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The wacky criminal underworld of Judgment is frustratingly indifferent to your existence

Screenshot: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio

Judgment, the new spin-off of Sega’s long-running Yakuza series, starts off with a very cool hook: Ace defense attorney Takayuki Yagami is riding high after scoring an extremely rare acquittal in the Japanese legal system—because, as the game repeatedly notes, 99 percent of all court cases in the country end in a conviction. While getting praised by his boss and jealously chided by his colleagues, Yagami is informed that his client just murdered his wife after getting back from the trial. Disgraced, Yagami quits the law firm and starts a private detective business with his buddy/former Yakuza heavy Kaito in the fictional Kamurocho district in Tokyo (as seen in the Yakuza games). Yagami is more than happy to spend his days in his tiny office in misery, catching cheating husbands and running errands for local weirdos, but then his old law firm comes calling. They’ve been hired to defend a Yakuza boss who is accused of being a serial killer, and they need Yagami to prove he didn’t do it—with the catch being that he’s definitely a bad guy even if he didn’t necessarily stab another man’s eyes out.

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In gameplay terms, this means searching for clues, interrogating witnesses via dialogue options), and occasionally confronting people with the evidence you’ve uncovered (which requires you to pick from your collection of clues to find the right item to get the reaction you want). These mechanics lie somewhere between the hand-holding nature of something like the Arkham video games and the largely “you’re on your own” tone of older adventures games, giving you a chance to do it wrong, but not making the solution so obtuse that you have no choice but to do it wrong. It all works fairly well, offering a clever incentive for paying attention to the story and remaining engaged in what you’re doing, which is great because the story itself is really solid and it’s legitimately fun to follow where it goes—regardless of any active role you play in its progression.

Of course, this is a game from the Yakuza team at Rya Ga Gotoku Studio, so you’re not just walking around town and solving mysteries. For reasons that are barely touched on, a lot of random assholes in Kamurocho think it would be fun to get their butts beaten by Yagami, so you’ll regularly run into groups of thugs who want to fight you (either because you’re snuck into their territory or because they just… don’t like the look of your cool leather jacket). The combat, like in the recent Yakuza games, lets you do a lot of cool, flashy stuff without too much work, utilizing two distinct martial arts styles that are better suited to either solo opponents or large groups.

After unlocking a few upgrades and memorizing some combos, you’ll be leaping off walls, smashing skulls with whatever garbage you find on the streets, and pissing off shopkeepers by throwing dudes through their shelves of cup noodles. That all sounds pretty graphic, but for as unflinching as some of the crime-solving is (you’ll be photographing a lot of pools of blood), the combat is delightfully cartoony—possibly because anything else would be horrifying. It’s even a little silly when you’re fighting big villains with real weapons, though it’s clear that Yagami does feel it when he takes a hit from a gangster carrying a samurai sword.

So there’s a lot of stuff to do in Judgment, and that’s without even mentioning the relationship-building side quests or the many entertainment offerings in Kamurocho, like Mahjong clubs, batting cages, and Sega Club arcades (you can just give up on the story to play Puyo Puyo and it’s awesome). All of the individual elements are fun, save for the excruciatingly bad missions where you have to tail someone and stay out of sight, but Judgment’s biggest problem is that the moment-to-moment gameplay never fits together into a single, coherent experience. They’re just different things you’re doing in a world that inexplicably feels simultaneously like it was built entirely for Yagami while also being completely indifferent to his very existence.

Screenshot: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio
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It’s unfair to judge a game for being something it’s not, but modern open-world games have come a long way in making their maps feel like an actual place, where actual people live (even if those people are mindless puppets who say the same handful of things over and over again until a cowboy comes along and murders them). Kamurocho feels like a real place with a fair bit of personality, but its people don’t. Yagami can run through the streets and alleys to get from place to place faster, but if you happen to collide with regular pedestrians, he just barrels them down. They might look at you, but then they’ll just keep walking in a circle and looking at their phone. Everyone in this world is completely irrelevant to the world itself beyond any use they may have to the main story or a side quest, making every moment in the open world feel completely hollow. You might as well be playing as a talking semi-truck that does karate and solves murders.

Because of that, there’s no connective tissue between in-game activities, making them all feel less important than they otherwise should. That kills any momentum that the main story builds up, making it harder to care about what’s going on, which in turn makes it harder to do a good job in the interrogation sequences where knowing the right way to lead a discussion actually matters. Judgment wouldn’t really lose anything if every story mission were just presented in sequence, with no walking from place to place to separate them. That’s a bad place for a game like this to be in, especially one that actually has a cool story and fun combat, and it leaves Judgment as a whole feeling weaker than the sum of its parts.

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Judgment is the first game in the Yakuza series in a very long time to have an English voice dub, and its status as a spin-off means it doesn’t require any prior Yakuza knowledge to get into. But it still feels too devoted to the open-ended tropes of that series to be as welcoming to newcomers as it could’ve been. Solving crimes with actual logic is fun, beating up goons is fun, and Puyo Puyo is fucking great, so a game that combines all of that should be much more entertaining than Judgment ends up being.

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