A Tired Mechanic from Yakuza’s Past Holds Lost Judgment Back

Games Reviews Lost Judgment
A Tired Mechanic from Yakuza’s Past Holds Lost Judgment Back

Like all great literary detectives, Takayuki Yagami has a problem. He can’t go five minutes without stumbling into a sprawling network of crime and intrigue. In another life he’d have stayed a lawyer, and his face wouldn’t be so drawn and creased. Maybe he’d have even settled down.

He’s still a handsome, lean, and vigorous lad. Just now 35, and still running his own seemingly successful enough detective agency with his good friend and ex-yakuza lieutenant Masaharu Kaito. Yagami even has a good relationship with his previous employer/foster father Ryuzo Genda. He keeps fit, knows kung fu, and is tireless in his principled idealism. He just has that one problem: People in his orbit keep dying. Often spectacularly. And what should be simple cases can’t stop from threatening to explode. Yagami is a private investigator in a world where corruption spreads like mycelium. And he just can’t turn down a job, at least it’s steady work.

Damn I love this detective shit.

Honestly, all you need is a good enough hook, an endearing main character, and a solid sense of aesthetics and I’ll give you a chance. But if you can stack the deck with fully-realized supporting characters and a clever and often brutal rogues gallery? Then you’ve got magic on tap. And Ryu Ga Gotoku weaves all this in with some compelling gameplay that spans two thriving cities.

The sequel to Judgment, Lost Judgment once again proves a master of the slow burn of mystery that spirals out in a torturously circuitous gyre. From a simple phone call, an open-and-shut investigation into school bullying that scrambles into an ex-cop turned subway groper announces mid-sentencing knowledge of a recent and yet unannounced murder. Did you like the narrative in Judgment? Odds are you’ll love this one too. Yagami might not be the next Kosuke Kindaichi, but he’s a charming sleuth you’ll want to guide along through this latest mystery.

Like the game before it, Lost Judgment is a huge narrative with a long fuse. Adding in the side cases, the Persona-like school club missions, and the various maximalist minigames like Drone Racing and the legit Motorcycle Gang mean this can be an extremely long experience. I’m in the neighborhood of 37 hours with plenty of side content still on the table. Which is where the big glaring flaw of Lost Judgment comes in, the decision to retain Yakuza’s random brawling and keep a connection to the action system its parent franchise let go of. Random encounters in this game suck. There are so, so many. And they never stop.

At one point I was in the middle of a quest that asked me to observe some apartment buildings while also bouncing between talking to two characters. I was interrupted nine times during this one quest. For some reason roving mobs of bar drunkards and shitty students just couldn’t stop walking down this particular street. Yagami would be deep in thought staring at an air conditioner duct when the punches started landing out of nowhere. Or we’d be looking at the peek of panties (yeah, it’s an RGG Studio game, you’re going to deal with a panty thief) from his back pants pocket when the shouting of rambunctious school students would prompt me to break away from being a detective and adopt the Crane stance to kick their asses. One fight would end only for another to begin moments later. And while this was the most egregious moment, the high rate of random encounters makes both Final Fantasy and Wizardry look gentle.

I know there are people who really love combat in Yakuza games. They take the skill trees all the way, and go looking for random encounters just for the chance to flex. People who go really deep into the combos, stance dancing their way to mastery of blocks, parries, and side steps. Trust me, I’ve had friends try and get me to appreciate “the finer points” for years—I know the systems are present, but it just doesn’t all hang together as well as a great brawler should. And for over a decade it hasn’t needed to. If anything, this is a franchise that has transcended its need for rote skirmishes with roving bands of baddies.

Sure, I like to grab a motherfucker by the neck and turn him upside down on the pavement. I love when Kiryu picks up a motorcycle and tries to put it inside of a deadbeat businessman. It’s sick when Goro Majima brings a knife to a gunfight and goes buckwild. When I pick up Yakuza Zero, I will stuff my pockets with all the mandarin oranges and Staminan Spark I can get just to repeatedly turn a man into a human juicer with my foot. And like, I guess Yagami has some neat EX moves, but it’s hard to follow the over-the-top majesty of Kiryu and Majima (even Ichiban could summon a lobster squad). Also it’s been 15 years and I’ve never gone deeper than has really been required of me. The brawler combat hasn’t really evolved or ever become what I go to this franchise for. There have been seven Yakuza games and the first Judgment; if the magic was going to happen, it would have. And while I love triggering the delightfully scripted antics of Heat and EX moves, it gets expensive, slow, and, after 25 hours with dozens of random encounters per hour, it gets boring. These are big, big games with a lot of things I’d rather spend my time on than moving between them.

Becoming Dragon Quest is one of the best decisions that mainline Yakuza could have made. Let’s be honest, the brawling was never that good, ping-ponging between too stiff and too slippery, always messy. Yakuza was never going to be Ninja Gaiden. Its interests aren’t focused enough, the talents and treasures of RGG Studio lie elsewhere. The pivot to turn-based RPG combat in a franchise that already delved into RPG systems extensively allowed for a new hero in a new town with a new style. It breathed vitality into a series that was both venerable and needing to start a new chapter. Kiryu’s story is officially concluded, he exists in the realm of supplemental texts and fan creations now, and for Yakuza, his style of combat went with him. Thank god.

Where Lost Judgment falls flat isn’t in the extensive modalities that build out Yagami’s detection toolbox. It’s not in the endless runner chase sequences, the lockpicking minigame, the drone minigame, the photography minigame, the tailing mode, or the half dozen other modalities like the walking the crime detecting dog mode (I’m not joking, love that dog). Lost Judgment is bursting with rhythm games and climbing puzzles and delightful classic Japanese adventure game bullshit. It doesn’t need brawling that just gets in the way and reflexively justifies the RPG elements, especially when its animation teams and QTE direction are so good. The brawling mode will never look or feel half as cool as the cutscenes in this game. And if it’s so crucial that players hit buttons during combat, the QTE elements already present in a number of fight sequences handle it beautifully.

Yagami doesn’t need to wander around having random battles, and the encounter rate in Lost Judgment feels so much higher than the previous game. Being constantly sucked into combat ruins the joy of just wandering around Kamurocho, or the new darling of RGG Studio: Yokohama. I really enjoyed being able to return to a Yokohama (seemingly cured of the distressing roving gangs of heavily armed Black guys and demented homeless caricatures since Like A Dragon) as Yagami. It’s a fresh town for the series to explore more fully now that Kamurocho has been so firmly flâneured for years.

Yokohama is a cool town. It immediately feels different from Kamurocho and I would love to explore it more without the constant threat of being pulled into a fight that demolishes the set dressing. I want to spend time just walking its streets and taking photos of people, the signage, the way its storefronts light up the city at night.

Lost Judgment really feels like it wants to be an entire arcade unto itself. We could describe a map of the game space in these terms, much the same way the literal maps of Yokohama and Kamurocho are laid out. There’s the DDR cabinet next to cardboard cutouts of anime schoolgirls squirreled away in the far right corner. There’s a duet of UFO machines freshly stuffed to bursting with weird shit, next to hyperspecific capsule machines. They pop up here and there. There’s a Whack-A-Mole with chibi yakuza enforcers popping out of manholes. And of course the lineup of Super Hang-On. Scattered between them are an assortment of brawlers and fighting games, shooters and platformers—and people, of course, playing their own games, loitering, working through some shit. Ryo Go Gotoku games, in a sense, present the world as an arcade. It’s their form of simulation, how they are processing and presenting the 21st century. And maybe that’s fine, but it’s also easy to envision a world where the Yakuza franchise expands beyond the need for RPG-esque leveling and fancy Double Dragon between both narrative and cartographic points. So far the Judgment franchise has doubled and now seemingly quadrupled down in presenting the world as an arcade. Every one of Yagami’s special detective abilities comes with some new arcade-like modality. What happens when we replace the countless filler beat ‘em ups in the arcade with more purposeful uses of Yagami’s time? What if instead of thousands of Final Fights chewing through our time and quarters, we’re presented with the most impressive as hell version of Time Gal we’ve ever seen, at the precise narrative moments where these fights matter? Ryo Ga Gotoku already implements this in part, why not in whole? What if players spent more time on the relational aspects of themselves to Yagami and to the arcade-world and the people in it (these are games about people foremost) and less time haphazardly smashing buttons every time they want to go somewhere? If Lost Judgment wants to turn the world into an arcade, it can, but it has to commit or we just end up at “What if Yakuza but Quasi-Cops?”

So what is Judgment as a franchise? And where does Lost Judgment take the series? As it stands, Lost Judgment is a perfectly fine way to spend 30 to 40 hours, but it does nothing to build on the momentum this studio has previously generated. Tying Judgment to a combat system that even the original franchise has left behind feels like a decision to hobble the imagination this studio has demonstrated time and time again. We’ve spent over a decade and seven games learning what a Yakuza game feels like, and 2019’s first step into the spinoff series Judgment impressed the hell out of me, but now it’s time for the franchise to figure out what it wants to be. And I hope it can do that by standing on its own.

Lost Judgment was developed by Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio and published by Sega. Our review is based on the PlayStation 5 version. It is also available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S.

Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.

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