Judgement, released back in 2019, strayed away from the zany plots of Yakuza past – focused on billions of yen being stolen, secret Koreans causing all sorts of mischief and epic showdowns culminating in macho shirt-ripping – favouring instead a more grounded narrative that tackled a number of sophisticated issues relevant to Japanese society.
The characters, the story and the writing all felt considerably more mature and nuanced than what fans of the series might have come to expect, and for me, this was a welcome change of pace.
As a long-term fan of the series, Judgement succeeded in innovating from a narrative and tonal standpoint. And the recent release of Yakuza Like a Dragon demonstrated that Ryu Ga Gotoku studio were also capable of switching the gameplay up, to a turn-based system that might have felt incongruous to the rest of the series. But, it worked.
Crucially, both games also retained the essence of what makes the Yakuza series so distinct and wonderful; densely packed open-worlds, with myriad minigames and side quests to engage with, and interesting characters who can all kick-ass in their own right.
With all of this in mind, I was incredibly excited to see what Lost Judgement – the sequel to Judgement from 2019 – had to offer this time.
What new innovations would the developers attempt next?
Back to school:
Right off the bat, Lost Judgement throws you straight into an active case with series lead and ex-lawyer – turned freelance detective – Takayuki Yagami, and his faithful former Yakuza partner, Kaito-san. Yagami and Kaito have been hired to investigate a young man who appears to have swindled his supposed beau for a staggering amount of yen.
This introductory mission does a great job of re-introducing the cast, contextualising their relationships and makes Lost Judgement feel very beginner friendly. Of course, having played the original, I enjoyed seeing these characters back together all the more, but new players will not feel lost by jumping in here.
During this mission, Yagami receives a call from some familiar faces from the first game, who are seeking his help with a case they are working on at their own (new) agency in Yokohama.
The story is almost entirely standalone, but naturally, character dynamics are enriched if you have played the previous game.
Word of warning: the game does spoil a fairly important plot development from Judgement very early on.
Very quickly, Lost Judgement veers from its predecessor, taking Yagami and Kaito away from Kamurocho to Yokohama (introduced in Yakuza Like a Dragon). The narrative also delves into largely uncharted territory for the series (much like the first game), as Yagami and co are stationed at a private school which has seen recent spouts of bullying.
This is where Lost Judgement’s ambition is paramount. The developers have chosen to tackle some heavy issues here in terms of bullying, sexual assault and suicide – all issues that have been prevalent in Japanese society for many years. Without going into too much detail, the game’s handling of these issues is somewhat inconsistent.
Where I think the first game really succeeded in dealing with its social commentary, Lost Judgement at times can be a bit indelicate when exploring these issues. Early on, Yagami and Kaito literally beat up some kids. Now, absurdity like this is par for the course within the Yakuza series, but in the more grounded Judgement – and in the main narrative, as opposed to a side quest (where things do get crazy, and we love it) – the ludonarrative dissonance here was a bit tough for me to initially stomach.
Also, there is a mission where you place hidden cameras to help with your investigation of bullying in the school. Not only is this incredibly creepy, it is also just so ridiculous that it took me out of the narrative. I think this whole initial portion in the school is done poorly, and whilst the game does pick up later, the slow pace and tone deaf approach to some of the issues doesn’t leave a great first impression, which could deter new players.
Another frustration that I had that made the beginner hours feel like such a drag was how dialogue is sometimes handled. Lost Judgement is like that overbearing parent who still tries to hold your hand as you cross the road – even into adulthood.
Yagami will constantly repeat information that the player will already be aware of – as will other characters – and this drags scenes to unnecessary lengths. Now, I prefer this to writing that doesn’t explain anything at all, but there should be a middle ground between the two; Lost Judgement never leaves anything up to the players imagination for too long.
That being said, the writing as a whole is still regularly excellent, and the narrative develops from a slow, clumsy start into a real-page turner. Whilst the school related portion of the game (which is significant), isn’t the most consistent aspect, I have to commend the developers for trying something so ambitious. I just wish a little bit more thought was put into balancing the seriousness of the narratives themes and issues, with you know, beating up teenagers.
When the narrative delves into more familiar gangster territory later on, Lost Judgement is regularly breathtaking, dramatic and absolutely the darkest entry yet in this franchise.
The new cast are welcome additions, with a particularly fantastic antagonist. The old guard hold their own as well, even if at times, this story feels less personal than the original to Yagami.
I also love how the plot connects seemingly disconnected issues, and drops little nuggets of information early on in the story that later pay off with big twists and revelations.
Overall, I found myself – after a clumsy first few hours – engrossed in the narrative. Whilst I think the original game was consistently good throughout, Lost Judgement arguably has much higher highs – and a few more evident lows.
Both the dub and original Japanese voice acting are fantastic, by the way. Personally, I played the original in Japanese, so I stuck with it throughout, but the dub is also very good (aside from the imperfect lip syncing). Add in such expressive facial animations, and I found myself easily immersed in this gripping crime drama.
The King of open-worlds:
There is nothing I hate more in video games than the recent plague of open-world games, where developers seem to think that bigger is intrinsically better; irrespective of the quality of activities and gameplay.
Assassins Creed Valhalla is a great example of a game with some fun minigames, side missions and a well written story (when you have time to get to it), which is stretched to mediocrity through its sheer size. Bigger isn’t always better, and stretching similar activities across ridiculously large maps – whilst initially an impressive feat – quickly leads to boredom.
Perhaps the biggest appeal of the Yakuza series, for me, is that it is very much the antithesis of most recent open-world games, as it favours a much, much smaller map; densely packed with an impressive amount of minigames, sub missions and other shenanigans to lose hours to.
And, on this front, Lost Judgement might be the most impressive entry to date.
Staple activities in baseball, darts and a variety of card games (and so much more, of course) return, as well as exclusives from the original Judgement in Paradise VR and Drone racing. In Yagami’s base(s) you can also play a number of different Sega Classics, and the Arcade also has an impressive array of games, like Sonic Fighters (which I am terrible at).
Of course for long-term Yakuza fans this is something we almost take for granted, and repurposing these assets is something that SEGA excels at. For a new player, however, the sheer breadth of activities is fantastic.
That being said, Lost Judgement also leans heavily into the school life that is central to the narrative, with a number of brand new activities as part of the new ‘school stories’.
Ironically, as much as I think the school presence provides most of the narrative lows, the side activities in the school stories might be my favourite part of the game. From dancing, to boxing, to robot wars – and many more activities to be discovered, there is just so much variety to keep the player interested.
The writing in these quests inherit the carefully balanced humour, sadness and absurdity that Yakuza substories are known for, whilst also providing in depth progression. As a fan, the boxing was my favourite, and the unique upgrade path to the activity was a welcome surprise.
Put simply: there is something for everyone here, and of course, the usual zany Yakuza substories (titled side cases in Judgement) can also be discovered around Kamurocho and Yokohama. The panty thief saga continues to (I couldn’t write that with a straight face).
Out with the old, in with the new… and back to the old again:
When Yakuza Like a Dragon was said to move away from the series brawler style combat, I was one of many fans who felt, initially, very disappointed. The arcadey combat, where your environment – and every inanimate object in the surrounding area – is your weapon, is just something so silly, badass and iconic to the Yakuza series. Straying away from this chaotic system, for a more considered turn-based style was something I could not fathom.
Well, as it turns out, I loved the changes in Yakuza Like a Dragon. I believe the turn-based system breathed new life into the series, and perfectly complemented Ichiban and his band of heroes.
At the same time, it was announced that Judgement would continue the traditional Yakuza style combat. The original Judgement didn’t change things up too much, with Yagami’s more Kung-fu inspired style functioning mechanically similar to other styles throughout the series. This made it easy to pick up Judgement, and only have to grasp a few new concepts (such as the wall jumping mechanics and the mortal wounds that bosses could give you).
However, the game did have an issue with the balancing between the two primary styles: Tiger and Crane. Tiger, which is a slower, more weighty style that favours 1v1 encounters, felt far more developed throughout the game, whereas the more evasive Crane style – which favours group encounters – saw little meaningful upgrades as the game progressed. What this led to was the combat in the original game getting stale quickly (further exacerbated by the ridiculous amount of encounters with the infamous Keihin gang).
Lost Judgement, thankfully, manages to take a few sensible steps forward in progressing this system.
Both styles from the first game return, with increased movesets and new mechanics that add a bit more consideration to encounters.
Joining them is the new snake style: a parry focused combat style that is great at disarming enemies – and Yagami’s preferred choice for dealing with unruly private school scoundrels (at least he has the sense to hold back somewhat, I guess…).
I loved this new style, with the focus on holds and counter-mechanics feeling like a callback to Tanimura’s style from Yakuza 4 (for all my OG’s out there).
Switching between each of these styles is effortless, and Yagami this time feels faster and more fluid than ever. Overall, combat encounters feel incredibly smooth, and the addition of haptics on the PS5 (even though they are quite subtle), add that extra punch to heat actions.
Lost Judgement isn’t necessarily going to win over those who have struggled to enjoy Yakuza’s combat in the past, nor will it offer particularly complex or tactical encounters, but it still feels enjoyable.
My only real gripe is that – once again – the game feels very easy. At least there is no dastardly Keihin gang this time around. Big win for combat.
An impressive game, an ambitious story and an inconsistent delivery:
If you’re a fan of the original game, Lost Judgement provides another exciting chapter in the story of Takayuki Yagami and his friends. Combat has received a much needed boost in terms of depth, and the open-world activities impressively manage to improve on the original game – and may be the most impressive Yakuza offering yet; rivalling Yakuza 0 and 5.
Narratively, Lost Judgement can go from shocking, clumsy, distasteful, emotional to absolutely gripping. The characters are once again written well, and an initial slow-start sets up some exciting developments later on.
The school section of the game manages to provide both the best and worst parts of this entry, and new detective elements add a bit more diversity to gameplay, but sadly not much more for the player to think about.
If you can’t tell: this is a game that regularly takes a step forward, then a quick step back. I think with a bit more fine tuning, Lost Judgement would eclipse it’s predecessor.
However, despite its misgivings, it is still an excellent video game offering with a ridiculous amount of things to do, interesting characters to fall in love with, and an ambitious story that asks some very interesting – and uncomfortable – questions.
Also – no Keihin gang!