16 mins read

Review by Matt S.

Judgment is not really a “new Yakuza title”. Nor is it any form of sequel. It shares elements of what came before, and the comparisons are there at the superficial level. The narrative does take place in the same universe, and the setting – Kamurocho – is the same “all-but” take on real-world Kabukicho that we’ve loved exploring for a couple of decades now. But beyond the superficial, Judgment doesn’t even belong to the same narrative genre as Yakuza, and the subtle changes make all the difference. Judgment is its own game, and it’s both fresh, and brilliant.

Yakuza was a homage to and celebration of the yakuza crime genre. Spanning seven entries, it was a deep delve into the same labyrinthine politics and deadly games that audiences have found so appealing with yakuza cinema. We don’t see so many of those films out west, but whether we in the west noticed it or not, those games were thematically and tonally spot-on. Judgment, however, belongs to the detective genre by way of noir conventions. It’s got more in similarity with Raymond Chandler and his Philip Marlowe character than it does gangster warfare. Judgment’s protagonist, Yagami, is textbook noir; a morally conflicted and wearied – near broken – man. Once a rising star of Japan’s notoriously difficult world of criminal defence (Japan has a conviction rate of in excess of 99.9 per cent – no, that’s not a typo), Yagami is shattered when he succeeds in getting someone acquitted for murder… only for that person to immediately murder again.

Disillusioned and embarrassed, Yagami leaves the law firm and starts up a private detective’s business with a partner – an ex-Yakuza that was thrown out of his family. Money is tight and the two barely scrape by, until they get asked to investigate a series of yakuza-related killings, and dragged in deeply to a plot far more dark and deadly than any of them could have anticipated.

Judgment trades away the venetian blinds of classical noir cinema for the neon glow of Tokyo’s urban playgrounds, but it is nonetheless aesthetically, tonally, thematically, and categorically noir. Yagami is the classical hardboiled detective, and the game tracks over each of the major themes of the noir genre; the exploration of the underbelly of humanity, moral conflict, the difficult relationship between the law and righteousness. There’s even the femme fatale type, though I will give Chandler and Hollywood cinema the edge there – Lauren Bacall would not have been interested in taking on any of the roles in this game.

Yagami is an immediate highlight of the entire genre, however. As film critic Paul Schrader notes on noir characterisation: “In the thirties, authors such as Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Horace McCoy and John O’Hara created the ‘tough,’ a cynical way of acting and thinking that separated one from the world of everyday emotions – romanticism with a protective shell.” This is very much the case with Judgment and Yagami, whose retreat to the private detective profession is a way of distancing himself from the emotion and consequence of his client committing murder immediately after being acquitted. The result is also textbook noir, as Schrader notes: “The hard-boiled writers had their roots in pulp fiction or journalism, and their protagonists lived out a narcissistic, defeatist code.”

Performing a noir “hero” isn’t easy, as an actor can very easily veer their characterisation too far to become outright nihilistic, depressive, or flippant. None of which are thematically accurate to the genre, and it’s this that is so often the failing of modern attempts to re-capture the noir tone. Humphrey Bogart pulled the balance off just right in the cinema of the 20’s through 50’s… but the Bogart is an exceedingly rare talent indeed. That is why it’s so impressive that the fully face-scanned, former SMAP front man, Kimura Takuya, has held every bit the same gravitas as Bogart did in any of his films with his portrayal of Yagami. While SEGA went above and beyond with the localisation talent, you really should play this with Japanese voices and subtitles, in order to capture the spot-on brilliance of Kimura’s performance – the intonation and rhythms that he delivers his lines is vintage noir hero.

My fav thing in Judgement is when you go into noir detective mode and have to look for the optional cat #PS4share

— Digisexual for Hatsune Miku 🇯🇵 (@DigitallyDownld) June 24, 2019

The shift in genre and tone subtly changes how Judgment is played too. The combat system from Yakuza is there still, and still highly stylised. Yagami knows his way around a fight. But the emphasis on raw violence and bloodletting is dialed back, because noir is a genre in which violence is thematic and more of an abstract idea – the real impact is in why the violence happens, and the fallout from that. Random battles are still there, which is a little disappointing as noir is not an action genre, and I feel that the game would be more true to the genre if the random battles were removed so that it was just in the set-pieces where the fists would fly. I assume the game would have been lambasted as “boring” without the frequency of combat though, so it’s hard to begrudge the developers for working within the limitations that video game culture imposes on them. That being said, I did like the way that the police would show up if battles took too long. That was a clever way for the developers to remind us that despite being the protagonist and hero Yagami is the classical noir outsider. He operates outside of the law, and simultaneously lacks the power and influence of the yakuza to force the police to look the other way in the event of a street brawl. Friends are hard to come by when you’re a PI.

A really neat gameplay feature is the detective tasks that you’ll often be given to complete. These range from surveying an area for clues, to figuring out the right questions to ask a witness in an investigation. Some of these minigame-like events are slight misfires. For example, when you need to tail a suspect, the process of slowly walking behind them and ducking behind street signs is an exercise in tedium. For each of these tiny misfires, however, there are plenty of other moments that do a brilliant job of painting a picture of Yagami’s talents as a detective, especially since they’re neither too complex nor patronising. You’ll complete them and won’t get stuck, but you’ll feel right smart about it.

Two other elements that were particularly beloved from the Yakuza series have also returned in Judgment. One is the wealth of side-distractions to do in the game. Whether you want to pop into one of the arcades for a spot of Virtua Fighter, get some baseball batting practice in via batting cages, or chill out with a couple of games of mahjong, there’s plenty to distract you from the main narrative beats. Likewise, there are so many side stories and quests, and, as any Yakuza fan would know, here’s where the game finds its sense of humour. The main narrative is a straight shooter, but the side stores are a blend of the surreal and sublime, and it’s truly impressive that after so many games, the writers at SEGA are still about to surprise and delight with the utterly oddball stuff that they come up with.

The minigames in Judgment are executed brilliantly, and the side stories are written as well as you will ever see in video games. I thoroughly enjoyed every second with them. However, I will say that I think SEGA has hurt the thematic strength of Judgment a little here. With the Yakuza series, it made sense to position the world as a playground. Kabukicho – sorry, Kamurocho – is a yakuza playground, so it made sense to have Kiryu, and the other “heroes” of that series swagger around like they own it all and can do whatever they like in it. Yakuza drama is also a fundamentally B-grade genre, so playing up to the ridiculous through the side stories made sense, and finally, with the violence and aggression of main yakuza stories within each game, the silly side stuff was, within the narrative’s rhythms, a much-needed break.

But noir is not a genre known for its humour, and the narrative rhythms of noir require a certain build of tension and escalation of stakes which is detrimentally disrupted when you take a break to chase an arse-grabbing pervert through town. Funny as that is (and it is deeply funny), it comes across as a slightly uncomfortable blend of narrative intents that undermines the pacing and tone of the main plotline.

Not that I was particularly concerned, as I was back in Kamurocho, and ultimate that’s what really mattered to me. It’s now my eighth trip into Kamurocho, and it was immediately a joy to jump straight back in and explore. As I always say, every time I review one of these; I get very homesick for Japan as I play. Whether I’m ducking into a convenience store and being reminded that, unlike in Australia, convenience stores are actually convenient, or gawking at all the photos of the food in restaurants, it’s in the little details that Judgment really captures the Japanese aesthetic. I really liked how this time around there’s a beer garden set up in the central square. It doesn’t play much of a role in the game, but I do love the pop up beer gardens that you often find in public spaces in Japan, and Judgment reminded me of the good times I’ve had in those over the years and my trips to the country.

Judgment is a brilliant effort in forging a new path forwards for Kamurocho and its denizens post-Yakuza, with not only a new protagonist and story, but an entirely new genre and look at the world. It’s a game that perhaps undermines itself just a little in trying to maintain too much of the heritage of what came before, but it’s so brilliantly written and compelling from start to finish that it’s still a better, more cohesive game than almost anything else out there. Truly, SEGA’s Ryu Ga Gotoku studio is one of the very few studios that we can rely on to push narrative boundaries and really explore the potential for what video games can offer as a traditional storytelling medium.

– Matt S. 
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld

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