A ny successful franchise is a doubleedged sword for a developer. Sequels all but guarantee money in the bank, but can be creatively stifling. So it’s no great shock to learn that Toshihiro Nagoshi has been planning to do something different for a while. “I did aspire to propose a new type of game even during the various Yakuza title releases,” he admits. And yet there’s no denying that Nagoshi’s new game isn’t a major departure. For the development team, comprised primarily of the main staff behind
Yakuza 0 (which, as that series’ peak, is a promising sign), Project Judge must seem like something of a busman’s holiday.
Within seconds of its opening cutscene, we know exactly where we are, as the camera glides down a bustling street, past a Poppo store sign and through the window of a second-floor office. Our first objective, meanwhile, asks us to walk up Nakamichi Street, make a right before Smile Burger, and head down Nakamichi Alley towards Pink Street. The waypoint would be surplus to requirements if we weren’t playing in Japanese. The Yakuza series’ star – no, not Kazuma Kiryu – is back.
Surprisingly, that wasn’t the initial plan. “For a time we were considering not using Kamurocho,” says Nagoshi. “However, the goal here was to drastically change the game content from the Yakuza series, and we wanted to avoid exhausting our budget on a brand-new map. I also felt confident that we could create compelling new gameplay even without a new map.”
It’s odd to hear Nagoshi talking about budgets when he’s been responsible for some of Sega’s biggest hits of recent years, but you can probably blame Binary Domain – or, more accurately, Binary Domain’s sales figures, for the publisher’s cautious approach with a game that doesn’t bear a recognisable brand name. Besides, it’s clear Nagoshi sees the familiar setting as a positive. “You can’t help that it’s aesthetically very similar to the Yakuza series. However, if anything, I think players will be reassured that there will be a strong, dramatic story that they’ve come to expect from the
Ryu Ga Gotoku team. Furthermore, the overall feel of the plot and the gameplay is very different from that of Yakuza’s.”
You could be forgiven for thinking otherwise from those first ten minutes, which involve a brawl between protagonist Takayuki Yagami and a group of braying thugs. He’s slightly lighter and faster than Kiryu – his kick-heavy fighting style feels closer to Shun Akiyama in Yakuza 4, and his moveset involves kicking off walls to smash opponents in the face. You can switch between two fighting styles via the D-pad, and there are
It’s clear that Project Judge will retain Yakuza’s more outlandish elements
Heat moves and finishers besides. If you’ve played a Yakuza game before, the tutorial is barely needed.
That goal is evident when the fight ends, and Yagami finds himself on the trail of a flatcapped suspect, whose likeness has been captured in a remarkably accurate pencil sketch. Outside Kamurocho Asian Beauty Show you’ll be asked to identify him from a range of pedestrians. It’s a simple process of locking onto them and having a checklist of features confirmed. Once identified, you need to follow them from a safe distance to their destination, an alleyway in the Champion District, in a sequence that plays out like My First Tailing Mission. Glowing blue markers behind signs and cars (and a conveniently-positioned group of salarymen) show you exactly where you need to hide when your target turns around, lest their suspicion meter fill up entirely, resulting in a game over.
It’s extremely hard to fail, but the melodramatic music and a few unexpected stops – your target takes a detour to get a can from a vending machine, then pauses briefly for a smoke – keep you amused, while hinting towards more challenging pursuits. The same goes for a QTE-centric chase sequence that follows. Again, it’s straightforward stuff, giving you plenty of time to press the appropriate button. But it’s fast-paced and heartily silly in the best Yakuza tradition: after swerving one group of pedestrians, Yagami grabs another by the shoulder before vaulting over his head.
Despite the seemingly grittier, darker tone of the plot – Yagami’s shift from hotshot lawyer to private detective comes after one of his clients brutally murders his girlfriend – it’s clear that Project Judge will retain Yakuza’s more outlandish elements. “It takes a while to get to the ending in this kind of TV-dramaesque action adventure game, so we’re conscious of keeping the game interesting the whole way through to avoid the player getting bored,” Nagoshi says. “I would argue that those traits aren’t solely Yakuza, but are an embodiment of Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio’s stance on producing entertainment.” If you recall a certain scarf-wearing robot and a set-piece involving a toilet visit, Nagoshi’s explanation checks out.
Happily, Yagami will get to do some proper detective work as the game progresses. Rather than simply following suspects and witnesses, you’ll sometimes need to take photos as evidence, fulfilling conditions determined by your client. “For instance, a photo can be evaluated on criteria such as, ‘Does it show the location clearly?’ or, ‘Is it a clear shot of the person’s face?’” Nagoshi says. “The photo will be rejected if the basic conditions are not met. On the other hand, if you’re able to take clean, close-up shots that satisfy all the requirements, you’ll receive bonus experience points.” Yagami can also use a drone, controlled via his mobile phone, to take snaps, or surveil suspects when tailing them on foot proves impossible. There’s a lock-picking aside about which Nagoshi seems particularly enthused, and secret rooms to locate by decoding clues.
It seems, then, that this is more of a step away from Yakuza than first impressions would suggest. Beyond the presence of the ruling gangs – Yagami’s partner Kaito is a former yakuza expelled from the Tojo Clan – you shouldn’t expect to see many familiar faces. “Of course, some of the team felt strongly about including them,” Nagoshi says. “But in the end, we felt that doing so would create misconceptions about the title, so ultimately, we decided to cut them out.”
Indeed, while Nagoshi conceived Yakuza with an audience of Japanese men in mind, he’s confident his latest game will attract more than just the series’ biggest fans. “Of course, the protagonist is a male and the game is full of exciting, intense drama, but this title explores the themes of humanity much more than masculinity,” he says. “In that sense, I believe this game is tackling a wider spectrum of themes. Regardless of those differences, we as a studio are confident in creating videogame narratives based on human experiences. We hope our fans trust us to deliver on that and enjoy the game.”