Title (JP): Judge Eyes: Shinigami no Yuigon (JUDGE EYES：死神の遺言)
Title (NA): Judgement
Developer: Sega (Ryu ga Gotoku Studio)
Release date: 13 December 2018 (JP), summer 2019 (NA)
This review was written based on the Japanese release of the game, and may not reflect changes made to versions released in other regions.
Sega’s acclaimed Ryu ga Gotoku Studio has made a name for itself by making the game series it takes its name from, Ryu ga Gotoku, known as the Yakuza series in the west. As such, the announcement that they would be making a new game set in the same world and using the same system as the series but with an entirely new premise and cast of characters left fans with high expectations, which were furthered by how famous actor and former SMAP member Kimura Takuya was cast as the main character. Despite the hurdle being raised, Judge Eyes manages to meet expectations and delivers an experience consistent with that of the best games in the series yet also different enough to be refreshing.
Judge Eyes follows disgraced former lawyer turned private investigator Yagami Takayuki (played by Kimura) as he investigates a serial killer who has been targeting yakuza in the Tokyo red light district of Kamurocho, always leaving the bodies missing their eyes. There is thus a larger emphasis than the Yakuza series on mystery, suspense, and investigations, which is highly synergetic with the series’ tradition of having elaborate and complex conspiracies, with Yagami needing to inspect crime scenes, trail persons of interest, and select pieces of evidence to construct logical answers. The game does not deviate that far from the series’ roots, though: Due to the case being intricately involved with the yakuza, Yagami constantly finds himself in situations which require more brawn than brains.
Combat is for the most part identical to that in the Yakuza series. Using down on the D-pad has Yagami switch between two styles, one for crowd control and one for one-on-one fights, and the player can build up an EX meter to perform contextual special moves (the “heat moves” of previous games). Many items in the environment- From chairs to bicycles- Can be picked up and used as makeshift weapons. Hitting R2 activates a powered-up mode which depletes the EX has Yagami able to perform special combos and finishers. Yagami plays very much like, as one would expect, a new character in the same series, with controls being familiar enough that veterans immediately get the hang of them, while moves are different enough that he feels entirely new. Of these new moves, the most significant are the ones which involve running at and jumping over enemies, or off of walls, which lead to special moves and finishers. It should be noted that transition to battles in random encounters are completely seamless, and it is even possible to run right past and away from enemies after they are activated (they will pursue the player to some degree, but not for too much). The story also has Yagami meet and ally with multiple companions who aid him in battle, and it is not uncommon for there to be sequences where the player fights alongside up to three allies.
While the Yakuza series expanded to having multiple locales from the second, Judge Eyes returns the series to its roots, with the only location that the player can freely explore being Kamurocho. The district is heavily populated with events, sidequests and minigames, however, and so this does not feel like an issue. Players can freely engage in playing seven different arcade games, six of which are actual games like Virtua Fighter and Fighting Vipers, and one a House of the Dead parody based on Yakuza: Dead Souls, play mahjong, poker, or blackjack, partipate in drone racing competitions, befriending and dating NPCs, and many other activities. There are also numerous sidequests, some found by wandering in the streets, or taken up as jobs for Yagami’s detective firm, which range from the plausible (taking a job for a suspicious wife to trail her husband and take photos of him meeting with his mistress) to the ridiculous (hunting and capturing the “three pervert musketeers” of Kamurocho).
The greatest strength of Judge Eyes is without a doubt its main story, which is filled with countless twists and involves a massive conspiracy intricately woven between multiple organisations, and the past and present; Many chapters end with twists which leave the player yearning to know what happens next. The involvement of yakuza, some on Yagami’s side, also assures that the series’ “ninkyo eiga”-esque staple themes of honour and family remain, while Yagami’s role as a former lawyer also has new themes revolving around the nature of justice and righteousness introduced to the narrative.
The game is unfortunately not without its flaws, most of which are a result of newly-introduced elements. Many crime scene investigation sequences quickly turn into frustratingly obnoxious pixel hunts where the player does not even know what they are supposed to be looking for, one of the two versions of the lock picking mechanic is badly-implemented, and the trailing sequences are egregiously frustrating, with the longer ones (and especially the last one) managing to be far worse than the infamously much-hated sequence in Metal Gear Solid 4. There are also sequences similar to the Phoenix Wright series’ where the player has to select pieces of evidence to prove a point, but these are few and far between and never at all challenging, to the extent that they feel almost pointless; In some cases there are as few as two pieces of evidence to choose from, with one being clearly not even closely related to the topic at hand. The game also feels a bit like it is still too closely tethered to the Yakuza series; For example, a climatic court sequence is interrupted with Yagami receiving news that has him need to run off to go punch people.
Regardless of these flaws, Judge Eyes manages to deliver on an experience on par with, if not superior to many of the Yakuza series’ games. The shift to a private investigator as the protagonist allows for far better synergy with the series’ staple conspiracy-centric plots, and the result is a story far more interesting than many of the previous games’, that still manages to remain believable to some extent (there are no “secret brother in the CIA” twists in here). While some new elements are problematic, the base action gameplay remains solid, and Kamurocho is as interesting as ever. As it is not a direct sequel to the Yakuza series, Judge Eyes is an optimal starting point for players who are unfamiliar with the previous games, and also a refreshing new experience for series fans.
The Good: A Yakuza series game with quality on par of previous entries that also manages to be different enough to be very refreshing.
The Bad: Several newly-introduced elements, especially the investigation and trailing sequences, bring frustrating issues with them.
Conclusion: Judge Eyes has a narrative that holds up even when compared to the best entries in the Yakuza series, and has gameplay on par to match. Its being a standalone title also means that new players can jump in as easily as old fans.