For years, various Kotaku writers have made the case that more people should be getting into the Yakuza series. It's basically a soap opera about Japanese mobsters wrapped in a thriving urban world filled with romance, retro SEGA games, absurd fights and perhaps the best virtual tourism in video games.
But the Yakuza games also have an insane amount of backstory. Most people don't have that kind of time. Fortunately, there's an alternative: Judgement, titled Judge Eyes in Japan, has all of the Yakuza flavour without the baggage.
Judgment is based in the same universe as the Yakuza games, right down to the city that all of the games take place in, Kamurocho. But rather than focusing on the life of a career criminal, Judgment focuses on Yagami Takayuki, who starts the game as a hotshot lawyer in the Genda Law office.
Yagami's a rockstar of sorts because he managed to get a client acquitted of murder - something that is basically impossible within the Japanese legal system. As it turns out, that client - Shinpei Okubo - gets arrested for murder again, and the game then skips three years forward.
We quickly learn that Yagami's legal career has completely collapsed, with Okubo sentenced to death (but not yet hanged, thanks to the slow gears of justice). Yagami's now working for an undercover detective agency, and after trying to tail a subject, you're quickly thrown into a Yakuza-style fist fight, complete with flashy, sweeping camera movements and swooshing noises.
It's everything you'd want from Yakuza, without needing years of backstory. And for everyone who didn't give Kazuma Kiryu the time of day, it's a perfect entry point.
Mechanically, the game is identical from the most recent Yakuza titles. Once you're in a fight, holding R1 will fix the camera on a target. X dodges, circle grabs, and you alternate between light and heavy attacks with square and triangle. There's a variety of combos and two different fighting styles, activated via the D-pad, depending on whether you're fighting a group or an individual.
The preview only had the prologue and opening chapter, although three hours wasn't really sufficient to get to the end of the chapter. Nonetheless, it offered plenty of random fights outside of convenience stores, arcades to explore, small eateries and other spots bringing Kamurocho to life, which is replicated with the same degree of vibrance and vitality that you'd find in Yakuza 6.
There hasn't been any real visual upgrade since Yakuza 6, so if anything that's perhaps the most glaring weakness. Yagami is rendered well enough, but some of the less important NPCs are quite flat for a game in 2019, and if you look closely enough as you work your way through the city, you'll notice plenty of jagged edges, rough shadows, and other dated textures.
Judgment isn't that sort of game, however, and if you're walking around Kamurocho staring at low-res signs and looking for anti-aliasing issues, you're missing the point.
The strength of the Yakuza series is how Kamurocho comes to life. And half the fun of Judgment, even in the few hours I had, was roaming around, bumping into random arcades playing Virtua Fighter, stopping by random small bars and just exploring with abandon.
There's no loading screens going in and out of indoor areas, which is a huge plus. And Judgment also has some mechanics of its own to fit the detective vibe, including a slightly laboured tailing mechanic (where you have to occasionally duck behind cover to avoid being spotted) and a camera mode where you scan a scene for clues.
Another mechanic pops up during conversation or interrogations. During the first chapter, you're tasked with meeting your client in prison. You don't have security camera footage of the incident, and he's not been talkative so far, so it's your first opportunity to get any kind of read on what happened.
In scenarios like these, the game gives you a series of questions you can ask. Ask the "right" questions, and you'll get some bonus skill points (usually 10 SP, with the cheapest moves starting from 100 SP). You'll always get to ask all the questions, so you're never really punished per se, but it's a cheap (and harmless) way to get players to pay more attention to the cut scenes.
The initial murder case is actually pretty savage - a local yakuza has had their eyes gouged out. I didn't make much headway into the case in my three hours, although I wasn't trying to mainline the story as quickly as possible to be fair.
As I mentioned, half the fun of Judgment is just roaming Kamurocho. The Yakuza series has always done a great job of bringing the spirit of Tokyo to life, primarily through its replication of minutia and the mundane. It's the size of the backalleys, the appearance of real-life pizza brands, the positioning of neon signs and Asahi vending machines, the sound of pachinko machines as you sprint by, even just the styling of Mum-and-Dad eateries that seat a max of four.
Judgment brings all of this to life as well. And that's probably why I enjoyed it so much, even just for three hours. It was pure escapism, a reminder of my own holidays around Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, a faithful replication of a world usually nine to ten hours away.
Sometimes, that's all you need from a game at the end of a long day at uni or work. But then Judgment also has this absurd, Ace Attorney-esque level of drama to go with it, the soap opera-style framing, and some cracking combat.
There's a reason we've recommended the Yakuza games for years. But if you've missed those, you might as well start with Judgment when it comes out in English later this year.