header is screenshot from Judgment
Playing for Time
Chris Breault

This article discusses plot points from throughout the entire game.

Every one- to two-hour chapter of Judgment, a detective-themed offshoot from Sega’s Yakuza series of Tokyo dining simulators, opens with a “Previously” recap. As a reel of arguing lawyers and eyeless corpses plays, the narrator’s stentorian TV Voice embroiders the action: “In the roaring din of the city, the death of the ADDC’s vice director hardly made a sound.” Then the chapter’s moody title card appears, and a name like “Down Came the Rain” slides in between wisps of smoke.

These ostentatiously smooth intros are more of a self-branding exercise than useful catch-up. They don’t tell you anything that won’t soon be restated in dialogue and flashbacks within the chapter itself. They don’t delve into the fine detail the game asks you to spit back for its occasional tests of memory (“Who was talking to me about the Ministry of Health—Genda, Mafuyu, or Ayabe?”). They’re a performance as stylish and extraneous as the credits that play before every mission of Metal Gear Solid V. With each recap, Judgment collects the moments where it best resembled a TV show, and skips everything else.

As the Yakuza series ages, it’s gotten more like TV. It has reused the same sets continuously and without embarrassment for almost 15 years. (Trips to places outside Kamurocho, like the Tojo Clan HQ or Osaka, feel like a lavish “location” expense.) The convolutions of the games’ plots and the expansion of their ensemble cast have created a knot of backstory and self-reference equal to any long-running show. Yakuza 0, the franchise’s one brilliant installment, applied a perverse sitcom logic to its B-plots, wrapping them up with deeply insincere lessons (inevitably delivered over this backing track). That game introduced Judgment-style recaps when switching back and forth between its protagonists’ stories—an evolution of the “backstory graveyard” scene at the start of Yakuza 2 and 3, when players were given a bolus of recap to swallow at once.

But no Yakuza goes as far as Judgment, which opens with this and recruits an actual TV star to play its lead. (Earlier games have used established actors and comedians in supporting roles, which plays into one of the franchise’s unusual and endearing qualities: its willingness to put a bunch of old people in a videogame.) Takuya Kimura, who played a genius lawyer in Hero (2001) and a genius detective in 2009’s Mr. Brain (he uses the other 90% of his brain!), plays a genius lawyer/detective/street fighter in Judgment. This doesn’t double the fun in the way you might hope; instead he often winds up explaining the same thing twice. It’s a problem that was already solved by the Phoenix Wright games, which saved the moment of revelation for the courtroom, rather than repeating an earlier deduction.

Casting Kimura seems more like the act of a fan than a shrewd producer. In the two shows mentioned above (the only two of his I’ve seen), both broad comedies, he plays a highly animated oddball set off against straightlaced and dickish coworkers. His role in Judgment doesn’t make use of that energy, or try to; his star persona seems digitally muffled, as with Yakuza 6’s big names. Though he’s set up as a legal pariah, Takayuki Yagami is too predictably noble and conscientious to be a rebel. True to Yakuza tradition, he’s defined by his long suffering for things that weren’t his fault to begin with, as well as his willingness to help out every stranger in the world. Given the opportunity to escape the character of Kazuma Kiryu, the developers of Judgment just gave him a leather jacket and feathered hair.

Sometimes Kimura does unexpectedly bring a scene to life. This never happens in the game’s substories, where his face and voice seem much less expressive (barring a few moments of cartoonish shock) than Takaya Kuroda’s Kiryu. But in a few of the story’s interrogations, when Yagami fishes for a piece of information or a sign of guilt, the character’s mannerisms drastically change. In a flashback to his friend’s expulsion from the yakuza, Yagami clearly relishes the opportunity to lawyer it up as his defender, working his brow and widening his eyes in mock amazement as he baits an antagonist into a verbal slip-up. Through close observation of Kimura’s face, the game captures a layered performance that could have easily come across as pantomime; even the best “cinematic” games, like Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us and Uncharted, usually compress these moments into a few broader expressions. When Yagami finally corners a skittish scientist in a later chapter, the game returns to the same complex register, watching Yagami’s face as he questions his target, studying the suspect’s eyes to see if his theory has hit home.

The character of Kyohei Hamura, the ruthless yakuza captain, is even more interesting. In a pre-US-release drug panic, Sega replaced the voice and likeness of actor Pierre Taki, who played Hamura, and said the final version of the character is “not a performance capture.” But direct comparisons still look pretty similar, and I’m curious how much of Taki’s work remains onscreen beneath a new face. Late in the game, as a defeated Hamura explains his involvement with the Kamurocho serial killings, he transforms into one of the few believably conflicted characters in the Yakuza canon—a deeply unpleasant figure who held onto his own loyalty to the organization even as he was trapped by forces beyond his control. Most Yakuza games collapse in spasms of melodrama as they enter the final stretch, but Hamura/Not-Taki’s credible rage keeps Judgment grounded.

As an outline, Judgment’s plot could be one of the best in the series. Character introductions and murders are paced out in a season-long thriller arc, and the central conspiracy is more inventive than something like L.A. Noire (2011), which couldn’t disguise the extent of its borrowing from Chinatown (1974). Yet Judgment fizzles out early. Yagami and his friends work out every meaningful part of the mystery in a discussion in his office in Chapter 9, several hours before the game ends in Chapter 13, and players can put the pieces together much earlier than that. After the Chapter 9 summation, the plot becomes waterlogged with repeated searches for one more confession, one more piece of evidence, one more conspirator. Its endgame is, as Edmund Wilson wrote of Raymond Chandler’s mysteries, nothing but “a malaise conveyed to the reader.”

And when we descend from the heights of the outline to the streets of Kamurocho, Judgment’s investigations are miserable. The one consistently fun bit is the moment of proof, when Yagami must pick the right piece of evidence from his files to refute a suspect’s statement. This is lifted straight from Phoenix Wright and adopted all the way back in Yakuza 3’s “Murder at Cafe Alps” sidequest (though it’s put to good use in Judgment’s locked-room mystery, “The Ono Michio Bandit,” too). Yagami sometimes has to chase suspects on foot, an event that also dates back to Yakuza 3 and has become more than routine in the last decade of use. Finally, there are tailing missions, which feel like a punishment for something else you did. Outside of these modes, you’re given the age-old Yakuza task of running from one end of Kamurocho to the other, your progress checked every block by brawling gangsters, in what amounts to a tax for the privilege of unlocking the next cutscene.

The game knows that this shit is boring. It doesn’t believe that its chases and tailing missions and punch-ups are anything but filler. That’s why it omits all gameplay from the “Previously” recaps that begin every chapter. A shot of Yagami punching another same-faced thug, or peeking out from behind one of the city’s ubiquitous white parked cars, would look frankly embarrassing next to those slick prerendered shots. It might reveal that the parts of Judgment you actually play are just aging tricks borrowed from other Yakuza games, jammed awkwardly into a detective story in order to space the cinematics out.

Back in 2008, when the developers of the TV-aping Alone in the Dark (2008) reboot made “Previously On” sizzle reels for every chapter, they were proud enough of their work to leave gameplay excerpts in. I am not suggesting that Alone in the Dark, which is remembered only as an unintentional comedy, is a better game than Judgment. But I think its creators thought harder about the experience they wanted players to remember—and the danger of suggesting that it wasn’t worth remembering at all.

Chris Breault is a writer on the internet.