Judgment preview: Yakuza spin-off speaks our language

After over 14 years of the Yakuza series, Toshihiro Nagoshi and his team have decided to do something new, even if at first glance it doesn’t seem to fall far from the tree. Inspired by Japanese television legal detective dramas, Judgment is still set in the same fictionalised Tokyo red light district of Kamurocho, and you’ll still find yourself getting into brawls on its streets with brutally over-the-top panache.

So the initial surprise comes from what you can hear. This distinctly Japanese cast in a very Japanese location are speaking in English.

It’s not the first time English has been spoken on the streets of Kamurocho – that would be the very first Yakuza on PS2. However, Sega opted to leave subsequent entries in its original audio with subtitles, and for good reason.

When a series is focused on giving a realistic depiction of modern Japanese society, English audio doesn’t just jar with the experience but at worst can remind you of the unintentionally funny bad dubs in old foreign films, or Shenmue (“I see…”).

But with the bar of voice-acting in games rising in intervening decades, perhaps it’s time to cast aside prejudices against an English dub. “This was literally the perfect time to do it,” says Scott Strichart, localisation producer for Judgment.

“After spending over 10 years with Kiryu’s story arc in Yakuza, tacking on English to the end in Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, or in the middle of it with Yakuza Kiwami 2, wouldn’t have been the right call. Judgment introduces an entirely new cast, which is what was really the impetus for us to give this a shot.”

There’s still an initial awkwardness seeing these Japanese faces speaking in English, and in the case of protagonist, disgraced lawyer turned low-rent detective Takayuki Yagami, that face is Takuya Kimura, a hugely popular television and film actor (and pop singer to boot) in his native country.

Yagami is voiced and modelled after actor Takuya Kimura, a huge star in Japan. Whether he’ll gain new fans in the West remains to be seen.

Yet, after a couple of hours with the English build, it feels as natural as ever, whether you’re exchanging banter with your partner Kaito or interrogating local Yakuza boss, Hamura.

The cast consists of voice-acting veterans, including alumni of past Sega and Atlus’ anime titles, such as Matt Mercer, Yuri Lowenthal, and Cherami Leigh, while Greg Chun takes the lead role of Yagami, although Strichart is keen to point out a difference between voicing for anime and a more realistic game.

“We established early on that this wasn’t an anime game, and that being the case, none of the characters should fall into traditional anime trope voices,” he explains. “I think every cast member was pretty excited to be involved on a project that asked them to bring a more grounded acting style to the table.”

Even when exercising some restraint, voice actors still have an advantage over casting celebrity talent, as in the original Yakuza, which featured the likes of Mark Hamill, Michael Madsen, and Eliza Dushku. “You can put an on-camera actor behind a mic and get a great performance out of them,” says Strichart.

“But what happens when they also need to match Japanese lip flap, or say a line like, “Higashi-san just cruised past some Kansai thugs on Tenkaichi Street,” or finish their line within less than a second’s tolerance of the Japanese actor? These are the skills that voice actors have been cultivating since anime in the West became a thing, and I would take that skill set every day over talent that has generally not had to work with those caveats.”

For Yakuza fans, there’s a comfort in exploring the familiar streets of Kamurocho. The Club Sega arcade remains a highlight.

As with the Yakuza series, Judgment also likes to indulge in some lengthy but well-acted cutscenes with close-ups to emphasise character’s emotions, which means those lip flaps are especially noticeable if the voice doesn’t match. Save for one line early on where a character’s delivery sounds deliberately slow in order to match, the initial hours are proof that the localisation team’s hard work is paying off.

What’s peculiar is that the team has made a conscious decision not to translate everything entirely. During this demo, I’m surprised that the thugs I fight still taunt me in Japanese, and when I walk into the local Poppo convenience store the clerk still greets me with “Irasshaimase” – ironically, several of these clerks are actually foreigners.

“No matter what language you play this game in, it’s still set in a modern-day depiction of a shady Tokyo suburb. It’s probably going to be jarring to some people, and I totally accept that,” Strichart admits. “Going to Japan without an understanding of the language would be jarring too, and that’s where our game takes you, so there should be a sense of something being kind of foreign for the majority out there. Players will never forget where this game takes place, and that’s working as intended.”

Kaito is an associate at Yagami’s detective agency. He’s also ex-Tojo, which explains how he’s better at solving problems with his fists.

The good news for any die-hard otaku reading this who just wants to experience everything in its original form is that that choice is there, too. Judgment includes dual audio options, which has become much more standardised with Japanese releases, either in the final product or as free DLC.

But going beyond the call, the game has actually been localised in English twice. Addressing the often glaring issue of ‘dubtitles’, there’s English subtitles for the English audio and another track that accurately translates the words and tempo of the Japanese audio.

With a focus on cutscenes, brawls, and archaic mechanics like QTEs, it’s too early in these opening hours to say whether Judgment will be a meaningful break from the Yakuza series – though who can say no to the latest/classic distractions at the local arcade?

But from a localisation standpoint that can attract a wider mainstream audience while remaining faithful to its core fanbase, the verdict is one of unanimous approval.

Judgment’s Western release will be edited to remove actor Pierre Taki’s voicework and likeness following his arrest for cocaine possession. The release date hasn’t changed.

Genre: Action / Adventure
Format: PS4
Developer: Ryu ga Gotoku Studio
Publisher: Sega
Release: 25 June 2019

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