Detective games are a great concept in theory. Imagine experiencing a Sherlock Holmes story, except you’re the one making all of the clever deductions. The problem, of course, is that you’re not Sherlock Holmes. So, in many games, the story’s momentum can come to a screeching halt because you missed an ever-important clue or misheard a witness statement. Judgment, an investigative spinoff of the long-running Yakuza series, gets around this by offering just enough detective work to feel satisfying, while relegating the big, profound revelations for cutscenes and in-game dialogue. It’s sort of like watching a particularly tense crime drama, but one where you get to help out along the way. The result might just be the best detective game I’ve ever played.
Judgment stars Japanese superstar Takuya Kimura as Takayuki Yagami, a small-time private investigator living in Kamurocho, a seedy Tokyo district based on the real-world’s Kabukicho. Three years prior to the events of the game, Yagami was actually a fresh-faced defense attorney. But after a particularly devastating case — in which he successfully defended a man accused of murder, only for that man to go out and kill again not long after the trial — he left the legal life behind, setting up a small detective shop with his buddy and former yakuza member Kaito. At the outset of the game, a series of yakuza have been murdered in a grisly fashion, and Yagami is investigating what happened.
If you’ve ever played a Yakuza game — and there have been a lot of them of late — the basic framework of Judgment will feel familiar. In fact, it might be a little too familiar for some players. So much of the game, from the combat to the location to even the in-game menus, feels exactly like it does in the main Yakuza games. This means that you’ll be exploring a compact but densely packed Kamurocho, where you can wander into an arcade to play Virtua Fighter or find an out-of-the-way whisky bar stocked with only the finest. You’ll also get into a lot of fistfights; just like Kiryu before him, Yagami is constantly accosted by low-level thugs and disgruntled yakuza, and Judgment doesn’t skimp on the combat.
As familiar as it can be, it’s the new elements of Judgment that make it interesting. This version of Kamurocho is laid out largely the same, but it has a much darker, seedier tone, and you’ll spend a surprising amount of time venturing into sketchy back alleys. More importantly, you’ll do all kinds of things that actually feel like detective work. Yagami will have to wear disguises to sneak into buildings, sweet-talk witnesses into giving up information, tail suspects to take incriminating photographs, and dig through crime scenes in search of clues. These scenes are generally fairly short and simple, which means you likely won’t find yourself stuck very often, pulling you out of character.
Some players might wish for more of these investigative moments, but I found that they offered just the right amount of detective work to make me feel invested in the story, without getting in the way. And Judgment’s story is easily its best feature. It’s one of those interweaving crime dramas where so many things are happening, often in parallel, that it can be tough to keep pace. What starts out as a string of murders grows into a much larger conspiracy involving not only multiple organized crime families, but, eventually, more powerful elements, including the Japanese government. It has an energy that kept me going through the game’s lengthy run time, which can span a few dozen hours, depending on how you approach the side missions.
While the story is generally great, it does retain one of the less-appealing aspects of the Yakuza series: it is exceedingly male-centric. Pretty much every major character is a man, and the few female characters featured will inevitably need to be rescued or, in the case of one, be forced into undercover work as a hostess. (This leads to a particularly uncomfortable scene where you not only have to choose her outfit, but you also play from her perspective while she’s being catcalled on the street.) Of course, the real-world influences of the game are very macho, but Judgment can also be surprisingly sweet. I just wish it gave more of those moments to the women in its cast who feel underutilized most of the time.
While Judgment is generally darker and more serious than Yakuza, it can still get a bit weird and silly at times. At one point in the game, you’re forced to investigate a cake that’s gone missing from an office fridge, and there are side missions that involve finding stray cats and eating your landlord’s terrible attempts at cooking. There’s also an ongoing joke about a fake crowdfunding service called Quickstarter, and, at one point, the game spoofs the Ace Attorney series. You can even buy cigarettes and head to a smoking area for a quick break to eavesdrop on the lives of salarymen or construction workers. Given how long Judgment is, these moments, brief as they are, are a very welcome respite from the grim main story.
Judgment, like the series from which it spun off, is still something of an acquired taste. The sheer amount of combat can feel tedious at points, and much of the game is spent simply walking down crowded streets in search of the next clue or witness. You’ll also spend almost as much time watching the game as you will playing it since Judgment features some very lengthy cutscenes. But for crime junkies, the small niggles are worth putting up with. There may not be very many great detective games, but Judgment shows just how good they can be when done right.
Judgment is available now on the PS4.