When Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio announced that Yakuza 6: The Song of Life would be the final installment of Kazuma Kiryu’s story, I was understandably worried about the series future. After all, Kiryu is one of the greatest protagonists in all of gaming(in my opinion), and while the individual stories of each were hit or miss, taken together as a whole it’s a wild and great ride. How do you top that? How do you at the very least stand next to that legend? Judgment, while not technically a Yakuza game, manages to show that the world of Yakuza can stand on its own without Kiryu or any other familiar faces.
Judgment takes place entirely in the district of Kamurocho, based on the real life Kabukicho district of Tokyo. Kamurocho is the primary setting of every Yakuza game, so for returning players it’s a familiar site. And yet, like every game before it, Kamurocho proves to be just as much of a character as the actual people who live in it. The general layout has remained mostly the same from game to game, but it changes with the times as each game from Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio takes place in the year that it’s released, with Yakuza 0 being the obvious exception to this rule. There are plenty of familiar locations, but also entirely new ones that replace old locations. It’s a living world. And just like the location itself, the people who inhabit it change over time. While Kiryu and company used to roam these streets, they are absent from the location by the time of Judgment, replaced by the singular Matsugane Family, a Tojo Clan Subsidiary.
The primary cast is definitely smaller than previous titles, and this helps when it comes to remembering names and faces, it also helps with investment because you see more of these characters across the games thirteen chapters. I never came across a character that I genuinely disliked in a bad way, and every character had a purpose in this story, and none are wasted. If there’s one big difference between Judgment and the original Yakuza, it’s that in the original Yakuza Kiryu essentially fought alone against the world. Sure he had Date, but he isn’t much in a fight. In Judgment however, Yagami slowly gathers a competent team, both in the field and in the courtroom. It’s a story that fights on two fronts and it sold me.
Now, having brought up the two different facets of the story, the detective work in the field and presenting evidence in court(Which only happens three times by the way.), I do have to point out my first disappointment with this game. Calling it Ace Attorney meets Yakuza is not necessarily a stretch, there’s even a fully self-aware Ace Attorney moment in the game that I absolutely died laughing at, but do not go into this expecting ridiculously long court appearance with various twists, turns, and objections. You present two or three pieces of evidence and bam, trial is over and everybody goes home. It had a lot of potential that just wasn’t utilized.
That being side, the flip side of the coin, the field work, is where the game really shines. While the tailing sequences may be a slog and not very fun at all, and lock picking is extremely easy, the fights are very fluid thanks to Yagami’s quicker fighting style and this comes with the return of multiple styles. Yagami uses a style known as Crane & Tiger. Crane is represented by a blue aura and utilizes faster attacks that also hit more opponents. It’s primary use is for fighting the various mook mobs you run into. Tiger, represented by a red aura, is the power style and is effective against singular opponents. It’s the style best suited to taking on bosses, especially once you’ve gained some new skills that really pack a punch.
In terms of the general combat system there are some noteworthy changes from the Yakuza series. The Heat Gauge has been replaced by an EX Gauge which, like the Heat Gauge, allows you to perform EX attacks and finishers on opponents under the right conditions. Using them depletes at least one bar and the bars fill up as you fight and carry over from fight to fight. At any point, so long as you have a single bar, you can enter a burst mode. This makes it harder to get knocked down, packs a bit of an additional punch, and makes you impervious to mortal blows. That’s another thing, Judgment introduces mortal blows which, if one connects, a portion of your health bar will become busted and you cannot heal it without either a medical kit or visiting a doctor. At the same time, I never ran into many of the familiar healing items from the previous games. Staminan X, Tauriner, and one other return, but their greatly enhanced versions were nowhere to be found in any store. It’s entirely possible that they have to be unlocked some way and I just didn’t find it in my 28 hours with the game. If you don’t upgrade your item slots as well, you’ll only be able to carry three of each item, and let me tell you that as you upgrade your health and your enemies get stronger, that will be highly insufficient. The enemies you beat down also rarely drop money, as a result you’ll find yourself broke more often than not if you don’t complete the side cases. Luckily, the side cases are actually pretty good.
In past games, fights often used to get kind of tedious. I’m not sure what changed here, but I ran into each fight excited and just mopped the floor with them. When a stronger enemy actually came at me, I was more excited. And when I was infiltrating an enemy stronghold, I was SO happy to see that the fat guys wielding couches unflinchingly no longer wait for you at the tops of stairs. That was one of my biggest annoyances from previous games because no matter how hard you hit them they would still crack you with the couch and never flinch. Thankfully that is now gone and you simply face down a couple mooks and a mini-boss with an extra health bar. Sadly, the real bosses never really felt like more than standard mooks, but with more health and mortal blow attacks. Only the final boss of the game felt like a legitimate challenge and I was playing on normal.
Judgment is the third title to use Ryu Ga Gotoku’s proprietary Dragon Engine which was first utilized in 2016's Yakuza 6: The Song of Life and again by 2018's Yakuza Kiwami 2. While the older Yakuza games all looked great for their time, and some still hold up just fine to this day, the Dragon Engine is truly a marvel on current generation consoles. Character models, at least for the very important characters, are extremely detailed and photo-realistic. It helps of course that they’re based on real Japanese actors, but the point still stands. Even the stock animations manage to look at least remotely convincing. That being said, I did notice a lot of low resolution textures strewn about the world. From the inside of a taxi, to outdoor appliances and signs. It’s clear that the Dragon Engine, or at least some facet of it, may be too much for the PlayStation 4 and even the PlayStation 4 Pro to handle. This is also made apparent by the games target framerate of 30fps, a goal it hits more often on PS4 Pro. Likewise, the game runs at 900p on PS4 and native 1080p on PS4 Pro. Take it from someone playing on a 4K LG OLED, PS4 Pro is the best experience, but if you’re playing on a 4K television, be prepared for some serious upscaling issues, most notably more aliasing than would be apparent on a 1080p screen, even the mini-map has aliasing. Digital Foundry mentions an anti-aliasing solution, but I swore there was none with how the game looked on my television. It also almost seems like there’s a film of sorts over the image. At first I thought it was my television, but it would sometimes disappear in some scenes which made it apparent that it was a game issue. The color banding on the other hand was likely my television. It should be noted that the game does not support HDR. I honestly can’t wait for the first next-generation Yakuza, the game that will let the Dragon Engine truly shine.
The story of Judgment was a wild ride from start to finish, and while it wasn’t perfect, the tale of Takayuki Yagami and his pursuit of illusive serial killer the Mole, was one worth investing in. In my opinion it stands with the best stories that the Yakuza series has to offer. Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio has gone on record as saying that, currently, there are no plans for a Judgment sequel, and I have to admit, I’m not sure how they could top this one as the story was extremely personal and anything further would probably feel like the characters were just getting dragged into it. And while I would love for characters from Yakuza to turn up in a future Judgment installment, I’d also be content with keep them separate even if they are the same world. Judgment proves that there is life beyond the shadow of the Dragon, and now it’s up to this guy to carry on Yakuza’s legacy in the upcoming Shin Yakuza: