Originally published June 21, 2019, for MegaVisions
They say one of the hardest things in life to do is to let go of something you love. For Sega and Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, this something is a man by the name of Kazuma Kiryu.
The studio has only two games without Kiryu popping up somewhere, those being the Japan exclusive Yakuza: Black Panther games. Even unrelated titles, like Binary Domain or Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise allow you to play as Kiryu. The Dragon of Dojima has truly become an icon, especially with Yakuza enjoying a second wind in the west.
Needless to say, it’s hard to imagine an RGGS title without Kiryu, but that’s exactly what we’re getting with Judgment. A new protagonist, a different side of the law, but the same ol’ Kamurocho we’ve come to know and love. But are things starting to get too familiar for their own good?
You Have the Right to Remain Stylish
Judgment tells the story of Takayuki Yagami, a disgraced attorney now working as a private eye, with his own ties to Kamurocho’s infamous Tojo Clan. Tak’s journey involves him stealthily tailing marks, spying with his trusty drone, in-depth investigation, and of course, the franchise’s trademark brawling. It really feels like a strange polygamous marriage between Yakuza, Ace Attorney, and Metal Gear‘s best qualities.
While the gameplay additions are nice, they’re not nearly as huge as the biggest aesthetic change. For the first time since the original Yakuza on PlayStation 2, a Yakuza series entry features a full English dub. Even as someone who enjoys dubs, I was skeptical of this, and planned to play with the original Japanese acting.
However, the dub actually managed to hook me in, thanks to high quality performances from everyone on board. It’s a far cry from the first Yakuza‘s subpar-except-for-Mark Hamill dub. A special shoutout has to go to Fred Tatasciore’s incredible performance as Kyohei Hamura. Tatasciore is a legend in his field, and his role as the terrifying Matsugane captain might just be his greatest performance.
The only complaint I have about the dubbing is that it’s not particularly consistent or full. While important scenes get the love and care they need, things like substories or vendor interactions usually get no dubbing. Even worse, some substory scenes are half dubbed, with one character speaking Japanese, and another using the dub. Not a dealbreaker by any means, but definitely jarring enough to mention.
As for the rest of the presentation, it all mostly meets the high level of quality you’d expect from RGGS. The soundtrack is superb, with Hidenori Shoji and Co. doing their part to make Judgment feel different from a typical Yakuza experience. The game also manages to stay at a consistent 30FPS on a basic PS4 model. There’s some slight slowdown when the physics go a bit nuts in fights, but nothing too horrible. Finally, Kamurocho and its inhabitants are breathtaking. The visuals are easily the best in the series, and the Dragon Engine is really starting to show its muscles.
Sadly, it may be starting to show its cracks too. More on that in a moment.
Not Feeling The Heat
From a gameplay perspective, Judgment is pretty much your classic Yakuza game. As mentioned above, there are little tweaks like the tailing and investigation missions, but they don’t break the mold too much. Creature comforts such as no longer being forced to hold X to sprint, and no more stamina limitations, are appreciated. The combat can best be described as Yakuza 6, except playing as Shun Akiyama instead of Kiryu. Yagami makes use of his speed, quick kicks, and acrobatics instead of raw power to handle his foes. Judgment also brings back the Style Switch system from Yakuza 0 and Kiwami. Yagami has two styles to choose from. Tiger Style is best used for focusing on a single opponent, and is especially helpful in boss fights. Crane Style is best for controlling large mobs, and will likely stay as your go-to for random battles.
When you can get some space, Yagami is incredibly satisfying to fight as. However, a few of Yakuza 6‘s particular flaws still find their way back into Judgment. Namely, the AI’s tendency to easily crush your attacks and stunlock you. On the other hand, the running kick, standard grabs, and the new wall jump are incredibly broken, especially with the Dragon Engine’s physics. These, just like in the last couple games, nerf the combat heavily compared to pre-Dragon Engine entries. It doesn’t feel like there’s a point to learning new techniques, because you don’t really need them. Even if you do want to make things interesting and branch out, the AI will easily punish you for trying.
Sadly, my disappointment doesn’t end there. We’re three games into the Dragon Engine’s lifespan, about the same amount of time it took the original Yakuza engine to come into its own. Yet, despite more advanced technology and the engine’s capabilities, it feels as though the series has stagnated or even regressed.
For example, the series’ trademark Heat Actions, referred to as EX Actions in Judgment. One thing fans loved looking forward to was how crazy the Heat Actions would be in the next game. It felt like the old days of waiting for a new Mortal Kombat just to see how wild fatalities got. These hit a high with Yakuza 5, as it featured some of the best Heat Actions in the entire series. There were plenty of wacky ones, tons of brutal ones, all with a ton of charm and love put into them.
Since switching engines, though, the animations are no longer unique for each weapon. They instead simply vary by the object’s size. For example, in Yakuza 5, when Kiryu used a Heat Action with a bicycle he would be shown getting on the bike, and riding into his adversaries. It was brutal, hilarious, and part of the Yakuza charm. Since then, however, bicycles have used the same stock animation as other larger objects such as signs.
I was hoping that, especially with a new protagonist with a completely different personality, we’d see the more unique Heat Actions return. Instead, Yagami’s EX Actions mostly reuse the same few animations as Kiryu did in the last four entries. And even the ones that do have unique animations don’t really live up to the series’ incredibly lofty standards. It’s more of a disappointment than it really should be, especially in such a character driven franchise.
Knock the Dragon?
On top of that, it feels like Judgment is a regression on other fronts too. Minigames, for example. Sure, drone racing is new and rather fun for a bit, and Club Sega’s selection this time is top notch. Sadly, no netplay for VF5 or Fighting Vipers this time, but they’re still nice to have. But iconic minigames like bowling, fishing, pool, and karaoke are all gone.
Several formerly playable areas like Kamurocho Hills, the Underground Mall, and even some areas from Yakuza 6 are blocked off. I know it sounds like I’m nitpicking, but it feels as though Kamurocho has been devolving instead of evolving. The worst thing is, I can’t tell if it’s a creative decision or an unforeseen limitation of the Dragon Engine. I’m hoping for the latter, because I don’t want to imagine the RGGS team growing stagnant themselves.
Don’t get me wrong, like most games from RGGS, I’ve mostly enjoyed my time with Judgment. From a storytelling perspective, it’s a great new direction that I’d love to see more of. Moving on from Kiryu and letting us see Kamurocho from a new set of eyes, pun fully intended, is one of the best moves they could’ve made.
And even with my complaints above, let’s face it. A simply “good” RGGS game is still leagues better than most companies’ best efforts. Still, as someone who loves this series, I don’t know that it’s trending in the right direction overall. Yakuza 5, to this day, is still my favorite Yakuza game, and hell, my favorite Sega game of all time. Nothing in the series since then has felt quite as full, or pulled me in, like Yakuza 5 did. I’d like to see RGGS take a fresh look at that game, and see what made it such an incredible experience compared to their last few efforts. Luckily, a PS4 remaster of it just dropped in Japan… But I digress.
Judgment has all the pedigree and makings of a great game, and is a great new step for the franchise. Life without Kiryu is going to be just fine, even if it’s hard to admit. But it doesn’t do quite enough to set it apart from its predecessors. I can absolutely recommend it to everyone, especially Yakuza addicts, but definitely don’t expect it to break any new ground.
No further statements, your honor.
- Seeing Kamurocho through new eyes and a new side of the law is a great experience.
- Gameplay is comfy and familiar to series vets, with some nice quality of life tweaks.
- English dub is shockingly easy to get used to, and features some great lead performances.
- The game is absolutely gorgeous. Kamurocho has never looked better.
- Combat still has some of Yakuza 6 and Kiwami 2‘s issues, for better and for worse.
- The recycling of Kiryu’s animations for many of Yagami’s moves feels a bit cheap, and doesn’t show us how Yagami differs from Uncle Kaz.
- The series seems to be bleeding minigames and accessible areas despite the Dragon Engine’s lifespan and capabilities.
- Dubbing is inconsistent, with several side case scenes featuring both Japanese and English voice acting instead of picking one and sticking with it.