It's a strange thing to knowingly bid farewell to a fictional character you've followed for over a decade, and then learn to love their replacement. I teared up a little when longtime protagonist Kazama Kiryu finally exited the Yakuza series (presumably for good) at the end of The Song Of Life. But as we wait for Yakuza to begin anew in earnest, Ryu ga Gotoku Studio has crafted a different opportunity to revisit the staple setting of Kamurocho as newcomer Takayuki Yagami, a disgraced defense attorney turned private investigator. And fortunately, despite some unremarkable additions to the standard RGG template, by the end of Judgment it's hard not to feel like you want to spend dozens upon dozens more hours with Yagami and friends.
Yagami might not be a yakuza, and Judgment might not be a mainline Yakuza game, but you'd be mistaken for thinking that the overarching narrative of Judgment doesn't heavily adopt the criminal theatrics that RGG Studio has become known for. While the plot kicks off with a relatively straightforward investigation into a serial killer, Yagami's investigation into it uncovers a vast, complicated and interweaving conspiracy of secrecy and betrayal that involves the history of the cast, the Japanese legal system, the Tokyo police department, multiple yakuza factions, and higher stakes beyond. It's an unsurprising escalation, but it's told in such a way that keeps you glued to the screen--the mystery is gripping, the drama is irresistible, and the performances are excellent.
Yagami and his partner Kaito are the primary emotional conduits, and they remain incredibly empathetic and genuinely likable characters throughout. They have interesting personal dilemmas and arcs of their own, and a warm, convincing dynamic together, regularly joking around and pulling one another's chains, and sharing determination when they need to. Kaito is a former yakuza who acts as the brawn to Yagami's brains--though Yagami still manages to be an impossible kung-fu savant, for reasons that are never truly explained in any meaningful way, and in skinny jeans, no less. The two bring a delightful vibe to the otherwise serious nature of the story, and they are treasures.
In some ways, Yagami is more believable and well-defined as a protagonist than Kiryu was in the Yakuza series. Where you were often encouraged to put Kiryu, a typically unwavering deity of honor, through uncharacteristic sojourns into weirdly perverse pursuits, Yagami rarely acts in a way that feels out of character, nor are you allowed to get involved in anything that goes against his demeanor. It's a notable quality that helps to make him more consistently likable, even if he does do something you think is idiotic.
Judgment's side activities do their best to reflect Yagami's nature. Side missions are mostly framed as citizens calling upon Yagami for his private investigator services, though are still a place for RGG Studio's penchant for absurdism to get a workout. More interesting is the game's Friend system, which allows you to befriend dozens of unique individuals spread across Kamurocho, whether via side missions or their own discrete activities. Performing a variety of tasks in service of a person will level up your friendship with them, eventually giving you access to perks like secret items on a restaurant menu or a helping hand in combat. It's a nice thematic element that rounds out Yagami's character as a good-natured, friendly neighborhood PI.
The uncomfortably debaucherous side of RGG games is still present in Judgment, though it's mostly left to be associated with the more unsavory characters and aspects of the plot rather than Yagami himself. That means the saucier activities of Kamurocho are gone, including the entertaining cabaret club management minigame. Instead, there's a dating aspect where you can grow closer to women Yagami has already befriended over the course of the game, which involves regular interactions via in-game text messages, and eventually a series of dates. It feels more wholesome as a result, though only as wholesome as a 35-year-old man dating a 19-year old can be.
Elsewhere in the game's entertaining array of side distractions, Judgment features an incredibly robust Mario Party-esque board game, a two-player port of Fighting Vipers, an original light-gun shooter called Kamuro Of The Dead, an obviously-made-in-a-different-game-engine version of pinball, and drone racing. That's on top of a healthy, familiar selection of Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown, Puyo Puyo, UFO catchers, darts, batting cages, Mahjong, Shogi, and various casino card games, among other activities, all seen in previous Yakuza titles.
There are plenty of other familiar aspects that return from previous Yakuza games, but not all of them shake out to be in Judgment's favor. For example, while the game's major cinematics are lovingly rendered and animated as always, lesser, more stilted character models with cold, dead eyes still dominate a lot of the game's cutscenes and suck some emotion out of the otherwise excellent drama.
Kamurocho is another weary aspect, which is an admittedly blasphemous notion at first--the district itself still feels lively, bustling, and full of things to do--but this is still very much the Dragon Engine-era Kamurocho from Yakuza 6 and Yakuza Kiwami 2, both of which released a year prior. But it's not just the fact that Kamurocho is still relatively fresh in your mind if you've been following the series closely (there are only a handful of new interiors), it's Judgment's lack of a meaty palette cleanser--nearly all Yakuza games since the 2005 original have featured an additional city to free-roam in, or at least additional protagonists to help add a bit of excitement to the series' familiar formula. Judgment has a tiny additional interior location situated outside of Kamurocho, but it's purely a story setpiece.
Conversely, many of Judgment's attempts to add to the core Ryu ga Gotoku template wear out their welcome almost immediately. Yagami's position as a lawyer-turned-private-eye means there are a lot of segments that involve tailing and chasing people, getting into places he isn't supposed to, searching for clues, and making deductions. The prospect of performing all of these thematically appropriate activities would be attractive were they not all mechanically boring in practice.
Tailing and chasing people are the biggest offenders, made worse by the Judgment's heavy reliance on them. Slowly following targets through the city while trying not to let the targets spot you (they're all very on edge) is a dull, slow, and arduous process which is often made more frustrating by the infamous RGG Studio movement system, which is clunky at the best of times. A reliance on predetermined hiding spots strips the act of any dynamics and creativity. Chases are faster but equally monotonous auto-running sequences where you need to steer Yagami left and right within a set path, avoid any obstacles, and perform the regular quicktime event to keep up with a target. With the exception of one amusing sequence on a skateboard, the game's numerous chases are all ultimately stale, when they should get your heart pumping.
Searching for clues and making deductions are poised to be the more attractive mechanics due to the game's legal bent--Yagami will sometimes need to search an area in first-person for clues or explain a hypothesis or contradiction. But these moments are let down by being incredibly straightforward, and expecting something that sits anywhere near to what you might find in a Danganronpa or Ace Attorney game would be misguided. You're provided with a checklist of things to find during search scenes, meaning the discoveries don't feel revelatory--but finding the hidden cats is the real treat here. Deduction segments feel more like opportunities for the game to make sure you've been paying attention to the story so far, rather than a chance for you to join the dots and stumble upon the discovery for yourself.
While the mystery in Judgment is certainly a journey that you're merely accompanying Yagami on, the lack of player agency in the detective segments makes them feel like a useless chore. There are two different types of lockpicking minigames--which are fine, if uninspiring--and there's also a bizarrely unexciting mechanic where you have to choose which key on Yagami's keyring to use when entering certain doors. The most interesting new idea is the addition of a couple of brief sequences where you play as one of Yagami's co-workers and go undercover, which only left me wanting to see that idea explored even further.
Ultimately, most of Yagami's progress is made by doing what all good protagonists in RGG games do best--kicking the shit out of people. Yagami has two different kung-fu influenced fighting styles: Crane style is designed to deal with groups of enemies, whereas Tiger style focuses on single-target damage. Fighting starts off feeling a bit clunky and limiting--especially the flashier Crane style, whose moves come with long recoveries and see Yagami spend more time doing flips than landing hits--but this changes over time as you upgrade Yagami's combo speeds and attack damage, making the risk of opening yourself up more viable. Tiger style is more intricate and versatile, however, with a much larger and more powerful variety of moves to unlock and use--including an exploding palm technique that's a blast to use again and again.
Additional fighting techniques are introduced to flesh out Yagami's flashy, acrobatic style and include the ability to leapfrog enemies, wall jump, and link attacks off those maneuvers. The Yakuza series' explosive "Heat" moves appear as "EX" moves, allowing you to execute devastating cinematic special attacks, reliant on specific environmental and combat situations. Despite not being a Yakuza game, combat is your primary interaction with the world in Judgment. Fighting all sorts of delinquents, gangsters, and at one point, a group of academic researchers is still very entertaining, though, and it's great that there are abundant opportunities for you to lay down some street justice.
It's disappointing to realize that Judgment is at its best when it veers closer to the mold that it came from. Even though the game's familiar fighting and side activities will happily keep you occupied, it's a shame that the most intriguing and unique additions are also the dullest things about Judgment, because the new roster of characters have been wonderfully crafted otherwise. Yagami, Kaito, and the supporting cast are incredibly endearing, and following their every move as they unravel the sinister machinations looming under the surface of Kamurocho is a sensational journey. I can't wait to return to these characters, but I'm hoping we can all do something different next time.