After seven mainline games in the Yakuza franchise, and having grown so close to series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu and his rollercoaster of a life, stepping into his hometown of Kamurocho without him didn't feel right. But Ryu ga Gotoku Studios' new game, Judgment, thrusts you back into the red-light district as Takayuki Yagami, a lawyer-turned-private eye, whose detective sensibilities spin a fresh perspective on a place we've seen so many times. And after two hours of hands-on with the localized version, I've come to appreciate seeing a familiar town in a new light, not to mention investigating the ongoing drama of Kamurocho's criminal underworld.
It takes some time to adjust and accept Yagami, especially when I pass by the old Serena bar and Millenium Tower, or stop by the Sega Arcade in Theater Square and Don Quijote off Nakamichi street. These are the spots I've been to countless times as Kiryu, and a sense of nostalgia hit me as I was playing. However, the book's been closed on the Dragon of Dojima and with a heavy introduction to Yagami's own tumultuous life and how he ties into the overarching Yakuza narrative, I can't help but buy into what Judgment is trying to do.
New Stories From An Old City
In many ways, it's the same old seedy Kamurocho--modeled after Kabukicho in Shinjuku, Tokyo--mainly because it's literally the same map and with several assets from Yakuza 6 and Kiwami 2. Low-level goons trying to flex, shady types looking to swindle you, and thugs ready to fight fill the streets. But that's only the backdrop to Yagami's story. In a flashback, it's established that he'd been a lawyer with Genda Law Firm in Kamurocho, and successfully defended one Shinpei Okubo, who Yagami seems to have a personal connection with. After being found not guilty, Okubo subsequently stabs his girlfriend and burns down their apartment; this is as it appears in the introductory cutscene, but knowing Yakuza games, there's certainly more to this particular story.
Fast-forward three years later, Yagami left the life of a lawyer to work as a private investigator, trading in his suit for a sweet pair of skinny jeans and a slick leather jacket, if he's not in disguise. He stays close to his former associates at Genda Law who remain integral to the story, even taking on jobs for his old boss. Old cohorts aside, Yagami works alongside his partner Masaharu Kaito--the beefy, well-dressed right-hand-man who can hold his own against mobs of bad guys. He's also ex-yakuza and was previously booted from the Tojo Clan for reasons currently unknown. Two misfits from opposite ends of justice whose circumstances have them caught in the middle.
Even the central drama pulls from what we already know; the Kansai-based Omi Alliance encroaches on the Tojo Clan's turf yet again, but Omi goons are found murdered throughout Kamurocho, inexplicably with their eyes gouged out. Thus, the first chapter titled "Three Blind Mice" gets you involved in one of Judgement's deeper mysteries. It leads to another web of characters who all seem to be building up to have roles in a larger conspiracy, setting the pieces for a potential plot twist down the road. One of them being Kyohei Hamura, a captain in the Tojo Clan's Matsugane Family, who's suspected of committing one of the said murders--and Yagami must help defend him.
I didn't get to see the conclusion to this particular story thread, but I picked up some interesting bits along the way that painted a clearer picture of where Yagami fits in. He's presented as a stand-up fellow and doesn't appear to have any burning desire or motivation to help either side in this endless gang war, but does some basic (and shady) debt collecting for the Matsugane family to make ends meet. But Prior to Hamura's arrest, it's said that patriarch Matsugane had paid for Yagami's law school tuition to defend Okubo in return; the aforementioned incident three years ago. As I inched closer to the truth in this early chapter and wondered how Yagami will handle the truth, the more complicated pieces started to fall in place.
With all the narrative juggling you'll be doing and Yagami's dynamic role as a veteran investigator and hardened fighter, it's a sensibility that also pours into Judgment's gameplay.
You Can't Fight Your Way Through Every Problem
Compared to most Yakuza games, Judgment's main story has you doing a bit more than beating dudes to a pulp before reaching an often respectful resolution. The opening hours give you a taste of the different phases of a typical mission. In one phase, you'll follow a suspect in one of those tailing sequences where you fail if you get too close or stray too far from the target. In another, you'll examine your immediate surroundings to gather evidence within a confined location for a case you're investigating. At other times, you'll engage in chases on foot a la Yakuza 3, 4, and 5 where you pursue a suspect and avoid obstacles to catch them before they escape. There's also a phase of talking to bystanders at key locations to hopefully obtain witness accounts that bring you closer to solving the case at hand.
On their own, these in-between sequences haven't been all that great yet, and if anything, simply break up the pace of what we've come to expect. One thing that seems to stand above the rest is the addition of a more dynamic dialogue tree. These don't necessarily influence the story's outcomes the same way many modern RPGs do, but they put you in position to lead conversations and play at least a small part in digging out information and piecing evidence. By nature of taking the role of an investigator, you're more inquisitive about the surrounding environment and the people within it. So much so that you can form bonds with some characters; we're hoping for Persona-style social links, but we'll have to wait to see how far this'll take us.
When it's time to throw down, the series' tried-and-true beat 'em up combat resurfaces, using a near identical control scheme. Yagami plays reminiscent of the footloose financier Shun Akiyama (playable in Yakuza 4 and 5), who relies more on agile kicks and acrobatics than haymakers and brutal throws. His high-flying fighting style also feeds into the EX Actions (formerly Heat Actions) in which you'll see Yagami wall-jumping to deliver a devastating knee or follow up a roundhouse with a swinging double kick through a doorway. Although I was only able to mess with the demo's available EX Actions, scrolling through the upgrades menu reveals even more stylish attacks--I get the feeling that Judgment's humorous side may shine here (I mean, we saw Yagami kickflip a skateboard to kick a dude in the face in a previous trailer). Yagami gives off an air of parkour-influenced swagger as opposed to Kiryu's traditional absurd brutality that I, and I suspect many others, will be onboard for.
Downtime And Minigames
As expected, minigames are found around the corners of the sandbox of Kamurocho, mainly at the Club Sega right in the heart of Kamurocho's Theater Square. 'Kamuro of the Dead' delivers a light gun-style experience that throws back to House of the Dead and sparked thoughts of the ridiculous spinoff Yakuza: Dead Souls. And the smaller things like the dart boards and UFO Catcher crane game are still around. But the adorable plushies you pluck out of it serve a slightly bigger purpose: you can now decorate your office space with them. Yagami lives in his office and sleep on the couch as if he (like his fighting style) was pulled straight off the Akiyama template. And in this office, you can put your own flair on it with cute stuffed cats, office plants, and Super Monkey Ball monkeys--a nod to director Toshihiro Nagoshi's pre-Yakuza claim to fame.
Sadly, karaoke isn't present in Judgment. The rhythm-based minigame that brought so many beautiful and hilarious moments throughout the Yakuza series was said to not be a great fit for Judgment and its characters. It'd also be pretty difficult getting Yagami's voice actors Greg Chun (English) and Takuya Kimura (Japanese) to sing karaoke songs in the voice over booths in a way that makes sense for both languages.
A New Watermark For The Series' Localization
For the first time in Ryu ga Gotoku Studios' history, its game will feature dual audio; you'll have the option for the English or Japanese voice track with separate subtitles for each. It's a new challenge for Sega's localization team that's been renowned for its stellar work on bringing the current generation of Yakuza games to the West with their original spirit in tact. While I find the Japanese voice work to be the best fit, the English voices left me pleasantly surprised, especially with the extra effort made to animate proper lip-syncing for a separate script.
Prominent anime and video game voice actors were brought on for Judgment; alongside Greg Chun in the lead role are Matthew Mercer, Max Mittelman, Yuri Lowenthal, Cherami Leigh, and SungWon "ProZD" Cho to name a few. Having spent some time with the English track, I began to ease into it and found myself brought into the story all the same. Having this option opens the door for those who've always wanted a dubbed version.
Judgment is tempered in a way that fits what the game is going for. No longer are you navigating the ranks of a yakuza clan or sorting out your own family drama while taking breaks to hit the dance floor or belt out a few songs at the karaoke bar. I'll miss that, it's what made Yakuza's story and characters full of life. The masterful fluctuation between absurdity and melodrama takes a back seat, at least that's how it appears.
There are a lot of new faces, and keeping track of who's who comes part-and-parcel, and even with just two hours with the game, there's still plenty of detail I haven't laid out here. But if I've learned anything from seven Yakuza entries, it's that Ryu ga Gotoku Studios makes good on the details it throws into its games. Judgment provides a fresh perspective of a familiar setting. It may not be a Yakuza game by name, but the spirit seems to still be there. You can investigate Kamurocho's latest crimes as Takayuki Yagami when Judgment launches on June 25 exclusively for PlayStation 4.