What appears at first to be a detective procedural reboot of Yakuza 6 with sleuthing systems and new minigames quickly gives way to a thoughtful and tender exploration of human intimacy and of a city and its people.
How do you review the experience of a city?
I’ve had that question resting in the back of my head since about 15 hours into Judgment, the latest game from Yakuza creators Ryu ga Gotoku Studio. It’s a question I’m not sure I know how to answer. But I’m pretty sure in order to do it, we need to talk about people—the ones living and working and giving their city its vitality.
Before we can talk about the people of Kamurocho, we have to talk about windows.
Judgment has the most incredible windows I’ve ever seen in a game. Streaks of dried rain leaving dirt and mineral deposits high up on the outside of hotels. Layers of aerosolized oil that drifted over and settled against them. Smudgy hand prints, some from children, others adults. And then there are the pristine, freshly-cleaned windows, few and far between, because clean glass never, ever lasts that long.
I have dozens of photos of just windows. Or of photos through them to the people blurred inside of shops, and out of them to a muslin haze street scene. Sometimes, I’d aim my camera up to the sky so the sunlight could accentuate the collected grime. Kamurocho is a city of people, and their fingerprints, slick with sebum or the remnants of chashu, are a powerful reminder of their persistence.
At its narrative heart, Judgment is a neo-noir procedural about a serial killer on the loose, the tragic lawyer-turned-private-detective trying to catch him, and the criminal underbelly that touches everything in Kamurocho. Like Yakuza, there is an interest in a kind of hypermasculinity—it can be wacky and surreal, though more subdued and grounded than in its sibling series.
And while the designers of Judgment have developed a strong characterization for Takayuki Yagami, and every character in this game, there is a flexibility allowed in how players can approach him. Perhaps moreso than Kiryu Kazuma, players have space to determine how they will engage with Yagami and his struggles.
In my playthrough, I made the photographic diary of a young man struggling with the disastrous inability to see beyond the chain of decisions in front of him and arrested by the calamitous consequences. It’s part of his attempts to reconnect with a society and the humanity he feels he has failed.
As major story beats unfold, I let Yagami decompress and just wander, as a stray dog, throughout the city. We stopped only as we felt a shared whim stir—the pulse of a dance club and the unctuous barker in front, a woman alone smoking a cigarette, her isolation mirroring our own. We walked until a hotel bar or out-of-the-way restaurant caught our attention, and we’d have a whisky or ramen.
Occasionally, a group of tough young guys would approach us spoiling for a fight, and we’d be reminded of our own capacity for violence. Something we couldn’t escape, despite our desire to. After we’d duck into an internet cafe to say hi to our friend Makoto Tsukimo, a young man connected to the world through his technical surveillance savvy and social media, a perpetual recluse in his rental booth.
We took on side jobs—for the money, sure, but also out of a need to atone and reconnect with the everyday. Along the way, we made new friends, of course. That’s a major driver of side content in Judgment. Side missions are as rich, engaging, and gamified as Yakuza veterans would expect (for those new to the series, few studios craft characters like Ryu ga Gotoku Studio does). What really captured my attention was how this game encapsulates the day-to-day interactions we have with people who will never be our friends.
Judgment is deeply invested in recognizing and acknowledging the persistence of humanity. From the convenience store clerk who takes pride in his work, to the pink-rimmed eyes of an exhausted waitress at the end of her shift.
There’s a transgender Mama-san, returning from previous games, plump, resonantly voiced, with a chinstrap beard. Not played explicitly for laughs, she’s what I’m choosing to read as a continued growth and maturity on the studios’ part. Mama-san serves drinks proudly in her small bar, Earth Angel, in the cloistered Champion District. She’s loaded down with meanings and readings, but she’s also allowed to simply exist. To be. Unadorned and unfettered by the questionable characterization of years past.
While much of Judgment operates on the symbolic and impressionistic level of a Moriyama photograph, in the residue of our humanity like the work of Miyako Ishiuchi, and the ordinary moments of Rinko Kawauchi, it finds its connection to genuine realness in each of these people. In presenting us with snapshots of a world and in asking us, What does it mean to look someone in the eye, day after day? What does it mean to force a smile, knowing we only have a transactional relationship?
These are not questions the game has an answer for, but it’s enough to present these dilemmas over and over to the player. There’s an inescapable humanity to Judgment, expressed through an incredible synthesis of art and writing that penetrates through the gauze of a very Sega arcade UI, that slips past the charming quick time event chases and the distraction of multi-modal minigames. Judgment is a game that has a vast ocean of human depth. Every system in the game serves as both a defense mechanism for, and expression of a search for, genuine understanding. It’s the ludic need for the intimacy we all crave, and the anxious desire to keep it at arm’s length.
The thing about Judgment is that, whenever I put it down, rather than think more about the game and what I was just doing, I thought about the possibilities it represents. I thought about the game that comes next, and the one after that. The stories that aren’t packaged as exceptionally well-told neo-noir crime thrillers. I was thinking about what Ryu ga Gotoku could do in a game without combat, one just about food, how place is physically constructed and interpreted, or the space that women occupy in Kamurocho. In a way, I wanted Ryu ga Gotoku Studio to do something more daring. And then I realized, while mechanically and narratively this game is an iteration, its daring is in the willingness to honor the humanity in everything, and then impress that upon me as a player.
But how do you review the experience of a city? I still don’t think I know. Perhaps, as Judgment understands, our experiences are too precious, too deeply personal to do more than hint at suggestions of experience. To anecdote and extrapolate. To let slip the micro moments of intimate connection to a person or space, to leave others with only the wordless emotion of a snapshot.
Judgment was developed by Ryu ga Gotoku Studio and published by Sega. It’s available for the PlayStation 4.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer, photographer, and founding editor of CapsuleCrit.com, a monthly journal dedicated to microgenre work about games. She tweets too much at @dialacina.