The Yakuza franchise, gaining more popularity than ever with a global audience, seemingly veered in two very different directions recently. Last year’s mainline game, Yakuza: Like a Dragon, pushed the franchise’s love for over-the-top situations and batshit humour up to a boiling point while 2019’s spin-off, Judgment, gave us a gritty and moody noir detective story with a far darker tone than the rest of the series.
Judgment follows former defense attorney, Takayuki Yagami, trading his lawyer’s badge in for life out as a private detective in the series’ regular fictional district of Kamurocho after a client he helps escape a murder charge turns out to be guilty and kills again. When a new case lands in his lap concerning a serial killer dubbed The Mole, who’s been murdering yakuza members and whose calling card is leaving his victims with their eyes gouged out, Yagami finds himself embroiled in something much bigger than a serial killer case or even the yakuza. The series’ penchant for larger-than-life drama and political intrigue is in full swing in Judgment, even if it’s all a bit grislier and plays out from a perspective outside of the yakuza itself.
Judgment arrived to critical praise for taking the established Yakuza formula and spinning into something fresh with new characters and new gameplay ideas within its familiar setting. With a grittier main storyline it sets quite a different tone while doubling down on cinematic qualities of its narrative and cutscenes with quite a few face-scanned Japanese celebrities lending voice and likeness to its cast. Prominent actor and pop star Takuya Kimura does an incredible job as Yagami, though if you prefer to play with what was the series’ first full English dub since the very first Yakuza game you’ll have just as good a time with Greg Chun and a top-tier cast of other anime/video game dub regulars.
It’s still got plenty of the beloved Yakuza series’ DNA in it too, with a huge serving of side content that often steers the game right back into Yakuza’s classically-ridiculous storylines and scenarios. Yagami can play darts, go batting, build and race drones, join a VR gaming centre and lots more in between. The extensive Friends mechanic sees him turn particular people and even prominent passers-by into pals with their own unique missions and storylines.
Yagami also offers a fresh perspective on the series’ usual gameplay, given that he’s not a member of the yakuza but a detective, and quicker to use the tools at his disposal to uncover wrongdoing than go in fists-first. Investigation mechanics aren’t hugely deep but include using disguises to infiltrate, piloting a drone to investigate out-of-reach areas and tailing suspects. There’s still plenty of combat, with a Yakuza 0-esque system of switching fighting styles to suit the number and types of opponents, but it’s a tangibly different balance in the context of the character. Given the spin-off’s unique premise, characters and gameplay style this updated version also solidifies Judgment as the best and most accessible way for newcomers to get into the Yakuza games, especially on newer consoles.
Content-wise everything here is pretty well just as it was the first time around, at least as far as I can tell. You’ll get all of the previously-released DLC included, which is nice. Interestingly the interactive pinball machine in Yagami’s office is gone, which I can only assume was a Unity-related conflict since the mini-game ran on that engine originally.
This new version of Judgment for the new generation of consoles might be largely the same as what came out in 2019, but its biggest draw is one that makes a huge difference in playing the game. In the transition to more powerful hardware, the game now runs at 60FPS, up from 30 originally. It’s the same boost that we saw with Like A Dragon on the newer platforms, but the benefits in this more action-oriented title are far greater. Judgment’s real-time combat isn’t the fastest around or the most demanding of reflexes but it still feels wildly better in the hand at a more fluid framerate, as does jogging around the city streets and chasing down bad guys.
Elsewhere the biggest differences can be seen in the game’s lighting model, which has seemingly been overhauled and is now much more realistic-looking. It tends to err on the side of being a bit darker than the original, but the overall presentation is all the better for it. The neon-soaked and rain-slicked streets of Kamurocho at night have never looked this good. It all comes together to really nail Judgment’s noir trappings more than ever.
The only real disappointment with this new-gen release of Judgment is that there’s no cross-gen save transfer, as with Like A Dragon, but also that there’s no upgrade path for previous owners. The updated release comes in at a lower price, at least, but it makes it a harder sell to anyone who’s already bought and played through it in the past.
Judgment on the new generation of consoles might not be a must-play for anyone who already enjoyed it on the PS4, but it's absolutely the best way to play the game and still represents a fantastic jumping off point for anyone keen to dip their toes into the Yakuza franchise. Playing as Yagami feels better than ever at 60FPS, and Kamurocho and its many faces come alive with improved detail and a fantastic new lighting treatment. There's no argument here: Judgment is a winner, case closed.
Still a fantastic Yakuza spin-off with a unique tone
Playing at 60FPS is a far better experience
New visual treatment serves the detective noir narrative perfectly
Budget priced with previous DLC included
No save transfer or upgrade path
More muted lighting in areas might not suit everyone's displays