Yakuza Spin-Off Project Judge Brings Fresh Detective Action to a Familiar World

Back to Kamurocho.

After finishing the demo of Project Judge (titled Judge Eyes in Japan) available on the Japanese PlayStation Store, I understood that the development team of the Yakuza series was indeed trying something new. However, it took a while before the demo allowed me to experience that “completely different” experience director Toshihiro Nagoshi had promised.

After an opening story sequence, I was brought to the fictional Tokyo nightlife district of Kamurocho, whose neon-lit streets are well known to fans of the Yakuza series. The camera zooms over the bustling cityscape before settling on our detective hero, Takayuki Yagami, disguised as a homeless person as he prepares for a stakeout. Between the Kamurocho streets and Yagami’s muscular and shady-looking detective buddy, familiarity set in fast.

Exit Theatre Mode

It didn’t help that a group of thugs come my way delivering typical lines as “Get lost!” and “You’re in our way!” while I was in the midst of having doubts towards Nagoshi’s tease of something new. Our hero easily dodges their attacks. They get angrier.

The screen fades out, and after a brief loading time we are in the game’s battle mode. The headline text introduces my opponents as “Street Punks”, and they are clearly ready to fight.

Combo attacks are unleashed by mashing the Square and Triangle buttons, and you block attacks with L1. Your go into a fighting stance with R1, and dodge attacks by pressing X. With the Circle button you can grab signboards, bicycles and whatnot, and with either Square or Triangle you hammer them into your enemies’ heads. As you fight, your “EX Gauge” fills up, so now it’s time to unleash a special attack called “EX Action” by pressing the Triangle button at the right moment. While following a tutorial that felt a little bit too familiar, I easily smashed the punks to the ground.

Exit Theatre Mode

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to imply that this is a bad way to start a demo or game per se. But if Sega wants to present Project Judge as something new and fresh, an almost too-typical Yakuza beginning is not the right way to deliver that message. And that’s too bad, because later on in the demo Project Judge indeed presented interesting ideas not seen in a Yakuza game before.

So what is it that Project Judge wants to be? Nagoshi calls it a “legal suspense” story that makes use of investigation gameplay. “A game played by solving mysteries is something I wanted to do at least once in my life as a game creator,” Nagoshi mentioned during the PlayStation LineUp Tour in Tokyo, where he first announced the game.

Project Judge’s main character Yagami is played by actor/singer Takuya Kimura, who is a national icon in Japan. He might be only slightly known in the West (mainly as a member of the now-defunct boy band SMAP), but for the Japanese audience, Kimura in a video game is a big deal.

Exit Theatre Mode

His character, Yagami, is an ex-lawyer who currently runs a detective bureau. Three years ago, Yagami became famous by proving a murder suspect not guilty, which is extremely rare in the history of Japanese law courts, where 99.9% percent of defendants are convicted.

Following his big achievement, the telephone rang constantly at the law firm Yagami worked at, with clients around the country wanting to be defended by him. Until on a certain day, the murder suspect whom Yagami had previously proved innocent committed another murder. The event resulted in Yagami quitting his job as a lawyer, and three years later he is running a detective bureau, where we find him now, as he is engaged to gather evidence on a peculiar murder case. Yagami appears to have grown up as a punk on the rough streets of Kamurocho; we can assume that while Yagami comes closer to the case’s truth, he will regain his pride and self-confidence as a lawyer.

What makes Yagami’s character interesting is that he has the knowledge and skills of both a lawyer and a detective at the same time, which are implemented in gameplay elements Nagoshi calls “investigation action.” Project Judge’s gameplay is said to include interrogation, disguise, lock-picking, sneak photography and more. But while slightly tweaked, Yakuza’s battle system is present as well.

Even enemy thugs make fun of him by mimicking Bruce Lee’s famous yells.

Yagami’s fighting style has a lot going on. He fights like he came straight out of an ’80s kung-fu movie, and even enemy thugs make fun of him by mimicking Bruce Lee’s famous yells. The surreal mix of OTT fighting and serious story is as enjoyably bizarre as it is in the Yakuza series. But I wasn’t sure why we needed a battle system at all in a detective game, especially if the intention is to offer something “completely different” from the Yakuza series. The good news is that if you persevere, the Project Judge demo does indeed offer many new elements.

In the roughly 30-minute demo (which I played through three times), only a small bit of investigation gameplay can be experienced, but what is there is great fun.

As Yagami, it was my task to tail a rival detective – but first I had to identify him. The game entered first-person mode, with a fixed perspective; comparing nearby NPC bystanders against a list of identifying features of the target and a pencil sketch, we picked him out from several bizarrely similar-looking suspects, like a Where’s Waldo game.

The epic stories Yakuza’s developers want to deliver are still told through comical and ridiculous gameplay sequences.

It made me realize that even with this new approach, the epic stories Yakuza’s developers want to deliver are still told through comical and ridiculous gameplay sequences. That happens to be one of my favorite traits of the Yakuza series, so the lack of reality didn’t bother me, but those in search of a serious detective drama may be left disappointed.

After successfully identifying my target, it was time to start tailing him. Following a character without being noticed is something games have been doing for a long time, and Project Judge’s tailing adds little to no fresh elements to that type of gameplay. Its UI lets you know when you are too close to your target or when you will lose them, and you can only take cover behind objects the UI designates, making Project Judge’s tailing a very casual form of stealth gameplay. That being said, the presentation is top-notch. Yagami hides behind Kamurocho’s neon sign-boards, ducks behind cars or pretends that he’s looking at his smartphone while spying on his target.

The character modelling is superb: For those familiar with actor Kimura, it’s like seeing a Madame Tussauds wax sculpture come to life. This might not translate for players in the West, but as someone who has lived almost half my life in Japan, controlling Kimura quickly became the biggest appeal of the demo for me.

The use of slow-motion and well-implemented jumps and rolls show that the Yakuza team is putting a high emphasis on presentation

The chase sequence that followed after I had successfully tailed the detective had a similar feel to it. Running through Kamurocho’s streets at full speed, I was confronted by simple QTE inputs when Yagami was about to bump into an NPC or when he had to jump over the bicycle the detective had thrown at him. The use of slow-motion and well-implemented jumps and rolls show that the Yakuza team is putting a high emphasis on presentation, neatly putting together a gameplay sequence that feels like a scene from an action movie.

I wasn’t wholly impressed by the systems and mechanics Project Judge’s demo introduced in general. But its presentation and direction made me want to continue my journey as Takuya Kimura’s Takayuki Yagami more than any demo in recent memory. According to the gameplay trailer that Sega put out, the full game will be somewhat of a mix between Yakuza, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, LA Noire and even a bit of Metal Gear Solid. It all depends on what the balance between those different gameplay styles will be like. If the Yakuza elements will be tuned a little bit down compared to the demo, it will at least be easier to see the new experience Nagoshi and his team are trying to create.

Esra Krabbe is an editor at IGN Japan. He is not a lawyer, but he does know karate.

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