An American ninja kept following me around downtown Tokyo. He crept along walls, interrupted a game of darts, and demanded a formal dual. After I defeated him, he started fighting alongside me. Now, whenever I get into a brawl on the street (a surprisingly frequent occurrence in Tokyo) a white dude in full ninja gear leaps into the fray. His name is Ryan, and he throws ninja stars at my enemies.
The misadventures of Ryan Acosta, an American ninja in Japan, is just one of the silly stories that populates the world of Judgement. Judgement, available now for the PlayStation 4, is a spinoff of the long-running Yakuza franchise — a series of open-world games in which players explore the Kamurocho district of Tokyo getting into fights and helping out the locals.
The Yakuza games are a huge hit in Japan, but they’re not exactly newbie-friendly. There are seven of them, all interconnected and telling a continuous story. But unlike the other titles, Judgement is a perfect entry point for western audiences — it allows new players to jump into the action without having to worry about seven games worth of background. Though it’s set in the same place, and uses the same systems, its story is separate from the rest of the franchise.
Judgement tells the story of Takayuki Yagami, a disgraced lawyer turned private eye with deep connections to Kamurocho’s criminal underworld. Players must untangle the mystery of a serial killer and a power struggle within the Yakuza crime syndicate. It’s an open-world action RPG with real-time combat that feels like an arcade fighting game. Yagami solves cases by gathering evidence, tailing suspects, and interrogating criminals. Along the way, he eats at restaurants, gets to know the locals, and plays mini-games such as darts, drone races, and mahjong. Every action you take in Judgement feeds into RPG systems that improve Yagami’s abilities. Every meal consumed, side quest finished, and mini-game played gave me skill points I spent to learn new fighting moves and make investigations easier.
My instinct is to compare Judgement to the most recent Grand Theft Auto titles. Both are open-world games littered with activities, both are geared towards player freedom, and both tell stories about organized crime. But Grand Theft Auto’s worlds are sprawling, whereas Judgement is dense — just like the real-world Tokyo. You don’t need a car to get across Kamurocho; its open world covers what would be just a few city blocks in GTA. But Judgement’s Kamurocho is teaming with life in a way Grand Theft Auto’s cities aren’t. GTA often feels lonely — Judgement never does.
And whereas Grand Theft Auto is geared towards destruction, mayhem and murder, Judgement pushes players to behave. Its Non-Player Characters (NPCs) legitimately feel alive, making me feel more protective of them. Every shopkeep and food vendor is unique and many have stories to tell and problems they wanted me to solve. Often, these problems are small — I helped a hotel coffee shop barista practice her English, schooled a sushi chef’s assistant on how to communicate with his boss, and gave my landlady feedback on her cooking.
Despite their less-than-grandiose nature, these side quests, minor cases, and mini-games create a sense of community and place I never experienced in a Grand Theft Auto game. Yagami’s reputation in Kamurocho builds as he assists people, and the more I helped them, the more they helped me. Friends I made greeted me on the street. A restaurant owner tossed me a bottle of hot sauce in the middle of a fight and I used it to blind an attacker. When gangsters attack, the pedestrians gather around and cheer me on. And always, Ryan the American ninja appeared to help me take on the tougher groups. It felt good.
Grand Theft Auto games are incredible sandboxes and technical marvels. They’re also nihilistic stories about destruction and decay that satirize the American dream. Judgement, and by extension the Yakuza games, are about harmony. Instead of tearing down a sandbox world, I learned to become a part of it.