It’s great when a long-running series finally gets the recognition it deserves, but for newcomers, catching up can be a daunting prospect.
That’s the position Sega’s Japanese crime series Yakuza finds itself, which found itself new converts after its well-received 2017 prequel only for things to fast-forward to its sixth entry a year later. It’d be like watching the first season of Game of Thrones then skipping straight to the finale.
Luckily, Judgment solves this conundrum by bringing in completely new characters and even changing the genre from gangster drama to legal procedural thriller.
Brains over brawn
You’re Takayuki Yagami, a disgraced lawyer now living on scraps as a private detective taking any job, be it finding a lost cat or chasing debts for the yakuza.
Nonetheless, his connections with both with former colleagues of his old law firm and the local Matsugane yakuza family ropes him into investigating a serial killer mystery that soon becomes a towering conspiracy, spiralling not just into politics but even back to the case that still haunts him.
The plot grows convoluted to the point a judge might well throw the book at it, though arguably this has always been a staple of Yakuza games. The difference here is that instead of playing an ex-yakuza who mostly resorts to beating the crap out of his problems, Yagami actually needs to use his brains to investigate and interrogate each new revelation.
Variety is the spice of life
That said, combat is still a core part of gameplay, and Yagami’s a nimble martial artist who can execute flashy wall jump attacks, even leapfrog over enemies. But battering thugs also gets repetitive, especially when there’s so many out to jump you everywhere you go, and you’ll find yourself reusing the same few tactics and seeing the same animations.
Nonetheless, as a detective, you get to approach scenarios in a variety of styles. For instance, infiltrating a yakuza organisation’s offices might require you to use a drone to stake out the building before donning a disguise, while getting through doors might require finding a password or picking the lock.
While the game indulges in lengthy albeit well-acted cutscenes, there’s also moments where you have some input, either by picking the correct line of questioning during an interrogation or piecing together key evidence to progress the plot.
None of these are exactly groundbreaking features, even if they’re new to the Yakuza universe. After all, who would have thought that in the year of our lord 2019, we’d still be playing QTE chases and tailing missions? The only upside to the latter is that its slow pace is an excuse to drink in the detail of your surroundings.
A city that never sleeps
Based on the real-life seedy district of Kabukicho in Tokyo, Kamurocho is something of a second home for longtime Yakuza fans. Having personally visited Tokyo earlier this year, the authenticity is truly remarkable, from street layout to iconic locations like the Don Quijote discount store on the corner, even how there’s cheap fried chicken on sale at convenience store counters.
You’ll also get to befriend many of the locals around town and help them out in many hilarious side quests, whether it’s playing matchmaker for a pair of coffee baristas or helping a clairvoyant protect her hapless clients from bizarre calamities. Raising your reputation in the city also becomes a way of unlocking more side quests, which offer a nice reprieve from the heavy melodrama (and high body count) of the main story.
But as tense and involving as the core mystery gets, even if it throws in a few too many fights in its climactic sprint, it’s great knowing that you can just as easily distract yourself hitting a few rounds at the batting centre or wasting your hard-earned yen on winning toys at the arcade crane games.
If you haven’t heard of the Yakuza series before, Judgment’s shift to a new story and new characters is the perfect entry point for newcomers, with plenty of reasons to explore Tokyo’s seedy underbelly even long after the main story is finished.
Compared to more ambitious open-world games - with much bigger budgets - Kamurocho’s size and its mechanics may feel dated, but if you’re looking for a virtual tour of Japan, you won’t find one with as much authenticity or charm.