Lost Judgment from developer Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio is the latest in a budding line of beloved action RPG games that blends deep systems with old-school feeling combat and a mystery story hanging in the backdrop.
A sequel to Judgment from 2018, Lost Judgment goes further than any of the Yakuza spin-offs that preceded it in setting itself apart with its own flair. There is likely 100-plus hours of content to explore thanks to a stunningly deep locale and nigh-endless side activities and missions to tackle outside of the main story.
Interestingly enough, the city and side content itself might just shine better than the main narrative for the majority of players. Either way, a developer that has quietly earned a reputation as a sleeper favorite for the AAA-quality games it churns out appears to have another hit on its hands, especially for players who have experience with the quirky combat, storytelling and immersion presented in Lost Judgment.
Graphics and Gameplay
What Lost Judgment does well visually and on the immersion front is nearly unmatched in video games today.
Take the sheer realistic nature of the faces found throughout the experience. They're downright stunning, varied and largely without equal, even if it's a shame the lip-synching is all over the place. Watching a cutscene could fool an onlooker into thinking it was a movie at times.
The voice acting behind the narrative points is downright splendid too, though the drawback there is that the writing isn't always...very good. But from the actors themselves, it's blatant this is a passion project that elicited superb performances from almost all involved and it's a pleasure to experience.
Moving about the various city locales is a treat most games can't match either. These aren't large-scale maps that could take upwards of twenty minutes to cross from point to point. It's not a Grand Theft Auto-level experience from a bird's eye view where the player can hijack any vehicle they want and elicit a big police response.
Lost Judgment is more dialed in than that, and frankly, much better for it. It's almost a city-block simulator. A playable space may not be massive, but it is dense. Seriously, just walking into a store is a stunning affair because of the realism and variety baked into the store shelves. It sounds almost silly, but where most games would slap some 2D renders behind glass doors or something, this game goes overboard with the details and real products, treating each space as if players will closely examine them (and they should).
This could spend hours gushing about the playable spaces, really. The cities found in 2020’s Yakuza: Like a Dragon are just as stunning at night as ever. It's difficult to find a more immersive experience in gaming than on this front, as it really feels like the player gets dropped into a city block and is set loose. Immersion claimed by other games is actually found here, simply through variety and attention to detail.
On the gameplay front, the first and obvious thing to address is the very weighty and rewarding combat. It really channels old-school kung-fu movies and 2D fighters that ruled the arcade machines scene back in the day.
Players can switch on the fly between Crane, Tiger and Snake styles based on what's in front of them. While some styles might be better in certain situations, it doesn't feel like a necessity to switch things up in order to be successful. That's actually a notable drawback—at no point does the player ever feel like an underdog in a fight, even early in the game. The player's character is a movie star-styled fighter with dodges, counters and wicked moves ready to go whenever, wherever.
But that's part of the allure and fun, right? Players constantly have to take on groups of enemies on their lonesome in scraps. Learning chains of moves, pulling off dodges, earning EX special moves and picking up any variety of weapons found in the fighting area to smash on an opponent is just plain fun. The EX super moves built via a meter system are fun to pull off (like a sliding knee into a downed opponent's face).
The one big negative is when a boss-styled opponent shows up. Unstoppable baddies with giant health pools aren't anything new in video games right now, but the ones in this particular game have dangerous moves that can essentially knock out the player's character in one or two shots (like a german suplex onto concrete, ouch) and it's tough to avoid them without any real tells. It's a small complaint but feels like an artificial difficulty booster.
Outside of the excellent combat, Lost Judgment does suffer from some archaic design. Players have been asked to "tail" targets in countless games this year, not to mention over the last decade. So doing it again here has a same old, same old feel to it. Ditto for on-the-rails segments meant to emulate thrilling chases that really just fall flat. The former is really just walking behind an NPC for far too long and sometimes using a camera. The latter is running behind an NPC and doing quick-time events that sometimes don't even make sense (don't go left around the group of people, click right so you can flip off the wall over them).
Similarly, stealth sequences aren't really all that engaging. They feel linear, to put it nicely. The game restricts players to getting to certain spots in a situation. Actually sneaking up behind an enemy to knock them out will sometimes result in a fail state—because the game wanted them to throw a coin to a specific spot first.
Parkour is at least a nice addition, though clunky. Scaling the side of a building, for example, provided that old hiccup where still pressing right inexplicably starting having the character go left.
If there's one standout feature on the detective side of things, it's being able to eavesdrop on pedestrians, plug keywords into social media and uncover places on a game's map where the player might find clues. But this is a very isolated thing. The actual detective gameplay comes off as boring. Scanning environments for clues has no depth, it's just a matter of finding what the game wants the player to find. Same for interrogations, which don't have a fail state.
In short, come for the shockingly good city immersion and fun, albeit all too rare combat, and brace for some oddly paced, archaic-in-a-bad-way gameplay mixups that make things drag a bit.
Story and More
Lost Judgment has a big heart and the genuine care it tries to put into very severe topics is commendable, even if it doesn't always land because of the usual funky gameplay and goofy characters that inhabit the story.
Protagonist Takayuki Yagami and best friend/business partner Masaharu Kaito have set up a detective agency and as expected, get slingshotted into a multi-layered conspiracy. The story doesn't really do anything unexpected, but it's well-paced and enjoyable, in large part due to the characters.
Yagami himself is actually perhaps the most boring character in the game. That might be intentional as he's meant to be a stand-in for the player, but it stands out in a bad way because the rest of the surrounding cast and even one-off characters encountered are so good. He never really says or does anything all that interesting despite the mentioned superb performance from his voice actor.
The game's story gives off some whiplash at times, though. It deals with very heavy themes such as bullying, sexual assault and suicide. There's a care taken to handle the topics, but it's still a really weird marriage of tones. The game opens with some of those heavy themes, including a defendant accused of committing a crime that went viral on social media via cell phone footage.
But the main character, nearly 40 years old and donned in a leather jacket, is quickly whisked away to earn the trust of Seiryo High School, where he's immediately involved in...dance minigames with the dance club. And with bullying such a prominent topic in the game's lengthy opener at the school, the strange tonal balance really sticks out because the main character also beats the absolute tar out of teenagers in classrooms when the game, well, decides it's video game time.
Structurally, though some of the side quests are so seamlessly interwoven in the main narrative that it can be difficult to tell what actually is a sidequest. That's a good thing on the immersion front. There's just a ton of stuff to get lost in, be it robot clubs, eSports clubs, skateboarding crews and more. It's all rather deep, too, though skippable.
Similar story out in the world beyond the school. There is an absolutely staggering number of minigames to seize a player's time. Batting cages, arcade games, board games, drone races, it goes on and on. Players can pop into shops and buy upgraded items for some of these activities in order to keep improving at them while leveling in those specific activities.
The above hints at a staggering number of items to collect and manage in an inventory, which is totally true. But the structure of the inventory isn't too hard to figure out and manage at least, though things like health boosts are never really needed because again, the combat is pretty easy right from the jump.
As a whole, Lost Judgement is pretty intuitive on that front. Menus are smooth and easy to figure out, controls make sense along those same lines and there's a surprising number of options to mess with in the menus.
Mainlining Lost Judgement won't take nearly as long as a full completionist run.
In fact, those interested in gunning for speed-running numbers can skip out on pretty much any and all side content and just focus on the main story. If one had to guess, the numbers will come in around the four or five-hour mark like the best runs from the last entry in the series.
Many of the same rules apply in this one. Slamming through combat as fast as possible is a must, though there isn't really a bad way to go about it. The real key will be memorizing and understanding how to get the best of those mentioned boss-styled characters in order to take them down quickly.
As for world traversal, eventually coughing up cash to move around the city faster will be a key to any run. Luckily for would-be speedrunners, cash is never really hard to come by in the game, either. A stat-buffing consumable here and there might make some sense, but it's very situational and the player might end up wasting more time going to a store and then filtering through menus just to use it.
Obviously, ripping through dialogue and cutscenes will be a staple of any speedrun as well. For a game like this in the speedrun category, skipping the obvious presentation stuff, learning what to lean on as a crutch in combat and simply memorizing bosses and what is skippable content not required for progression will fuel the best runs out there.
There will undoubtedly be players who squeeze 100-plus hours out of Lost Judgment because there's just that much to do and the side content is really that engaging. It's a great game in that regard, just as it is for the immersion and detail level found in the majority of the game's areas.
But for everyone else, managing expectations will be key. Thinking about Lost Judgement as a fighting game with a ton of window dressing around those mechanics and a pretty good story is best. The fighting is an absolute blast and the city is downright mesmerizing, but there are some archaic things the game tries to do that are a slog to get through.
That just seems to be the give and take with the game as a whole. The story is heartfelt with great performances, but some odd writing and the usual video-game quirkiness strikes an awkward tone. The combat is a thrill and the RPG-styled sidequests are engrossing, but players might find themselves groaning at necessary hurdles.
Lost Judgment is a game that represents an apex for the series and it no longer really classifies as a "spin-off" given how much it has spread its wings. Only some characters and locale really tie it to anything else. And frankly, despite its hiccups, it offers droves more entertaining and quality content than much bigger, beloved releases do these days.