Review: Lost Judgment: The Kaito Files

10 Apr 2022

I’ll be honest, I loved damn near everything about Lost Judgment. I’m pretty sure my review of the base game made that point glaringly obvious. With any game in the Yakuza franchise, it’s almost always packed to the gills with content. That reason alone usually deters the addition of new story content with each title, especially with the density of writing within each release.

Because of this, having additional story content brought in as DLC for this franchise is simultaneously surprising and puzzling, especially up against the drama that sprouted from the now nonexistent possibility of either of the games in this spinoff franchise making their way to PC at all. Having the likeness rights of Takuya Kimura being held hostage by his publicity company (Johnny and Associates) essentially kneecapped the plans of retaining the beat-’em-up gameplay in this series while the main franchise was to continue in more of a JRPG direction.

Having this drama in mind sets the stage for what may happen to the Judgment franchise as a whole. Will they essentially can the series over likeness rights of a publicity company who refuses to understand the concept of porting games to non console platforms, or will they move the franchise forward with another protagonist altogether? This dilemma is frustrating for fans who really took a liking to the happenings at the Yagami Detective Agency, as the already planned DLC is now put in an awkward position. What might have started out as a neat little idea to expand the characterization of Yagami’s right hand man now stands as a potential escape hatch to continue the series, if they even decide to move forward with new titles at all.

I doubt the overall Yakuza franchise will be fizzling out anytime soon. But that doesn’t change the fact that fans that latched onto these two games will feel short changed because of something they can’t really control. It would be great to see more games featuring these characters, but at this point it may just be a better play to enjoy what we’ve already received. Depressing as that sounds, I went in excited to see what they did with our boy Kaito.

Developed by Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios and published by SEGA, Lost Judgment: The Kaito Files released on March 28, 2022 on PS4/PS5 and Xbox One/Xbox Series X | S. The PS5 version was played for this review.

Ghosts of the Past

Months after the events of Lost Judgment, we find Kaito wrapping up an assignment with Hoshino involving a rival detective agency. Upon completion, Yagami informs Kaito via text that he’s tied up with an assignment elsewhere, ultimately leaving our boy to kill a little time at Tender to throw back a few.

When he arrives, there’s a commotion right outside the place involving the death of a CEO. The bartender, Jo, lets Kaito know that a different CEO is looking to hire him for a hefty sum. With Higashi in tow back at Agency, the “living legend” Kyoya Sadamoto humbly requests for him to track down his missing wife. What may seem like a simple missing persons request at first quickly becomes more complicated. Sadamoto’s wife turns out to be an old flame of Kaito’s, and it’s been widely reported that she committed suicide some time ago. Adding another layer is that their son, Jun, eventually comes into play after Kaito turns Kyoya down. Thoroughly convinced that his mother is still alive somehow, he cockily (and desperately) wants to confirm that with who he also seems to think is his father.

While we do get the type of layered plot progression you see in many other Yakuza games, I found myself primarily concerned with how the story gives depth to the titular character in question. In both Judgment games, he’s the lovable himbo that’s more than happy to bust chops when the time calls for it. But here, he gets a little more room to expand his characterization well past being Yagami’s right hand muscle. It also serves as a way to test the waters to see how he handles himself as a lead character. Anyone who’s played either game knows damn well how entertaining he can be, so his ability to carry even a small four chapter expansion (with a playtime rivaling some full AAA releases) shouldn’t come as a surprise.

The thing that impresses me is not only the tight writing, but the increased pace in comparison to other games in the franchise. Nary a moment seems to be wasted here, as Kaito’s past starts to tightly weave into the case he reluctantly found himself taking on. Much of this unfolds in classic Yakuza fashion, but it’s also worth mentioning how crucial Jun is in all of this. When you first meet him, he’s your typical hotheaded annoying teenager eager to simultaneously prove himself and also find his seemingly dead mother. Once Kaito starts peeling back the layers of his past with Jun in tow, it starts to become clear as to why the latter was so desperate to find her in the first place.

Really, the density of everything surrounding the story is a highlight for me. It wouldn’t be a game in the Yakuza franchise without it. In a way, it feels like RGG missed a memo somewhere that this was a story DLC and not a full-on game. While it is shorter than you’d expect from a full release, the execution feels on par from what you’d expect from something bigger despite its smaller scale. Characters are given the right amount of exposition, things are clearly explained, and things feel purposeful for the most part. The focus on the main story is so tight that substories are completely absent.

Given my history with the franchise, I should be used to how things play out. But it goes to show that RGG knows how to write a good story, and the more grounded nature of the Judgment franchise really lends itself to that. Sure, you get a little bit of the trademark silliness you’d expect from any game in the franchise. But watching Kaito’s complicated past in the Matsugane family seamlessly weave into the plot never failed to reel me in with every twist and turn along the way. Seeing the brawn of the duo show a little heart along the way didn’t hurt, either.

Once again, I found myself engrossed with the story being told here thanks to the rock-solid writing throughout my playthrough. I’m usually pretty sensitive to the kind of storytelling that tends to over rely on lazier elements or things that feel out of place, and for a first stab at a more focused story I feel really good about how things unfolded from beginning to end. Save for a few weird moments that end up being glossed over in service to the plot, I quite enjoyed what amounts to a successful trial run for Kaito. Regardless of what the future holds story-wise for these characters, it’s not a bad way to cap off Lost Judgment‘s total package. While I would have liked the plot to include some segments in Ijincho for gameplay reasons, the story told here is good enough that I can overlook that.

Mack Truck Sleuthin’

In a way, playing as Kaito feels like a weird return to form. This is partially due to how similar he is to a certain Dragon of Dojima in terms of overall gameplay. When you’re out hitting the streets of Kamurocho, it’s not too far off from what you’re going to find in the base game. Given that this is DLC, that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. However, given the more focused nature of the gameplay here, there’s a lot more emphasis on progressing the story than with the scale of goofing around you tend to do in most classic style Yakuza games.

The classic gameplay loop seen is still here, obviously. But you’re not going to be looking around for the absent substories or expect the total amount of side activates to be on par with what you can do in the base game. While there are unique side activities specific to this content, goofing around with everything in Kamurocho is expected to be done in the main game through Premium Adventure. The game even tells you as much before you finish the story.

What is here is a Kaito-specific twist on the classic Yakuza gameplay loop. Tailing and stealthing are present (thankfully in limited quantities), but here there’s a lot more emphasis on the Active Search portions. This is primarily due to the “primal” skills that you can use throughout his story. Dubbed Primal Ear, Primal Eye, and Primal Nose respectively, they add an additional layer to search portions with varying degrees of success.

What it really boils down to is that you’re going to be using a couple more senses in these segments to suss out plot specific clues and such. You’re expected to use each of these during searches, and most of the time it works pretty well. Though most of the time it boils down to “switch to a sense and find the specific visual cue,” it’s not lazily implemented. It makes the search portions a little more interesting, I’ll give it that. Though there are times where segments made sense for plot reasons, but didn’t exactly help the pace. It does have use in the field as well, as Kaito will often catch a whiff or say that he heard something that seemed off. Most of the time, it’s just a collectible or a cat. But I guess they felt the need to put a unique side activity in with how much they scaled back on the distractions this time around.

Combat is where longtime fans will find themselves making the most comparisons to Kiryu. In comparison to Yagami, Kaito’s Bruiser and Tank styles are a bit meatier in comparison to the former’s Tiger/Crane/Snake styles. Though if you’ve played Yakuza 0 (and you really should), you’re going to draw immediate comparisons to Kiryu’s Brawler and Beast styles. In a different circumstance where Judgment games weren’t the torch bearer to bare knuckle fighting, I might have complained. But we live in a world where Kasuga’s JRPG fantasies have taken over the core gameplay of the main series, so this feels like a bit of return to form.

New players will find the return to be a more hard-hitting version of what they experienced with Yagami, but longtime fans may just yearn to play 0 again as a result. This isn’t a bad thing, obviously. Kaito draws many parallels with Kiryu’s own ex-yakuza past. So it makes sense that they share similar fighting styles. Combat is still fun, and most boss fights aren’t a chore to power through. They’ve been using this style of combat since the series started, so to have them to drop the ball at this point would just feel out of character.

Since we haven’t seen Kiryu-style combat since Yakuza Kiwami 2, some might find this a bit on the comforting side since his story arc was given closure in Song of Life. I may be roaming the streets as a different ex-yakuza, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see some fans look to Kaito as the torch bearer (or major playable character) for what I hope are further Judgment titles in the series. The overall gameplay package is about as solid as you’d expect from RGG, even if it occasionally feels slightly secondary to the story. Some may even say it’s a well-sewn security blanket, and that’s not an insult.

Keeping Up Appearances

I’ve learned to expect a certain level of polish when it comes to how RGG handles what’s arguably one of its biggest franchises in the overall Yakuza canon. With Like a Dragon and Lost Judgment, these are games made with the current generation in mind. By extension, Kaito Files can’t help but follow suit from a visual standpoint. When the Dragon Engine games were first released, prior generation hardware had to settle for slower framerates over better visuals. I played this on current generation hardware, which is plenty capable of maintaining at least 60 frames a second on a 4K panel.

Much of what I said about the base game visually speaking still applies here. Though my only real design complaint stems from the story, as the vast majority of it takes place exclusively in Kamurocho. There are brief asides as it relates to the plot, and one specific environment does look rather nice. Despite these limited environments, I can’t help but feel comfortable running around a familiar locale that longtime fans have seen morph over the years. It would have been nice to let Kaito run around Ijincho proper, though. It just feels like a bit of a missed opportunity, but only a little bit.

With much of the main cast returning among some new faces, it’s safe to say that the voice acting here is as well-executed as one would expect. Admittedly, there were scenes with Jun that ended up being a little on the excruciating side. But once the story fully unfolded, it felt like Paul Castro Jr. started to find his legs in his performance. It didn’t always hit for me, but that’s not to say that there wasn’t something to appreciate from what his character brought to the table. Seeing returning members play off of each other was quite nice, too.

Nothing really stuck with me from a music angle, but that isn’t to say that anything here was especially bland. Oftentimes it just fit the moment, and that’s what I tend to expect at a base level anyway. Longtime fans may prefer the Japanese dub that the overall series is known for, but I find the English voice cast to be a perfectly serviceable performance.

Closed Fists, Open Heart

If I’m making it sound like Kaito Files feels like it could have been a smaller separate release, it’s because it has all the trappings of testing the waters for something bigger. You’re getting the attention to detail and density one may expect from a full Judgment release but suddenly scaled down so as to not overshadow the base game. It’s not very often that we see DLC come from RGG, but it’s comforting to know that they’re putting their full effort into their projects regardless of scale.

Taken as a complete package, Lost Judgment and The Kaito Files serves as one of the best story offerings I can think of in recent memory. With as fantastic as the former’s story was, I’m overjoyed that the story in the latter at least maintains (and often exceeds) the standard we’ve come to expect from Ryu Ga Gotoku. While the somewhat steep price tag might be a bit high for DLC, the densely packed narrative and trademark gameplay helps take the edge off. It proves that Kaito is more than capable of carrying a story, and I can’t wait to see what his future holds.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

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