Review: Lost Judgment

28 Sep 2021

I think it’s pretty well known by now that SEGA is none too shy about how much they’re leaning into all aspects of the Yakuza franchise. Which is great, because lately the main franchise and now the Judgment side of things were supposed to have split off into two separate playstyles. Last year’s Yakuza: Like a Dragon shed the Dragon of Dojima as the protagonist, gave us the Dragon Quest loving Ichiban Kasuga, changed up the gameplay to JRPG style (with great results as far as I’m concerned), and shook up the very foundation of the power structure that Kiryu was fighting in for seven games.

That gameplay shift suddenly put the spotlight on Takayuki Yagami and his detective exploits. The plan when this gameplay split started was to retain the JRPG gameplay in the main series and have the Judgment games hold onto the beat-’em-up style the main series has been using for years. However, it’s been well documented by this point that this plan and the Judgment franchise itself may be in jeopardy thanks to some likeness rights and an agency (Johnny & Associates) used by the model actor for Yagami not seeming to understand modern technology and the fact that some Yakuza fans may actually want to play this on PC.

Despite all this, we were lucky enough to be able to get our hands on Lost Judgment even with all of this behind the scenes drama. I still dig Yagami as a protagonist. Quite a bit in fact. Depending on how things continue to shake out behind the scenes, I might not want to get to attached to him.

Developed by Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios and published by SEGA, Lost Judgment released on PS4/PS5/Xbox One/Xbox Series X | S worldwide on September 24, 2021. The PS5 version was played for this review.

Return of the Punchy Detective

December 2021. Isezaki Ijincho. Flares are set off in an abandoned building in the vast Yokohama district, and the fire department is sent to investigate. Upon discovering there’s no fire in the building, they stumble upon a large tarp obscuring something that’s supposed to be uncovered. Slipping the tarp off reveals a rotting corpse that’s been sitting there for quite a long time. Meanwhile, in a seemingly unrelated incident, a man standing to be charged for a lesser crime of groping on a commuter train reveals the location and name of the corpse in question. It just so happens that the middle-aged ex-cop is a case being handled by Genda Law Firm, specifically Saori Shrirosaki, flanked by fellow lawyer Issei Hoshino.

Meanwhile in Kamurocho, Yagami and fellow detective Kaito are wrapping up an unrelated case when it’s revealed that the athletic Sugiura and techy Tsukomo have opened up their own detective agency in Yokohama. It’s there they convince their older counterparts to take on a case offered by a local private high school to investigate any instances of bullying. With Yagami and Kaito taking point in the initial infiltration, it’s there that they begin to peel back the layers of not only what they were charged with completing, but also digging deep into how some people that were seemingly unrelated to the issue suddenly becoming very relevant to the case with quite a bit of weight.

If you’ve played any of the prior Yakuza or Judgment games, you know what you’re getting into here. Given the events of Like a Dragon, there are elements that do kind of irk me a little bit. Yes, there are local yakuza families that are involved in the plot in some form or fashion. Sure, the events from Kasuga’s story might not be especially relevant here. But you’re offering up a murder mystery wrapped up in what’s trying to be a warning about bullying in high school as the central focus here. That central focus is what I prefer to keep my eyes glued to when I play, because it’s the most compelling part of the plot. They may not be as prevalent to the plot as in prior games in the franchise, but it feels like they had to be here because it’s a Yakuza spinoff.

That said, the main plot is about as overcomplicated and tightly written as you could expect from the people at Ryu Ga Gotoku. Though instead of the usual power struggles you see from the main series, the murder mystery tentpole supported by the “anime in a high school” angle does feel a bit weird but somehow works. Never mind the fact that Yagami has to angle his way into the school to complete the investigation in the punchiest way possible at times.

Since we’re dealing with bullying as a central theme here, it does feel at times that RGG walks up to the line of understanding the issue but walking back at certain points. Case in point, the group of kids at the Seiryo High Basketball Club. While they do get some development, right off the bat these people are written as the biggest monsters so as to establish that bullying is bad. For anyone who’s actually ever been in the crosshairs of that, it’s awful. I’m not expecting the most depth when I walk in, but those first impressions do let off a sour taste when you’re trying to be serious with the subject matter.

Another theme prevalent here is the perception of what justice should be, compared to what it actually is throughout the story. While a lot of this is driven by Yagami’s own perception of justice through much of his detective work, we do see the layers peeled back on how certain instances of bullying are handled in this specific Japanese high school. Much like the murder mystery surrounding it, sometimes the treatment of certain students just aren’t fair. Linking this subject matter in with the plot is a tedious balancing act that does wobble on occasion. It only does so because sometimes it walks up to the line of a home run. Instead, the overall plot feels more like a stand-up double or even a triple at times (forgive the baseball metaphor, it’s meant to be a compliment).

That isn’t to say that they didn’t keep themselves busy with the usual total tonal switch in the bog-standard side stories that litter Kamurocho and Ijincho. Per usual, your enjoyment will hinge on how much you enjoy certain tropes prevalent in a lot of Japanese-based media. Some of it is genuinely fun to experience, but others can be extremely rote and played out. While I’m at it, I’m aware I’m talking about a Japanese developer leaning on tired ecchi tropes here. But could we at least get one side story or something that doesn’t involve a guy trying to be a perv? We already have a central antagonist using that angle as part of the central plot, so having some dude using birdwatching as an excuse to steal panties just feels a bit much even with the usual tonal shifts these games are known for.

However, RGG felt it necessary to go ahead and add another set of side stories to experience within Seiryo High. True to “anime in a Japanese high school” form, there are a number of after school clubs you can take part in while also experiencing that club’s unique storyline. In a way, think of it as a bigger set of substories wrapped up in numerous minigames attached to each one. Most of these are best experienced fresh. But if making your way through at least one of the ten clubs featured here sounds like something that you’d dig, they’re ready for you to wrap your head around.

True to form, RGG knows how to tell a compelling story. Though weaving in certain Ijincho yakuza families does feel clunkily implemented and seem to exist to remind people that this is still a Yakuza spinoff, I have yet to have RGG let me down in the main plot department.

Be a Detective, Solve Crimes, Get Distracted

One unfortunate side effect of Like a Dragon is the fact that its core gameplay does not share the same DNA as its forebears at all, but absolutely could if they really wanted to continue to make more games like that. Because of this, there’s a bit more pressure for the more traditional gameplay seen in the original release of Judgment to continue to with this specific gameplay loop. Make no mistake, I feel like the change in gameplay in Like a Dragon made sense in context. Kasuga is a big fan of JRPGs and envisions all of his fights like one. It just so happens that gameplay surrounding it was compelling enough to give it some credence.

Sadly, that means that the combat in Lost Judgment has become the torch bearer for the combat system fans came to know and love in the Kiryu Saga. Admittedly, I was expecting the combat to at least meet what it was in the original game. I feel confident in saying that throwing down in traditional Yakuza fashion is as competent as it ever could be, and even that feels like a bit of an undersell. Combat just feels good. Perhaps that is a result of RGG feeling extremely comfortable in the Dragon Engine, maybe it’s the fact that during development they wanted to be sure this game at least held a candle to its forebears. Either way, it definitely steps up to that line. When you’ve been fine tuning a combat system game after game, this sort of thing is unsurprising.

Chase segments are still here and none of it feels all that different. It’s not bad, obviously. But they’re here and they are still competent. What has been updated are the tailing segments. I’ll admit they’re not exactly my favorite segments in Judgment games, but it’s nice to see that RGG at least made an attempt to add some stuff that will help make it a little more interesting. The gist of them is simple: you’re following a given subject within a specific distance while also trying to look inconspicuous in the process. In the last game, it was pretty simplistic and happened pretty often. Here, most of the tailing segments have been trimmed down and replaced with stealth segments. Though they did go ahead and add an option to use acts of subterfuge like checking your phone and tying your shoes for a limited amount of time. Since they were basically everywhere in the original game, it’s nice to see they felt the need to scale it back.

Since the developers did replace much of it with stealth segments, they work out in context. Don’t be expecting Metal Gear Solid type of gameplay, though that mentality will help in certain parts since they seem to have a straight line with their line of sight. Essentially, you’ll be doing the expected sneaking around and using distractions on hand to either slip past or disable your foes in a quiet manner. Most of these are done using predetermined cover points, but they’re definitely a little bit more engaging than the tailing segments. Honestly, they’re still a little bit on the simplistic side. But if I had to choose between this or tailing segments, I’ll take stealth over tailing any day of the week.

New to this game is the Parkour system. Don’t go thinking that this is something along the lines of Mirror’s Edge or its sequel. It’s basically just simple scaling, shimmying, and the occasional jumping of buildings and such. In a sense, it can be used as a means to an end to complete a certain plot thread. The implementation is fine, though they do use the prior Search mode to plot out how to get to the end of where you need to go. Some may consider this super simplistic, but it’s thankfully not something that would get in the way of completion.

The on-the-fly fighting styles of Crane (crowd control) and Tiger (one-on-one) are still represented here, and thankfully feel quite solid. New to the roster is the Snake style, and the best way to describe this is that it’s basically a better version of Tanimura’s reversal style of fighting from Yakuza 4. If you really dig an evasion style of combat, you’ll definitely get it here. I quite enjoy being able to do at least a little bit of crowd control in the midst of boss battles and throwing down against randos on the street. But it’s fun, and its a worthy addition to make. EX moves are still present here, and I often found myself doing quite a few reversal EX moves to help turn the tide in battle.

You’ll be doing the usual gameplay checklist present in traditional Yakuza games otherwise. Traipsing around the game environment is as easy as ever through the plethora of taxis littered throughout both game environments. But this time around non-vehicle traversal isn’t just your feet. Upon completing a certain side story, you’ll gain access to a skateboard that’ll help you roll around the each district as you please (given you stay off the sidewalk, which is finicky). You won’t be dealing with any Tony Hawk style gameplay aside from jumping and grinding around the neighborhood, but it’s a faster method of travel if you’re looking to not just run everywhere.

Not only that, but your gadget/tool arsenal has also expanded from what was featured in the original game (and are still present here). Added to your arsenal are several gadgets on brand for the sleuthing you’re expected to do on these streets. There’s a directional mic similar to what was featured in Metal Gear Solid 2 that can suss out specific audio in specific situations. There’s also an RFID type tracker for looking for items emitting specific radio waves. The best way to describe this from a gameplay perspective is that it’s similar to the Master Emerald shard radar from Sonic Adventure 2. The closer you are to the object you’re searching for, the faster it’ll beep.

However, the cutest “gadget” that you’ll use in your arsenal here would be Ranpo. Dubbed the “Detective Dog,” this adorable Shiba Inu is a just a nut for solving mysteries and will gladly help you around Kamurocho/Ijincho in search of items and the like. He sure makes a great first impression in his introduction side story, and I’m just a sucker for using dogs as a valuable tool in video games in general. Yes, you can pet him. But you can also pet cats at certain points, which is kind of on brand based on the prior game.

Though it wouldn’t be a game set in the Yakuza universe if there wasn’t a plethora of side activities to get you distracted on your way through solving the overall plot. The aforementioned School Stories will have you engaging in minigames in relation to their side stories. For example, the first one you come across in pursuit of the main plot is the Dance Club. Since there’s no karaoke featured in this game (and amusingly Yagami can’t really dance outside of implementing fighting moves into routines), this is a decent replacement for it. If you’ve played dance/Vocaloid rhythm games, this minigame definitely fits the bill. Depending on your preferences, you may also dig the likes of the Boxing, Biker, Robotics Clubs, and so on. True to form for RGG side activities, these can be as engrossing as the main game if you let them. Though your tastes may flavor the enjoyment here. Either way, these are nice additions that are totally on brand for this franchise.

That still didn’t stop the usual addition of full-on versions of classic SEGA games, though. Games that were present in prior titles like Motor Raid, Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown, Space Harrier, and so on are all present and accounted for here in the usual Club SEGA locations. New to the collection here is the Saturn game Fighting Vipers as well as the engine spinoff Sonic the Fighters that has seen limited console releases on modern platforms since its arcade release. Doesn’t really surprise me that they keep including quick completion games in the midst of their main story, but seeing rarities like this can be a treat for old school SEGA fans like myself.

In fact, old school SEGA fans can obtain Master System cartridges and play them back at the Yagami Detective Agency if they’re up for that sort of thing. Playing the likes of Alex Kidd in Miracle World (never mind the recent remake), Woody Pop, Secret Command, Enduro Racer, Quartet, Penguin Land, and so on just keep hitting the value add button in a way not seen as of late in the franchise. I am a little peeved that they felt the need to repeat some of the titles because of their separate Master System and arcade versions. But I guess having the option for one or the other is nice for those who like having that choice.

It doesn’t surprise me at all that the gameplay is a tightly packed affair in all aspects of the game. In between the revised combat, the tweaks to the tailing, addition of stealth, and the usual dearth of side activities make it a tough package to pass up. But really, who’s surprised that a game series known for this sort of thing would continue to pack as much content as they can into their open world games?

From the Shores to the Bright Lights

I know it’s a little weird to keep referencing Like a Dragon so often in a game that is wholly unrelated to the exploits of Yagami and the gang. But it’s worth mentioning here thanks to the work on that game, as a lot of the assets that were used there are being used here as well. Environmentally speaking, it’s about as detailed and robust as that title can and will get. Playing on next gen consoles will give you the buttery smooth framerates that you’re used to seeing by now, given that the last Yakuza game to grace these consoles was absolutely gorgeous in graphical presentation.

Traversing both the familiar Kamurocho and the soon-to-be-familiar Ijincho is an expected feast for the eyes. Part of that could be attributed to the locales being well worn, but it hardly feels like a cut-and-paste job. If there’s one thing worth mentioning here, it’s that the lip synch is not really up to par from the game that preceded it. A minor detail, sure. But now that English dubs are starting to become the norm in these games, people are going to notice it. Regardless, the graphical flash and flair is present and accounted for here and I’m glad that it wasn’t ignored.

Speaking of the English dub, I feel safe in saying that it’s on par with the prior game. Much of the cast that was present for the original game remained for the sequel, and it’s nice to see that most of the delivery from them is good for what it is. If you prefer your Yakuza games with Japanese voice acting instead, it’s here too. Delivery there is par for the course for what you’d expect from most Japanese dubs, so if that’s more you’re speed I’d say go for it. I’m all about choice, so having that available is always welcome.

I really don’t have to worry too much about the presentation of Yakuza games. The care they put into it is readily evident from start to finish and I feel like it would be atypical of them to drop the ball in this department. There have been instances where things aren’t always up to par, I’ll fully admit to that. But graphically speaking it steps up to the hardware it’s developed for, and the audio side of things hardly disappoints unless you’re very critical of certain audio aspects of games coming from Japan. Hardly low-effort, but doesn’t try to do anything super extravagant.

Case Closed

After spending some more time with Yagami and associates, I find myself conflicted about the direction of the series after this. Depending on how things pan out with Johnny’s, this may be the last we see of Yagami or even the Judgment series period. The thought of the series ending because of some behind the scenes drama saddens me, because this game just reinforces my love for these characters and the stories they find themselves in from both of these titles. We may have a bit of an out with the planned story DLC focusing on Kaito, but regardless I would love to see these characters in more stories. Their stories are typical Yakuza flavor, but are really the more grounded affairs in comparison to the exploits of Kiryu and now Ichiban.

I’m not going to be subtle here. I loved this game. I can never walk away from any game in this franchise unsatisfied, and I feel that even with my nitpicks and misgivings that this is a worthy successor to what many have seen as an interesting distraction to the main series. Lost Judgment stands upon the shoulders of its forebears with ease, is a joy to play, tells an intimate story with a (mostly) deft hand, and knows how to value add with the best in the series. This is not only a great sequel, it’s also a great addition in any gamer’s library. Period. Saying this is a must buy is an understatement. It’s a shining example of what a great Yakuza game can be.

~ Final Score: 9/10 ~

Review copy provided by SEGA for PS5. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of SEGA.