'Judgment' Hands-On Impressions: 'Yakuza' Gets a Clue

If you've played the Yakuza games (and if you haven't, you really should), you'll immediately find yourself in familiar territory with Judgment. Sega's latest takes place in the same universe as Yakuza, more specifically in Tokyo's glittering viceland of Kamurocho, where every building is a Russian nesting doll of hostess bars, cat cafes and mahjongg parlors. This means you'll cross paths with some slick-suited members of the Tojo Clan, but—from what I'm told—not any of the major players from Kazuma Kiryu's adventures.

Fighting follows the same basic control scheme as in theYakuza games, with Square triggering standard attacks and Triangle used for heavy blows and finishers. Judgement's protagonist, Takayuki Yagami, is rather nimble in a brawl, able to shift between two fighting styles—one for crowd control, another for single opponents. Yagami can pick up objects laying around the environment to use as weapons (hooray!), but he's got some fresh tricks up his sleeve, too. He's able to deftly spring onto walls to get the drop on foes. It takes a bit of practice to pull off, but it's wicked good fun.

Despite the superficial similarities, though, Judgement is rather a different animal from Yakuza. Yagami is more of a hardboiled cuss compared to Tojo Clan's endearing lunkhead, far more likely to fire off zingy comebacks after dispatching a gaggle of goons than to be caught blinking cluelessly at a joke. Despite his criminal links, Kiryu is a modern samurai, honorable to a ludicrous degree. Yagami seems to be be a bit more ambiguous, and it'll be interesting to see how Judgement's story explores these shades of gray.

Yagami Judgment hands on impressions

A fully-voiced English audio track—the first for the series since the now-infamous 2005 Yakuza PS2 dub with Michael Madsen and Mark Hamill—also makes it easier to get into Yagami's head and flesh out the nuances of his character. The voice cast includes some recognizable names for fans of Japanese games and anime, including Greg Chun, Crispin Freeman, Matthew Mercer, Cherami Leigh, Yuri Lowenthal, James Hong, Ed O'Ross, Amy Walker, Matt Yang King, Fred Tatasciore, Brian McNamara and more. Judgment has two separate scripts: one for the voice actors, and another, more direct approximation of the original script for the English subtitles.

With the Western release not too far off, I was told the localization team at Sega is still painstakingly tweaking all the audio timing to ensure the best possible lip-flap match. I tried out both audio options during my demo, and came away impressed by the voice work, even as someone who tends to prefer Japanese audio. Actors fit their on-screen counterparts well, and nary a line reading came across as over-the-top.

You'll also find yourself on the other side of the law in Judgement, working as a former lawyer turned detective. As such, even though you're still getting into fisticuffs with roving bands of street toughs, there's a more contemplative and thoughtful tenor to the proceedings, as you're tasked with gathering evidence and trailing suspects in order to progress the main story. You'll also need to keep a more careful eye on the people around you—as opposed to indiscriminately shoulder-checking them by the dozen, or thwacking them over the head with man-size traffic cones—as you'll periodically need to identify persons of interest based on their physical descriptions.

judgment sega hands on investigation mechanic
'Judgement' tweaks the established 'Yakuza' formula by adding new investigation mechanics, including gathering evidence and trailing suspects. Sega

It took me a couple tries to get the hang of trailing suspects—as someone who hates stealth games, I'm reluctant to call it a stealth mechanic, even though that's basically what it is—but it's straightforward enough for even for the most brute-force players to grasp quite quickly. Intriguingly, one of the tools in Yagami's investigative arsenal is an app-connected drone, which I tested out briefly during the demo. This should make for some intriguing pursuits as the trailing mechanic grows more complex throughout the game.

Judgement runs on the Dragon Engine introduced for Yakuza 6 and refined in Yakuza Kiwami 2, and the aesthetics are even more polished here. Facial animations and clothing textures have always looked great in the current-gen Yakuza games, and shine even brighter in Judgment. (You might be slightly squicked out at the intensely detailed nose-pores, but you'll marvel at the luxuriant fabrics in all those tough-guy suits.) There's the same seamless transitions between interior and exterior environments, which deepened the immersion of the trailing sequences I attempted.

A hearty selection of minigames and side missions seem likely to add some Yakuza-esque loopiness and levity to the proceedings. I didn't have a chance to check out any side missions during my demo, but was informed by a Sega rep that there's here's less of a one-and-done feel to these optional tasks this time around. Instead, Yagami will encounter the same people repeatedly, and his relationships with certain NPCs will grow and change over time.

judgment sega hands on yagami english dub

One of the reasons I didn't manage to to befriend any Kamurocho locals was because I plowed a a sizable chunk of my demo time into one of the new attractions in Club Sega: a House of the Dead lookalike rail-shooter titled Kamuro of the Dead. (Thanks to the Resident Evil 2, my headshot game was on point.)

By encouraging players to approach Kamurocho from a different perspective, Judgement makes the familiar feel refreshing. But can Yagami's journey match the high-stakes tension of the hyper-violent world of the Yakuza games? We'll have to wait and see when Judgment makes its Western debut in summer 2019.

Are you a Yakuza fan planning to check out Judgment? Are you intrigued by the investigative focus of the game? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.