- Spoiler: show
23/08 - Judgment
I had a couple of reservations about this game but in the end I came away liking it a lot. Another game in the Yakuza mold that hits all of the same notes that makes those games great, but this time with a slightly different feel that helps it stand out among the rest.
The main story was really compelling, presenting a really intriguing mystery with lots of twists and turns, and where you can actually sympathise with some of the motivations of the conspirators, at least in understanding why they were willing to go as far as they did. It's interesting too in how they turn around your perception of certain characters through the story as well. Not everyone is who they appear at first, even when it seems pretty cut and dry in one direction. This type of story fits in really well to the style this series goes for. Taking the format that worked so well for a twisting crime drama full of betrayal and conspiracy works very well for a murder mystery which deals with a lot of the same kinds of plots, just where it happens on the other side of the law for once.
The characters are generally as colourful and enjoyable as ever, except this time things are a bit more subdued, with the tone of the game being a bit more down to earth, albeit only somewhat. I was really surprised to find that I preferred the English dub over the original Japanese though. After trying them out around the halfway point I decided to just keep them on for the rest of it. The main character, Yagami, is actually kind of dull in the original dub, and it was having a pretty big impact on the overall enjoyability of the game. It might have something to do with the more muted tone combined with the language barrier, but I'm not sure that covers it entirely. The dialogue for the dub is actually different, and I think it added a lot more colour and personality to things. I'm inclined to say that wasn't really there in the subtitled dialogue in Japanese. It could have easily been there, given that was never a problem with these games before. So I genuinely think that at least a large part of this is simply down to the Japanese characterisation of Yagami not being very good, and the localisation team actually adding in more personality than was originally there. The English voices did always feel a little bit strange though. While the performances are all good, it never really stopped feeling odd to have a game that was so strongly creating a realistic looking Japanese setting where all the characters speak in very obvious American accents, in that very particular style you hear in a lot of anime and other games. It stopped bothering me after a short while, but I never stopped noticing it. On balance it was a better experience though.
Gameplay was generally very good, but it had a few missteps. The basic combat is good as ever, like most of this series. Really crunchy with a good heft, with lots of fun and silly context-sensitive moves to do. And the issue these Dragon Engine games have had of feeling like you can't properly control the direction of your attacks is finally solved here completely. It was already mostly fixed to the point of not really being an issue in Kiwami 2, but I feel like here they improved it just that bit more to completely eradicate the problem. The two combat styles are fun, but feel a bit imbalanced between each other. The more single enemy focused Tiger style gets far more fleshed out than the crowd control Crane style. Tiger gets a lot more moves, and has a unique mechanic where you can charge individual hits. So it feels like there's a lot more variety there, and much more choice about how you approach a fight, compared to Crane, which is still fun and useful in a lot of cases, but generally doesn't evolve beyond basic mashing of square and triangle.
The new mechanics that are supposed to be part of Yagami's skills as a detective aren't that interesting. They're not irritating or bad, but they feel like somewhat pointless busywork when they show up. Tailing suspects, lockpicking, and safe cracking are all done in a pretty unimaginative way that doesn't add much to the experience overall. The QTE chase sequences are okay though. They aren't as simple as they appear, as in some of them you do have to make sure to weave between obstacles that you don't get a QTE to just bypass. They also front-load these mechanics near the beginning of the game. They never really stop happening through the whole game, but they become increasingly rare after the opening few chapters, presumably because they want to sell you on the idea that this isn't your usual Yakuza game. When in reality, it pretty much is.
Side activities were fun at first, but I got tired of them after a while and didn't bother with them much in the last third of the game or so. While the side-investigations that take the place of substories this time around were all good and fun, the drone racing and "VR" minigame lost their appeal after a while. They were fun to begin with, but after a while they start feeling like more trouble than they're worth. This is something that also affects combat upgrades somewhat too. They end up requiring you to jump through several hoops to unlock upgrades that are a pain to do. Like to unlock the best drone parts to be competitive towards the later races, you need to not only find a bunch of hidden QR codes hiding around the city, but also collect a bunch of rare crafting parts to build it, that you either need to win in the casino, or spend stupid amounts of money to just buy. It requires you to go way too far out of your own way to be worth bothering with. Although the early drone races, and the VR game thing, are both pretty fun in themselves before they start demanding silly things of you. Luckily this isn't the main meat of the game though and can be more or less forgotten about.
So overall a very fun time, albeit with some minor caveats. I was a bit worried towards the start of the game that this one might be a dud, and when I wasn't gelling with Yagami I was wondering if I had finally run out of steam for this series. But thankfully no, this one turned out pretty well in the end. I'd put it somewhere in the middle in my ranking of the series, although I haven't thought about where its exact place would be. But I'm still on this train and looking forward to playing more. Although my next time visiting Kamurocho will probably be with that newly released Yakuza 3 remaster. But not yet. I'll be waiting for the physical release that comes out as part of the bundle next year, just as I was hoping it would.