The more I play SEGA’s Yakuza series spin-off Judgment, the more alike to protagonist Takayumi Yagami I feel.
Not because we’ve both been lawyers in our time, or because we’re best pals with former gangsters, or that we sleep in our offices every night.
It’s more because neither of us is particularly good at getting a job finished. We start strong, make progress, tick a few boxes – and then get hopelessly distracted by something else.
Take my living room for example: wallpapered, painted, and a new radiator installed. But have I sorted the gaping hole in the chimney breast where an old gas fire used to be? Have I installed any sort of suitable storage for all the games consoles I own?
Reader, I have not. Something else always gets in the way. And, playing as Judgment’s private detective protagonist, I’ve been so very, very slow at cracking cases, at arriving at crime scenes, at tailing suspects.
Because the game’s setting of Kamurocho is, even so many releases deep into the Yakuza series, truly a game world that keeps on giving.
This somewhat seedy sector of Tokyo, based on the real-life red-light district of Kabukicho, has been a mainstay of the Yakuza games since SEGA’s debut installment, released for PlayStation 2 back in 2005 (and remade as Yakuza Kiwami in 2016).
But while its familiarity is absolute to anyone who’s played a previous Yakuza title, its streets still feel fresh and exciting, with new attractions like drone racing joining the traditional likes of mahjong, pinball, darts and a selection of SEGA arcade games, emulated perfectly for Tak’s enjoyment.
These include Fighting Vipers, Space Harrier, Fantasy Zone and the House of the Dead-like rail-shooter Kamuro of the Dead, a call-back to this series’ own zombie spin-off of 2011, Yakuza: Dead Souls. It’s these mini-games that drag Tak – well, that drag me, playing as Tak – away from Judgment’s story.
Which is, while you’re sticking to it, an intoxicating concoction of criminals found dead and eyeless (remember that this game’s original title was Judge Eyes), undercover infiltration aplenty, Phoenix Wright-like courtroom histrionics and Kyle Hyde-style clues hunting, masked burglars with some serious parkour skills, and dirty cops ready to spill the beans for the right amount of money.
But there’s more to Judgment’s extra-curricular activities than the aforementioned yen-swallowing delights – before long, Tak will activate several friend events, which range from testing his landlady’s home cooking to snapping photos of stray cats.
And then there’s additional cases to take on, from romantic woes to more violent reports – but hey, a guy’s got to make money somehow, right? All of which means that progression through Judgment’s core plot, and seeing those credits roll, can take a long time.
I’m not sure what the average completion time is for the game’s first chapter, which introduces the key players including the definitely-hiding-something Yakuza boss Kyohei Hamura (whose original actor, Pierre Taki, was removed from this game after being arrested for cocaine possession), but it was seven hours before I was done with it.
I think a solid hour of that time was spent nailing high-tons at the local Irish bar’s dartboard, though. There are less-than-peaceful distractions to deal with, too – Tak will regularly run into ruffians, just Kazuma Kiryu does in the mainline Yakuza games, and has to let his fists (and feet, and knees, and forehead, and nearby bicycles) do the talking.
Batter these fools and you can scoop up their cash, as well as whatever else they were carrying (a lot of which you can just pawn for more pocket money).
Combat in Judgment is very similar to other Yakuza games, with Tak able to switch between two styles of fisticuffs and over-the-top finishing moves a regular sight.
You can spend experience points on learning new abilities – which you do through your mobile phone, Because Video Games – and generally beat down all-comers with ease, save for occasional bosses with huge health bars. Here, you might need to crack open an energy drink or two mid-rumble, not that it’s clear where Tak keeps them, as those are some tight jeans indeed.
That experience can be gained a variety of ways: completing friend events, asking the right questions in the right order during interrogations (you’re a detective, after all – there are grillings to be had), ticking off main story missions, eating sushi, drinking beer, all sorts.
Nearly everything you do in Judgment provides some sort of XP reward, even if doing it all leads to some wild tonal dissonance between the dead gang members with their eyes gouged out and taking fake-smile selfies with fast-food workers. You can be trying out some guy’s new (baseball) batting gloves one minute, and picking through bin bags for evidence the next.
Judgment can be very, very funny, only to turn on a sixpence and deliver a sucker-punch of utmost seriousness mere moments later. And in terms of what you’re doing, and how you’re doing it, it can also blow hot and cold.
Sections where you must chase after people are full of quick-time-events that hark back to Shenmue, and feel woefully out of place in a game that frequently gives you freedom to go wherever you want.
There’s surely no need to select a certain door key every single time you need to use it, but the game makes you; and lock-picking is a barely-worthwhile mini-mini-game that feels unnecessary from the second time you see it.
The niggles of Judgment don’t put too much of a downer on the overall experience, however. Some players might not click with Tak in the same way they did Kiryu, and feel this is a poorer game for the slightly straighter-laced protagonist – not that he isn’t painted in moral shades of grey rather than strictly law-abiding black and white.
But I enjoyed seeing this city, or this part of it at least, from a different perspective – through the eyes of someone trying to do right from a starting place of mistakes and regrets no less dramatic than those of Kiryu’s story, but one that feels rather more grounded and grown-up.
And yes, I will continue to put off finishing the front room until I’m the batting cage king of Kamurocho (the cases can wait, too). Judgment has its claws in me like Yakuza games past, and while it definitely has the distinct scent of a spin-off about it, with all the slightly-reduced content that such titles commonly arrive with, there’s no denying that what is here is incredibly moreish.
Its mood swings from bloody murder to arcade button-mashing can be disorientating, but Judgment is an immersive slice of virtual investigating (and terrifically entertaining time wasting) that anyone enamoured with its parent series simply needs to check out.
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