For as fun as the punching-and-kicking combat of Sega’s Yakuza franchise is, the most charming part of the gangster drama is its self-awareness. These are hilarious action games, full of overwrought cutscenes, inane side quests, wonderful characters, and cats. Lots and lots of cats.
Judgment, a Yakuza spinoff that exchanges Japanese mafiosi for disbarred lawyers (who still love punching and kicking), is no different. Of course, its story is worlds away from that of Kiryu Kazuma, Yakuza’s antihero: Takayuki Yagami is a former attorney who becomes a private investigator after he gets a murder suspect acquitted, only for the defendant to burn his girlfriend to death.
This isn’t exactly lighthearted soap opera fare, but the game’s presentation does the most to make the story seem like a pulpy crime drama, not a gritty prestige film. Judgment opens with cutscenes to introduce us to every character and their title, with soft jazz setting the stage for Yagami’s old law office. After we hit the dramatic flourishes — a shocking phone call! from an old client! who has murdered again! — a TV-like opening introduces the actors and sets the game’s stage in typical procedural fashion.
From there on, I’m Yagami, running again through the streets of Kamurocho, eating way too much and playing way too many Sega arcade games (like Puyo Puyo Tetris) for my own good. As a new entrepreneur, I pick up cases along the way, tailing bad guys and shaking them up for money. (Even though Yagami was once a buttoned-up suit, he’s now grizzled and, somehow, a pro at hand-to-hand combat.) This involves a mixture of basic beat-’em-up action, sneaking around, and mystery-solving, which involves piecing together details about suspects through conversations and other clues I pick up around town. Eventually, Yagami becomes entangled in a much larger serial killer case, which makes up the backbone of the game.
For the majority of my two-hour Judgment demo, I felt like I was playing a Yakuza game, but with a little more diversity. It’s easy for me to get lost in the weeds along the way to trailing a criminal, which is totally encouraged; there’s a lot of fun to be had in just making friends, checking Yagami’s Twitter-like app, eavesdropping on folks, and admiring the very detailed environments. These are all good things, but the best thing is something so small, so silly, that it perfectly exemplifies just how charming Judgment is: the cats.
I mentioned cats before, and I will mention them again. At certain points during Yagami’s investigation, the game will transition to active search mode, which brings me into a first-person view of the area I’m investigating. These events require me to identify a specific element in the immediate area, like a security camera I need to avoid. But the most important inclusion thing to look for is the cat that is hidden in each and every one of these events.
Knowing that there is a cat hiding in every active search mode area, I became committed to finding them, perhaps more so than the piece of evidence I was meant to locate. Because that is the silly power of the Yakuza series, and Judgment in particular. These games make you want to spend time hanging with cats, or looking at cats, or following cats around, when you should be beating guys to a pulp. There’s even a trophy for finding them all.
Judgment has its moments of violence and emotion, to be sure. But Sega also has the latest fusion of great-feeling combat and laugh-out-loud moments on its hands with this upcoming spinoff, out on PlayStation 4 this summer.