There are a lot of things that I could write about Judgment, the latest game from Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, the people best known for making the Yakuza games. I could ramble on comparing and contrasting it to the Yakuza games, I could spend paragraphs talking about all sorts of stuff, but I want to try to keep this one a bit shorter, and more focused than my usual fare.
I really enjoyed Judgment, both because it's a further refinement of the Yakuza style of game, and also because it's just a great game, with an engaging story and set of characters all its own. It doesn't nail everything it tries to do, and often feels more like a game where the main character is solving the mystery, rather than feeling like me (the player) was the one actually solving it. But that's true of a lot of mystery-y games, so that is what it is.
That said, this is still one of my favorite games from this studio. I'd say my second favorite, after Yakuza 0. That game still has the best mix of a gripping story and enough variety in the combat to stay fresh throughout, but Judgment is the closest any other game from them has come to matching it in either department. I'd say it's really close in the story department, but a little less so game play wise. One character with two fighting styles just isn't going to be as diverse as two characters with three styles each, unless a TON of more depth was added to those two styles. Which there wasn't, but new protagonist Takayuki Yagami is still fun in fights, and a great lead for this game.
Like the Yakuza games, this isn't just about fighting, and it's not just about the story, it's about inhabiting the "world" of Kamurocho. These games have long been great at making Kamurocho (and to a lesser extent the other areas in some games) feel like real, living places. And at a glance, walking through them, they've felt like they could be real for a long time.
But something I hadn't thought about until playing Judgment, was that something was missing from them. Sure, they looked like they could be real, but they were just filled with generic NPCs. Whether the people walking the streets, or the people working in the stores, they were all just filler, there to simulate life without actually living.
Now, Judgment isn't suddenly The Sims, or even Shenmue (as the time of day still moves along with the story, rather than the other way around in Shenmue), but it has taken steps to fill out Kamurocho with more characters. Stores aren't just manned with a nameless body, now they're all (or at least almost all) run by people with names, that you can befriend. They have their own little stories, and Yagami can get to know them, help them with their troubles, and eventually become friends.
It seems like such a little thing, and these aren't ever super deep. They're no deeper than some of the quicker of the sub stories from the Yakuza games, but they go a long way to making Kamurocho feel like even more of a real place. Now when I leave Yagami's office/apartment to stock up on energy drinks, I'm not just walking into a store and talking to what might as well be a machine, I'm going to the local PoPo and buying from Dwayne (yes, Dwayne, not everyone is Japanese in the game). Again, it's a small thing, but it helps give the game a greater sense of community than the Yakuza games have ever had.
And given that Yagami is a detective, and the sort of trudging the streets keeping his eyes open detective, him having connections everywhere makes sense, and helps make that aspect of the game feel more realistic too. Again, it never goes super deep into this stuff, but there are points in the story where Yagami needs to find something out about something, and rather than just saying "go here talk to this person," he'll say, "I think I know someone who can help," and leave it up to me. And you know what? Whenever that happened, I did know of who to go to, and it worked
In true video game fashion, it's not just about making friends for the sake of friendship, there are also benefits. Like getting odd items from them, discounts, or access to secret items on menus. Probably the biggest thing is that each new friend levels up Yagami's reputation meter, and a lot of the side cases (he is still a detective) are locked behind getting to certain levels. I think 50 is the cap, which is a lot of friends.
Of course, the side cases vary wildly in tone, often inside of themselves. But I mean that in a good way, as the game often had me cackling at the nonsense going on in them. If you've ever enjoyed the wackier side of Yakuza, I don't know that this game tops the stuff from 0 for example, but it's still great.
Judgment retains all the good stuff from the Yakuza games, but sadly it also retains some of the less good stuff. BUT! Not all of it, because in my time at least, I didn't encounter anything queer-phobic, which long time readers of this blog may remember I knocked 0 down a few spots in The Moosies that year because its transphobia was so bad. It seems like the statements around the removal of transphobic stuff from the Yakuza 3 remaster because the team "didn't think it represented what the series was" (paraphrasing) seems to have been genuine after all. Assuming I didn't just miss it.
But also this game is still extremely cis-hetero (that one trans bartender is still in her bar, but she's the only instance of anything queer I encountered in the game), and still feels kind of old fashioned with how it treats women. It's not as bad as 6 was, but this is still a game where, in the main story at least, the 2 (two) women important to the story (three if you count one who was murdered as a part of the basic premise of the game) exist to either be damsels in distress, or objects of male desire.
Then again, this is where it gets...a little interesting? And, moderate spoiler warning, I'll hide it inside a spoiler block if you really don't want to know. In all sincerity, play this game, it's really great, and if you've never played a Yakuza game, like 0, it's a perfect place to jump in, and you need to know nothing about the other games to enjoy it. Even more so than 0, because this only has like, one reference to another Yakuza game.
Anyway, onto the point. Spoilers.
There's a moment in the story, where as a part of the greater murder solve-ery, Yagami and best friend/partner Kaito decide they need to infiltrate a hostess club to get info from someone working there. But it's an ultra-exclusive club they can't get into easily, so instead they decide to convince one of the two (I'm not kidding, there's only two living women important to the main story) women they know to get a job there and do the digging for them.
At this, I was rolling my eyes, but whatever, I genuinely like Saori, the character they convinced to help. She has an air of not wanting to put up with anything, or anyone, and she's great. Her voice (at least in the English dub, which is what I played with) completely sells it too. Anyway, like I said, I was rolling my eyes, especially as the game had Yagami trotting her along to get her a new dress, and her hair/makeup done, using menus that I think were ripped out of the hostess management stuff from 0 and Kiwami 2.
But here's where the game completely upturned my expectations. After getting her hair done, the game goes back outside, with this weird camera angle focused just on Yagami, and Saori is nowhere to be seen. After a little bit of Yagami talking, I start to wonder, "is this angle from Saori's perspective?" Then Yagami says, "let's go," starts walking away, and it becomes clear I'm now playing as Saori, in first person.
So I start following Yagami, and one of the first things that happens, is a guy on the side of the street starts catcalling Saori, which made me realize... I don't think I've ever played a game where someone on the street catcalled the character I was playing as? And don't get me wrong, whatever the guy said (I don't remember specifically), was super tame compared to the awful worst garbage actual people get catcalled with in real life. But it was such a surreal moment to see happen in a game, and in one that, as I was saying, feels a bit behind the times in some of its gender dealings some of the time in many other respects.
Anyway, after walking a bit, the sequence eventually turns into picking the right dialog options during a hostess sequence to both keep things on track, and befriend another hostess (to get the needed info). Finally seeing this stuff from the opposite perspective that the Yakuza games provide made it WAY more interesting than it ever was before.
And it kinda made me wish they would make a game solely starring a woman. Have her be a secret martial arts master in addition to whatever her normal job is (like how Yagami can beat up just about everyone despite having little or no formal combat training), and of course a labyrinthine mystery or conspiracy to uncover, but I think it'd be really interesting to have all of that juxtaposed against working a job as a hostess, or whatever else.
They're not going to make that game. But maybe someone else will! Or already has, it's so easy to forget the countless small indie games out there, that most people have never heard of. I know something like that wouldn't be of the scale as something like Judgment, but I don't want to say it doesn't exist when it very well may.
That's about all I have to say on the story without delving into super spoilers, but just take my word for it. It's real good.
The game isn't perfect, though. Some of the new stuff, like the tailing missions, are exactly what you think they are. Thankfully, there was only one for the main story that got frustrating, and even then, it was just because it was long, rather than hard. None of the ones in side cases I encountered were that hard, but it's still a thing you'll have to put up with if you play the game.
The lockpicking minigames fair better, but bizarrely, there's a key-ring "minigame?" Like, sometimes the door to Yagami's office is locked, and you need to literally pick the right key on his keychain! There's other locked doors and keys of course, but this one is just so strange that I found it funny. It was supposed to be funny, right? If you pick the wrong key, Yagami says things like, "Why do I suck?!"
Elsewhere, aside from the omission of bowling and karaoke (I assume because of the English dub (which I really like, it's a great dub!)), Judgment has the best assortment of minigames yet. Virtua Fighter 5, Fighting Vipers, Puyo Puyo, Motor Raid, Space Harrier, and a bizarre VR single player Mario Party rip-off????? That, and more await you in Judgment! There's even a pinball table that has a "Made with Unity" screen every time you load it up.
I was a little leery that Judgment might have been the tipping point of too much of this style of game for me, given that I played both Kiwamis this year, never mind 6, 0, and 5 in the years before, but thankfully I was wrong. Judgment's not only one of the best games from this studio, but it's just different enough to keep it feeling fresh enough throughout, while maintaining all the quirky charm I know and love.
Now if only they would get some more women and queer people working on the story side of these games! But even if these games are never going to be exactly what I want, they're still (generally) close enough, and if I sound like a broken record, sorry, but you should play Judgment. It's great.