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How the creators of Yakuza turned hard-boiled detective drama into a game

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Producer Kazuki Hosokawa explains how the Yakuza team switched directions

Last year, the Yakuza series wrapped up with its sixth and final entry, which bid farewell to lovable hero Kazuma Kiryu. Given the strong attachment fans had to the character, the team behind the series realized they had to go in a different direction for their next game. Judgment, which launches next week on the PS4, is similar to Yakuza in a lot of ways, but it’s also a hard-boiled detective story. It’s something that producer Kazuki Hosokawa, who directed both Yakuza 5 and the prequel Yakuza 0, has been thinking about since 2012.

“It starts with personal preference,” he told The Verge during an interview at E3 last week. “I really love thrillers and detective stories.”

Despite their prevalence in other media, detective dramas don’t exactly have a rich history in games. There are a few notable exceptions — like the goofy but heartwarming Ace Attorney series — but, for whatever reason, the genre hasn’t really taken off. As it turns out, interactivity adds a particular level of challenge to creating a story about investigation. It’s something Hosokawa realized early on in development.

“I definitely think it’s a difficult genre to tackle in games, because solving the mystery is so important for progressing the storyline, and I feel like there are so many different types of players and they all have different abilities to solve mysteries,” he says.

Judgment

To get around this, the Judgment team used two different tactics. To start, they filled the game with all kinds of detective-like elements. At various points you’ll have to scan areas for clues, question witnesses, navigate overflowing case files, and inconspicuously follow people to see what they’re up to. Judgment plays a lot like a traditional Yakuza game — which means you’ll be exploring a large, impressively detailed city and getting into lots of fistfights — but these new interactions give it a different flavor, one very in keeping with the detective vibe.

But while you’ll do plenty of investigating in the game, you won’t necessarily be solving crimes; instead, the moments of epiphany are featured in cutscenes and in-game dialogue, so you can follow along like in a movie or TV show, but not get stuck because you missed a clue. “We tried to put a lot of those moments of revelation in the storytelling side of things, so that players can still experience that drama,” Hosokawa says.

In addition to these new elements, another thing longtime Yakuza players will notice is a change in tone. The Yakuza games are well-known for their unique blend of silly and serious; one moment you’re in the midst of a dramatic fight between warring yakuza families, the next you’re accidentally winning a live chicken in a contest. Given Judgment’s more serious tone, the sillier aspects have been scaled back, though they’re not altogether gone. “We want to make sure that players are able to see different sides of the character, and provide a variety of personality outlets so that players can get to know the character in their own way,” explains Hosokawa.

That new character is another big shift. Most of Yakuza’s more off-beat elements worked because of Kiryu, a lovable gangster with a heart of gold and seemingly superhuman strength. But for Judgment, the team wanted someone more grounded to fit the noir vibe. The game stars Takayuki Yagami, a former defense attorney turned private investigator, who gets pulled into a large conspiracy involving the criminal underworld.

Hosokawa says that while having a brand-new character and storyline was freeing, it was also a big challenge, particularly for a studio so tightly connected to a single franchise. “When you’re writing a story and there’s a really solid character that’s been around for a long time, the character dictates what happens next,” he explains. “In contrast to that, with Yagami, at the start of development we didn’t really have anything attached to him at all. It was a challenge, but also an opportunity for a development team that has been working so long on the same series.”

While it strikes a new note, Judgment also follows a particularly prolific period for the Yakuza series, where major new entries, including prequels and remakes, have launched on a near annual basis. With this in mind, Hosokawa says that the team had a clear goal of making sure this didn’t feel like yet another Yakuza game. “We definitely didn’t want players to tire of this design and the familiar elements,” he says, “so we did put a lot of thought into how we differentiate it.”

Judgment launches on the PS4 on June 25th.