As I recently wrote in another article, it's a good time to be a fan of Ryu ga Gotoku/Yakuza Studio. In the last two years, we've seen Western releases for Yakuza 0, Yakuza Kiwami, Yakuza 6, and Yakuza Kiwami 2. Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise is right around the corner. And Sega and Ryu ga Gotoku Studio recently announced Judge Eyes: Shinigami no Yuigon for release in Japan on PlayStation 4 this year. The game will also be heading West in 2019, with the current placeholder title of Project Judge.
Judge Eyes is notable for two reasons. One, it was announced as a new IP for the studio, which has been mostly working on Yakuza games all this time. Their last original title was Binary Domain, released PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC back in 2012. Two, the game stars popular Japanese actor Takuya Kimura. Kimura is a household name in Japan—known by the nickname Kimutaku—having been a member of the boy band SMAP since 1988. Since his debut, he's starred in countless popular Japanese dramas and films, including Long Vacation, Hero, Good Luck, Howl's Moving Castle, Space Battleship Yamato, and Redline.
Ryu ga Gotoku Studio has worked with famous actors on previous Yakuza titles, with notable examples including Takeshi Kitano and Oguri Shun in Yakuza 6: The Song of Life. This is the first time that an actor is starring in one of the studio's titles though and Kimura is big enough in Japan to boost Judge Eyes' profile there.
Alongside the announcement, Sega released a demo of Judge Eyes on the Japanese PlayStation Network. A recent convert to the Yakuza series during the current zeitgeist, I immediately spun up a Japanese PSN account and downloaded the demo. So does the teaser entice and excite?
Judge Eyes is the story of Takayuki Yagami, a former defense attorney. Three years ago—the game takes place in 2018—Yagami was a hotshot, upstanding lawyer who was able get his client acquitted on a murder charges. Unfortunately for him, that client turned around, murdered his girlfriend and set her apartment on fire. The crime tarnished Yagami's reputation, leading him to his current career as a private detective. Now a serial killer is going to require all of Yagami's investigative and fighting skills to capture.
That's not really the point of the demo though. In the demo, Yagami is trailing a suspect with the aid of his aggressive partner Kaito-san. And if you've played a Yakuza game, his stomping grounds will be pretty familiar to you. Yeah, Yagami is a private detective in Kamurocho, the district of Tokyo found in a number of Yakuza titles.
In fact, if you've played Yakuza 6, it seems to be the exact same map. A Reddit user compiled side-by-side images showing that signs, stores, and even the position of objects like traffic cones and cars haven't changed much in the two years since Yakuza 6 took place. If you're wondering how Ryu ga Gotoku Studio is pumping out all these titles, asset reuse is a part of the process.
Yagami himself also has a familiar fighting style. He's a bit lighter on his feet than Kiryu—some fans of older games says he plays a bit like Akiyama in Yakuza 5—but if you've played a Yakuza game before, you'll be right at home here, with basic attacks, quicksteps, grabs, and Heat Actions (called EX Actions here) working largely the same. Style switching is back from Yakuza 0 and Kiwami. Yagami even reuses a Heat Action animation or two; I noticed one where he did a flying drop with trash can onto a fallen enemy, which you can find point-for-point in Yakuza 6. He's also got a few new moves though, like a wicked spinning soccer kick with the same trash can.
Given the combat system and the basic layout of Kamurocho, Judge Eyes feels more like a Yakuza spin-off rather than an entirely new IP. There are some new gameplay mechanics that I'll talk about in a bit, but overall, this demo feels rather familiar. What you gain over spin-offs like Dead Souls or Ishin is an entirely new cast and a slightly different aesthetic. The developer seems to be going for a more washed-out, noir-style look for Judge Eyes, compared to the brighter colors and high contrast of the recent Yakuza games.
Theere are some mechanics that seek to truly differentiate Judge Eyes from Yakuza. In the demo, after your first fight, you've given a quick spin on a few of these different ideas. There's investigation, which sees you looking around a crowd for your target given only a picture, or noticing different objects in a scene that might be important. There's also trailing, which has Yagami following his target while trying to stay out of sight. Hitting Circle while following sees you quickly duck into cover out of sight of your target, whether that's behind a sign or blending in with a crowd.
Finally, there's a chase sequence that's mostly quick-time event (QTE) driven. You have to hit the correct button and analog stick prompts to avoid crowds, leap over barriers, or dodge objects thrown at you by your target. This is not entirely new of course, as chase battles and scenes were in earlier Yakuza titles. Judge Eyes' version seems to offer less overall control outside of hitting the QTEs, favoring look and presentation over fine player control.
What's a shame is that some of the more interesting mechanics that Ryu ga Gotoku Studio has shown off in trailers and a lengthy 50 minute presentation aren't available in the demo. Disguises, infiltration, searching for clues, photo surveillance, and evidence presentation don't factor into this relatively short demo. The pitch for Judge Eyes is a mix between Yakuza and Capcom's Ace Attorney games—there's even a spot in the gameplay trailer that looks like a callout to the familiar "Objection" pose—but this demo leans firmly on the Yakuza side of that divide.
One thing I do love about the overall presentation of Judge Eyes is that it feels like a Japanese drama. It's somewhat hard to explain if you don't watch j-drama, but the demo ends with the Judge Eyes theme song, Arpeggio by the band Alexandros. The song plays over credits of the cast (shown below) and it feels like a number of other openings for Japanese thrillers on TV. As an example, here's the opening song of Signal, a Japanese crime drama (a remake of the Korean thriller of the same name). You can see similar styles of composition in both openings. I'm hoping the developer plays up this idea in the final game. (Also, it's a damn good theme song.)
I'm looking forward to seeing the full scope of the new detective-themed mechanics, because that's where Judge Eyes will really differentiate itself. This demo largely sells itself on "more Yakuza". I wouldn't be surprised if the final title of the game on our shores is Judge Eyes: A Yakuza Story or Yakuza: Eyes of Judgment to play up the connection. And I certainly wouldn't put it out of the question to see brief cameos of familiar Yakuza characters like Akiyama.
Judge Eyes is coming out in Japan for PlayStation 4 on December 13, 2018. The Western release, Project Judge, is coming some time in 2019.