My first brush with the Yakuzaverse was Yakuza: Like a Dragon, which quickly became my favourite experience of 2020. After that, I promised myself I’d go back to where the series began, and true to my word I have slowly made my way through Yakuza 0 and Yakuza Kiwami. As a result, I’m in two minds about the series. That common thread of well written characters, interesting twisty storylines and endearing weirdness is present in all of the Yakuza-flavoured titles I’ve played, but in my opinion the turn-based stylings of Like a Dragon trump the brawler gameplay I’ve experienced so far by a country mile. Enter Lost Judgment, a continuation of a spinoff series destined to become the torch bearer for the brawler gameplay the series is traditionally known for, after Ryu Ga Gotoku has declared the mainline Yakuza games are sticking to their new turn-based direction for now. But if anyone’s going to be bearing torches, you’d definitely want it to be this game, because Lost Judgment is a brilliant title with the same melodramatic bravado we’ve seen in other Yakuza games, but with a serious and thoughtful streak anchored by a thoroughly likeable protagonist. Couple this with gameplay that gives you a million and one ways to punch and kick people in every part of their anatomy and you’ve got a recipe for a winner.
I’m in love with anime hair, and that’s ok
In Lost Judgment you’ll play primarily as Yagami, a lawyer turned detective who runs the Yagami Detective Agency in Kamurocho. Yagami is called on by some old friends from the Genda law firm to investigate the simultaneous involvement of a cop in both a train groping incident (apparently this is a common occurrence?) and the violent murder of a local student teacher. The evidence of him getting his grope on, including footage from about eight million security cameras and smartphones, seems pretty ironclad, so how is it he has intimate knowledge of a murder committed at the exact same time as the alleged groping, the sort of knowledge that only the killer would possess? Is he a quantum tunnelling murdering/groping hybrid that can be in two different places at the same time, or is there something more sinister afoot?
From train groping to school bullying, from student suicide to shadowy conspiracies, Lost Judgment’s story moves at an absolutely wild pace, featuring a plot with more twists and turns than an advanced origami book. Yagami is not alone as he follows the crooked path in a search for truth and justice, joined by his long-time ex-Yakuza friend Kaito and old buddies Sugiura and Tsukumo, who have set up their very own detective agency in Ijincho. All the supporting cast in Yagami’s entourage have an integral role to play, and I loved the fact that the game completely eschews any idea of the lone wolf hard-boiled detective trope in favour of a protagonist who relishes the opportunity to collaborate and isn’t too proud to lean on friends and rely on the good people who are drawn to him. One thing that Ryu Ga Gotoku is really good at is crafting strong and likeable protagonists that you really want to get behind, and Yagami is the emotional anchor that keeps the entire plot in focus, even when some of it gets a touch too silly for its own good.
Yagami’s detective skills are unrivalled
While the Yakuza titles are known for their tendencies towards comical melodrama, Lost Judgment features a distinctive pervasive darkness in its main story
I mentioned the bullying and student suicide only in passing before, but it’s actually a core theme at the heart of the narrative. While the Yakuza titles are known for their tendencies towards comical melodrama, Lost Judgment features a distinctive pervasive darkness in its main story. There are many confronting and conflicting scenes revolving around the failing of the law and its representatives, the notions of justified vigilantism and also facing up to the unintended consequences of doggedly pursuing one person’s justice at the expense of another’s. It’s heavy stuff really, and I imagine the narrative will strike a chord with anyone who has had a brush with bullying in high school, or who are the parents of a child who has suffered bullying. As a victim of the former, and someone extremely vigilant of the latter, it becomes very easy to sympathise with the devil when you start putting yourself in the apparent villains’ shoes. The way Lost Judgment thoughtfully handles its subject matter and weaves it into a gripping murder mystery is nothing short of masterful, and watching Yagami unravel it all with his unwavering sense of justice and ability to be the voice of the voiceless drew me in hook, line and sinker.
Balancing out the darkness is the series’ signature penchant for left-field weirdness, but while its presence was basically a foregone conclusion, I can’t say that it doesn’t come with an unusually heavy dose of tonal dissonance. Sacrilegious perhaps, but let me explain. Lost Judgment splits its time between the well-trodden fictional Japanese streets of both Kamurocho and Ijincho, and for anyone possessing even a passing familiarity with the series, these streets will definitely feel like a familiar pair of warm slippers. As always, there is a veritable shit ton of things to do and see that have little to do with the main story, including throwing (and punching) darts, hitting the batting nets, playing shogi, participating in drone races and running around a fucking wild VR board game. Seiryo High, the school that employed the recently murdered student teacher and the place where Yagami’s true investigations begins, is also its own little microcosm, featuring several clubs like mystery novel/sleuthing fanatics, supernatural phenomena enthusiasts and roboticists. Several lengthy side missions called School Stories revolve around the various clubs, and you can get so sucked into these you might forget you’re supposed to be solving a murder case. This is true of many of Lost Judgment’s side missions, and while everyone wants to bust a perverted panty raider or help the school dance club with their routine by bringing a unique brand of kung-fu karaoke, it kind of feels at odds with everything given the very serious tone of the core narrative. The more I followed the bloody trail of lies, murder and deceit featured in the main campaign, the less sense it made to go back to planning my stand-up routine with my girlfriend who until recently was unable to be seen in public unless in a mascot costume.
Me and me girl
Balancing out the darkness is the series’ signature penchant for left-field weirdness, but while its presence was basically a foregone conclusion, I can’t say that it doesn’t come with an unusually heavy dose of tonal dissonance
It feels weird to be criticising a Yakuza title for being weird, because if it wasn’t then you’d wonder where all the weirdness was, but I’m not sure they’ve quite struck the balance between comedy and serious drama they were looking for. I will say that despite all this, your enjoyment of the main storyline or the ludicrous amount of fleshed-out side activities is never going to be truly compromised, just don’t expect these disparate halves to complement each other.
Yagami is not only an awesome detective and top bloke, he also kicks a whole lot of arse. The brawler gameplay in Lost Judgment is the by far the best I’ve experienced so far in my relatively brief dalliances with the series thus far, and I happily threw myself into every donnybrook with genuine enthusiasm. Yagami can switch it up between his powerful Tiger style, crowd-controlling Crane style, or disarm and counterattack Snake style, and each is able to be levelled up to introduce a dizzying amount of new abilities. The best abilities amongst these are EX moves, wondrously-animated, health bar-decimating context-specific special attacks that look just as painful the first time you pull them off as the last. I do think Snake style is a little overpowered compared to Crane and Tiger, as it gives the all-important ability to parry (which also gives you a window for an EX move) as well as disarm opponents. It was fairly easy to ignore the other styles for long stretches, but no doubt everyone will find their own groove with the three styles. Other aspects of the gameplay, such as the extremely rudimentary stealth and parkour sections serve as more of a distraction than anything truly engaging, but are generally mercifully short.
The future is now, old man
Visually, Last Judgment is a bit of a mixed bag. As with Ryu Ga Gotoku’s titles, I love (read: am deeply in love with) how well captured and animated the facial features of the characters are. The game features hours of cutscenes which have the potential of dragging things out, but the way they frame the characters’ countenance and take care with things like eyes and hair (I actually worship at the altar of video game hair done well and I’m not sorry about it) gives them such an endearing human quality that it’s impossible not to be drawn in. That is…as long as they’re a main character. The importance of a character to the main story is directly proportional to how much effort has been put into their face, and quite a few of the lower-ranked side characters look like Morrowind NPCs put through a Yakuza filter. Given this is an open-world game, some graphical concessions have to be made, and it’s unfair to expect to be constantly wandering through a buffet of Brad Pitts – but between some of the bleak and repetitive character models getting around and some of the blander texturing work in the environment, sometimes Lost Judgment looks a little flat. The fight choreography in cutscenes is nothing short of phenomenal though, and in real time the combat flows beautifully in a visual sense as well. A mixed bag, but one with enough red and purple Skittles that you’ll probably be fine ignoring the yellow and orange ones.
Sound design is also a home run, especially the voice acting. I played with English dubs, and given the sheer volume of delivered dialogue, the localisation team has done a supernatural job at making the characters come to life through believable speech and interaction. The lip syncing is unlikely to win too many awards, but the fact I remained rapt with each and every character in the main narrative throughout the entirety of my adventure (literally) speaks volumes. I could easily listen to Yagami wax lyrical about justice all day, and Kaito’s fearless bravado tinged with wisdom garnered from a tough Yakuza life was also a highlight. Sombre tones in the backing soundtrack and zippier orchestral stuff punctuate the drama too, but the main stars of the show are the pumping overdriven guitar riffs that feature periodically, usually just before it’s time to throw the fuck down. The clean and punchy distorted guitars reminded me of my beloved Trigun, and that is only ever a good thing.
Lost Judgment features one of the strongest narratives I’ve experienced in a Yakuza title. It’s got serious grit and intrigue, as well as respect for its heavy subject matter that made me want to throw myself right down the rabbit hole. The series’ hallmark strangeness in its side content delivery is also present and accounted for, and while it’s still of the same excellent quality, it doesn’t quite gel with the serious narrative. Still, the compelling characters and extremely enjoyable combat make this an absolute must for Yakuza fans, and if you haven’t experienced the series yet then Lost Judgment is an excellent entry point. At the very least I guarantee you’ll fall in love with Yagami. God, I love Yagami.
Reviewed on Xbox Series X // Review code supplied by publisher
- Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio
- PS5 / PS4 / Xbox Series X&S / Xbox One
- September 24, 2021