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Lost Judgment Finds Its Own Voice in the Yakuzaverse, But It’s Messy

RGG Studio’s action-brawler is often a gripping and sobering look at bullying and a flawed justice system, faults and all.

Slick, handsome detective-lawyer Takayuki Yagami can elegantly beat the shit out of 100 burly yakuza dudes in one go. And in-between brawls, he gets to the bottom of insidious criminal cases. It’s all in a day’s work for a protagonist who bears the voice and likeness of Japanese idol and actor Takuya Kimura.

Yagami stars in Lost Judgment, a sequel to the Yakuza spin-off Judgment, where he thwarts the horrifying realities and repercussions of high school bullying all while unraveling the deepest levels of legal corruption again. In doing so, developer RGG Studio boldly touches on something very real and presents it as the main crux for its story. Along the way, however, it sorely fumbles at times then poignantly hits the mark at others — and even does both in the same breath.

Taking a step back, it’s astounding how Lost Judgment’s story leads into its wild conclusions while being captivating at nearly every story beat. Such is the way of games in the Yakuza lineage, although few leave me as conflicted as Lost Judgment. Through its 30-plus hours, I was happy to see the series grow beyond a Yakuza spin-off and become its own thing despite its familiar foundation. And I’d love to see another one, if anything, to see if it can do better by its core themes and messages.

(Content warning: mentions of sexual assault and bullying as it relates to the story)

Yagami’s return is a slow start, and the opening hours had me scratching my head as to exactly what was supposed to draw me in. As every RGG game tries to kick off by seeding a larger mystery with a tragic event, Lost Judgment’s gut-punch takes considerably longer to resonate. Broadly speaking, this story doesn’t necessarily have the same level of personal stakes for its main cast as those that came before it. Yagami and the returning gang can feel a bit detached from the central mystery, though it’s still pretty damn impressive to see how all of its narrative pieces fall into place.

The gang driving a forklift through enemies.
Oh, ya know, just me and the boys driving a forklift through our enemies. #JustJudgmentThings

It takes time to get there, and early on you’ll have to work through the awkwardness that lingers over being a grown ass man in a school setting. The first thing you’re tasked with is investigating bullying incidents at Seiryo High School in Ijincho, Yokohama (the city introduced in Yakuza: Like A Dragon). So, your gang of private investigators resorts to installing surveillance cameras (without knowledge or consent) around campus in hopes of getting them caught in 4K. It’s goofy, but nefarious at best while playing off stale creeper jokes.

This is what sets things in motion as you start to uncover just how deep bullying goes and how its effects cascade through generations, twisting the ways youths and adults internalize tragedy. As wild as the core story might be, Lost Judgment lays it all out in showing you how fucked up and insidious bullying is — how it destroys its victims, traumatizes families, and drives people to do unspeakable things. And this story, at least, recognizes a deeply flawed justice system and a world with fickle social dynamics that leaves no recourse for its victims.

Lost Judgment manages to deliver those kinds of messages because, for better or worse, it shows rather than tells. Its imagery and scenes of bullying are extremely hard to watch — it can hit deeply and painfully, especially for those of us who have similar lived experiences, but this is how this game gets real (although some of the solutions and resolutions the game presents are rather shallow). Earnest in its portrayal, it’s also how it convinces us of the convictions of all the characters involved.

(Editor’s note: Lost Judgment has a day-one patch that implements a content warning at the start of the game mentioning bullying, sexual assault, and suicide. The text of this review has been updated to reflect that.)

Yoko Sawa talking to Yagami in Lost Judgment
Sawa-sensei has been through a lot, and she drives much of the emotion behind Lost Judgment’s themes.

Unfortunately, Lost Judgment doesn’t treat other sensitive aspects with the same nuance, though, specifically the way it uses sexual assault (groping, in this case) as a plot device. Its context makes sense from a narrative perspective and with how Japan’s legal system handles groping cases. But that doesn’t absolve Lost Judgment from the somewhat cold and callous manner in which it sometimes frames sexual assault (to talk about it in greater detail would be a major spoiler). Although there isn’t malicious intent story-wise, I couldn’t help but feel that its tone leaves victims out to dry.

As the story progresses, however, leading deeper and deeper into the criminal underworld, it becomes less focused on bullying and more on the consequences of revenge. In the most heinous sense, adults are driven to take matters into their own hands — and when that starts to involve some of the most powerful people in criminal and political rings, things move into a series of ultimatums and collateral damage. At times, it was challenging to follow, maybe casting one too many narrative threads too quickly and losing a bit of their intended impact as a result. It gets there, though.

It’s almost bewildering how RGG Studio keeps using its familiar format and flow to firmly capture my attention again and again. You can see plot twists coming from a mile away, yet you eagerly await their reveal since you just don’t quite know exactly what’s in store. Characters become legends in fighting for what they believe is right, pulling you in with all the intended melodrama through incredible actor performances, captivating cutscenes, and high-stakes fights. (And goddamn, those cool ass cinematic transitions at the start of major boss battles are simply undefeated.) Seeing them take on the day and defy the odds are part and parcel to the hype you feel in pivotal moments, from the extraordinary to the mundane. For a Yakuza loyal such as myself, you expect nothing less and still come away invigorated.

As per Yakuza tradition, side content is integral to the personality of Lost Judgment — it’s valuable for building your attachment with the world and its characters and adds much-needed contrast to the main story. And I think using Seiryo High School as the main hub for those missions, as opposed to the rest of Yokohama, was a smart choice. Getting past the aforementioned awkwardness by pitting Yagami as a mentor, coach, and advisor for after-school clubs paints a more complete picture of his purpose there and the culture of the school itself — and dare I say you’ll get some Persona vibes, especially with chill, upbeat music that sounds pulled straight from Persona 3, 4, and 5. Yagami keeps getting into silly situations he can’t back out of yet rises to the occasion to lead students to greatness, which are framed as quests called School Stories.

Yagami from Lost Judgment dancing.
Nothing quite like watching Yagami pop, lock, and drop it.

That comes in the form of some legitimately fun minigames and worthwhile smaller stories with little lessons that complement RGG’s signature absurdist humor. My personal favorite is the dancing rhythm game with remarkably choreographed routines and catchy tunes to hit DDR-style notes along to. With my talents from Persona Dancing and Hatsune Miku Project DIVA, I genuinely enjoyed earning perfect combos in each song while giggling to myself watching Yagami popping and locking alongside Seiryo’s dance crew. As this side story progressed, he imparts the power of determination to the dance team who lacked confidence at first, while also resolving some typical high school drama. And that’s just one of the 10 School Stories available.

Even in combat against threatening thugs, Yagami displays a diverse and nimble skillset to beat a fool’s ass. Lost Judgment improves on his acrobatic sensibilities by adding a third fighting stance (Snake) and refining the other two (Tiger and Crane) so that they all serve distinct purposes and feel fun to play from the start. I’m confident in saying this is the best-playing beat-em-up style RGG Studio game. And damn is it a visual treat to see how controlling Yagami makes for a spectacular showcase of martial arts while feeling cool as hell once combat’s intricacies begin to click.

Lost Judgment still features investigation scenarios to break up the pace, and has added new elements like parkour and stealth. But these are mostly shallow and clumsy, feeling like they have trouble fitting into the established framework. If anything, the moments you’re inspecting the environment or pressing others in conversations encourage you to pay closer attention to what’s happening in the story as the game ushers you from one chapter to another.

In addition to what’s contained in the main story, we remember characters like Yagami fondly for all the things we see them do. In this case, fighting beat-em-up-style with grace and ease then moving on to lead a budding high school robotics team or coach an underdog dance crew to first place at competitions. Supporting characters like Kaito and Sugiura in particular also have their moments to shine, and Saori deservedly gets more screen time and plays a much bigger role in uncovering the bigger mysteries (although she is put into one uncomfortable situation that could’ve been easily avoided since it added no narrative value).

Gameplay is an extension of characterization in these games, and without strong personalities, these stories would likely fall apart. With that in mind, Lost Judgment does wonders in building Yagami up as a staple of the Yakuzaverse after just two games. He doesn’t have to be under the scrutiny of succeeding Kazuma Kiryu, and no longer did I find myself trying to make comparisons to the OG. (I’d say the same for Kasuga Ichiban after Like A Dragon, too). In a post-Kiryu world, we have great leads who carry the series traditions in their own way, and that’s pretty damn cool (I’m holding out hope that Takuya Kimura keeps his role as Yagami in future entries).

Yagami fighting gang members in Lost Judgment
When push comes to shove, you gotta fight, and Yagami got hands.

However, as the Judgment games have shown, Yagami’s existence is also tied to the constraints of the justice system and his ability to be an extralegal agent of the system itself. It makes for some great drama and important lessons to extrapolate, for sure. But Lost Judgment operates on the pretense that the status quo can be improved, and that we live under an imperfect system that will gradually evolve along with society. There is some truth to that, but it’s hard to buy into the message wholesale when we see the law, and those who enforce it, utterly fail us time and time again. Regardless of what statement Yagami or the game tries to make, the fact that we’re so pulled in by stories that reflect how our institutions are constantly exploited and manipulated says more about how deeply flawed our justice systems are.

I enjoy Lost Judgment for what it is and admire its faith in truth, but that’s under the condition that we remember that, unfortunately, people like Yagami don’t really exist — and even if they do, they sure as hell wouldn’t be principled superhuman detective-lawyers who can take on waves of bad dudes alongside superhuman friends and crack a case of impossible odds with perfect information and a whole lot of luck.

Lost Judgment sometimes bites off more than it can chew, subjecting itself to getting messy. Still, RGG Studio’s style of storytelling is no worse for wear and is even ambitious in some respects. I found truly memorable moments and sobering lessons, and a better appreciation for the characters that personify games in the Yakuza lineage. Faults and all, Lost Judgment was a worthwhile ride, and as I watched the credits roll with a strong bittersweet feeling inside, I couldn’t help but think about where the series could go next.

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