studio's games are filled with mechanics and features for gamers that want a heavy dose of "vidya" game, but at the end of the day, it's RGG's penchant for balancing human drama, twisting mysteries, and absurd substories that provide that unmistakable seal of quality.
Judgment's script showcases how much the team has learned with regard to restraint. Some lamented how off the wall Yakuza 4 and 5 became. Judgment still features a multi-layered narrative with plenty of shocking twists as the narrative web continues spinning. Despite this, its villains' motives and characters' action are more grounded. You won't find some 16-year-old idol caught at the center of some complex Yakuza web that also happens to overlap with 500 other characters' personal stakes.
Its subject matter is ripe for exploitation, but Judgment goes far enough to remind consumers they're playing a video game while pulling back enough to prove its characters and script can sustain the core hook without needing to one-up itself at every turn. Unfortunately, it takes too long for the central mystery to begin. It's not Yakuza 3 slow, but it also spends too much of its run-time in mundanity. Character interactions are RGG's strong suit when intense conflict, as a result of an escalating narrative, presents itself.
The first several hours' worth of conflicts doesn't have enough stakes to provide engaging dialogue. Naughty Dog levels of human subtlety aren't this team's forte. They excel when characters monologue about emotional trauma or explain the inner workings of their complex plans. Mundane conversations have been successfully written by the team. The romantic scenes between Kiryu and Sayama in Yakuza Kiwami 2 are examples, but they don't work as isolated instances. They succeeded in part because their unlikely relationship is inseparable from the main plot's circumstances. Change Yakuza 2's main narrative and you change their dynamic.
Judgment does at least benefit from a more well-rounded cast in Yagami and Kaito, among others. To begin with, Yagami is more interesting than Kiryu. He isn't a mostly dry statue that only shows emotion in rare instances for dramatic effect. He emotes consistently like a normal human being. Because of this, conversations with other characters come off more naturally. This is especially important because, without a change in character direction, the first several hours would be much tougher to stomach. It isn't until around the seventh chapter of a thirteen-chapter story that things get juicy. That's when we see the sort of high-intensity melodrama RGG excels at. This is afforded through the central hook finally unraveling itself, upping the stakes.
From this point forward, RGG shows how masterfully they weave twisting webs. The plot escalates at a brisk pace past this mid-point without resorting to any jump-the-shark moments. As always, the cinematic direction is top-class. The level of craft on display in main story sequences regarding camera cuts, angles, music, character performances, etc...trounces many triple-A games. It's a shame, then, that such artistry is wasted on a narrative that takes half its run-time to get going.
Mediocre Side Content
Rather than offering a series of substories, Judgment splits its side content across friendship events and side cases. RGG should be commended for attempting to contextualize Yagami's content. As a detective rather than an ex-Yakuza that keeps finding himself in the thick of Yakuza shenanigans, his interactions with city folk would undoubtedly differ from Kiryu. Yagami isn't some criminal legend. He's a normal guy that takes odd-jobs from anyone. His disposition opens him up to more natural relationship building.
Friendship events are often C-grade substories. Most involve talking to a person multiple times until their friendship meter fills. With few exceptions, they're not very involved, rarely requiring interesting decisions. They sometimes sprinkle the studio's signature humor, but the tonal disparity RGG fans love isn't found during most of these. Side cases are where players will find the closest approximation to the legendary substories. They're more successful but run into the issue of contextualizing the world a little too much. There are some insane highlights, including the series of cases involving the twisted trio--a group of perverts. Aside from them and the sexually perverse Giant Impact, Judgment's side cases mostly ere on the low-key side.
It's filled with the typical distractions, which studio veterans will probably be sick of by the 700th appearance of a game like Outrun or Space Harrier. Kamuro of the Dead and Paradise VR are notable additions, introducing new types of gameplay that haven't been tread dozens of times already by RGG. Drone racing is also a stand-out distraction for its solid mechanics underscored by the inventive use of the Kamurocho as an airborne obstacle/racecourse. Beyond these additions, there isn't a lot to get lost in because most of it is the recycled content that allows such a consistent release schedule. There are only so many times one can play darts or ufo catcher before wanting more.
This is the best iteration of the Dragon Engine's combat to date, made even better with the remaster. Many lamented the removal of fighting styles with Yakuza 6 and Kiwami 2. Judgment revisits this concept with two styles--one for crowd control and one meant for one on one engagements. It's a smart move that avoids some of 0 and Kiwami's bloat, which made some styles feel like they only existed to add to the game's feature set. Judgment's two-pronged approach is purposeful. One step forward and one step back, then. Even three games into this engine, Judgment's combat lacks the same excitement found in most of the studio's games because of a startling lack of heat/ex actions--one of the best reward loops. Yakuza's combat pacing relied on a constant ebb and flow between its simplistic brawler-infused fisticuffs spliced up by punishing finishing moves. The brutality and inventiveness of these heat actions kept combat exciting for so many entries despite its simplicity. Interstitial sequences during gauntlets and boss fights induce as much hype as ever. The uninteractive sequences that break up these gameplay sections are as well-choreographed as ever. If anything, they're more surprising for managing to bring the hype despite their more grounded approach. It gives the small brain the happy chemical.
That said, basic rush combos and finishing blows carry more impact thanks to the engine's improved animations over the PS3-era games. On PlayStation 4, it felt sluggish. On Xbox Series X (and PS5), the 60 fps target combined with the animation work leads to more satisfying moment-to-moment gameplay even if much of the systems surrounding the core punching and kicking are lacking.
Speaking of lacking, RGG dropped the ball with infusing Yagami's trade into gameplay. An ex-lawyer turned detective could have birthed engaging mechanics, but every new mechanic Judgment introduces feels half-baked. Take the instances during which Yagami must grill a suspect or defend his case as examples. Players are presented with three to four dialogue options or are given a series of clues to work with. Selecting the wrong option in court doesn't do anything. The game immediately reverts to the decision point with an "x" labeling an incorrect choice you've already made. This lack of consequence and agency permeates most of the new systems.
You thought the investigative vision in modern games was bad? At least in those, you still sometimes were presented with choices or light logic-solving. In Judgment, you're cordoned off to specified sections in locked rooms or open areas with invisible walls, confined to a first-person view until you've found the thing you're looking for. There's never any guesswork. In other games with light investigation mechanics, the exact thing players are searching for isn't always labeled. You're given a general area and told to look for something that might be useful. This rarely happens here. In most instances, Judgment's objective sidebar details exactly what to look for, meaning anything you examine beyond the checklist is pointless. It makes no pretenses about it.
This lack of agency extends to dates. Yagami can have up to one of four girlfriends, taking them on dates when they ask if you're up for it. Yakuza games have dabbled with dating with many entries featuring relationship meters for hostesses and the like. These past systems were engaging because they felt like navigating around someone's personality. They required cluing into what made a woman tick to figure out the proper responses. Leveling up some of those meters could be difficult for those that don't know how to read social cues or extrapolate personality quirks. Judgment makes this process as easy as they come with any option that isn't the proper choice so absurd that the notion of a decision might as well not exist. Even if for some reason, players make a couple of mistakes during a date, it's next to impossible not to level a woman's meter at the end of every date. You have to actively avoid doing so to make that happen.
Among the pantheon of RGG releases, Judgment places on the lower end of that ladder. In some respects such as the core combat, narrative mystery, and hype factor, it is this studio at the top of their game. They've made enough games to successfully leverage their strengths. It's a shame, then, that it's all so familiar. It's just another Yakuza entry whose new detective-inspired mechanics feel meaningless. If the teased Judgment sequel distances itself a little more from the formula, adds meaningful agency in its detective mechanics, and doesn't take so long to push its story forward, it could be a classic.
TechRaptor reviewed Judgment on Xbox Series X with a code provided by the developer/publisher. This remaster also available on PlayStation 5 and Google Stadia.
- Solid Core Combat
- Story's Second-Half is Peak RGG
- Paradise VR, Kamuro of the Dead, and Drone Races are Addictive Additions
- Gameplay Brings the Hype When it Needs it
- Lack of EX Actions
- New Mechanics and Features are Lackluster
- Story Takes too Long to Get Going