This sudden shift in tone and gameplay is the hallmark of a Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio game, the creators of the long-running Yakuza series. Since 2005, the Yakuza series has quietly become the best and most consistent series for great video game writing. Aimed primarily at an audience of Japanese men, the series eventually found a diverse global audience as more people found the hidden narrative treasures in each game — including adventures like walking your detective dog to solve crimes.
“Lost Judgment” is the latest and possibly best story from RGG Studio. It’s the sequel to “Judgment,” which as a series has come to focus more on action, while the Yakuza series has shifted toward turn-based role-playing. This sequel is also a culmination of the studio’s many talents, including being masters of tonal balance, stuffing every game about serious, angry men with hundreds of colorful minigames and stories about characters that belong in a cartoon world.
These games were fueled by technological advances and design decisions gleaned from older Sega titles like “Virtua Fighter” and “Shenmue.” The former became one of the first 3-D games ever; the latter revolutionized the “open-world” format that “Grand Theft Auto 3” would eventually cement. It’s no wonder “Virtua Fighter” and numerous other Sega arcade titles are playable in full in every “Yakuza” or “Judgment” title.
So it’s about time that these games, including “Lost Judgment,” are widely recognized for what they are and have been since 2005: The most entertaining minute-to-minute, open-world games in the craft, and as critic Jim Sterling said in 2018, “it puts to shame a lot of the better-looking, larger-scale, massively over-budgeted games from the AAA world.”
“Lost Judgment” begins with what everyone believes is a run-of-the-mill prosecution of a former police officer who is accused of groping a woman on the subway, all captured on smartphone videos that went viral on social media. It’s an open and shut case, until his verdict is passed down. The accused groper then smiles and says to the court, the media and his own attorneys (Yagami’s colleagues) that the body of a man was just discovered in the neighboring city of Yokohama. The corpse belonged to a young man who bullied the defendant’s son, leading to his suicide. It seems his sexual harassment case was all part of a larger plan to embarrass the court system and due process.
Detective Yagami, unaware of that case, is investigating another about rampant bullying at a Yokohama school. This is where we meet the famous RGG tonal balance. Yagami needs to earn the trust of the school, and as a 38-year-old man, he couldn’t seem more out of place. It’s why he becomes an “adviser” to various school clubs, and it’s right around here that the game threatens to go off the rails, in the best way possible.
You see, RGG games are stuffed with side content that’s often just as compelling as the main story. Yagami is immediately thrown into a dancing minigame with the school’s dance club, and he’s offered multiple school mysteries involving sugar baby scams, a buried time capsule, and even stories that only appear at night. The entire city of Yokohama from “Yakuza 7: Like a Dragon” is back, with an entire high school built with four floors, social areas like the cafeteria and a gymnasium — all open to Yagami to freely explore.
The tonal balancing act continues when Yagami is jumped by multiple high school students, and he has to defend himself by absolutely demolishing them and the classrooms. Yagami is literally the character from Steve Buscemi’s “How do you do fellow kids” meme, complete with skateboard, except he’s smashing in the faces of his “fellow kids” with the explosive, special effects-laden martial arts combat of Marvel’s recent “Shang-Chi: Legend of the Ten Rings.”
Given how many classic video games have been about beating up high school students, my brain was able to give these sequences a pass, but the image of a 38-year-old defense attorney throwing teens through glass windows will likely be jarring to some players.
The mystery quickly moves beyond the school, which acts as a tutorial area for the game’s two cities. When announcing “Lost Judgment,” series creator Toshihiro Nagoshi said that the writers hope to overcome the “many walls we created for ourselves in the first game.” This likely means shaking off “Yakuza” series standards, including scripts that often veer into nationwide conspiracy. In “Lost Judgment,” Nagoshi and his team of writers play to their strengths, creating compelling character drama with realistic motivations and trauma. The bullying angle, and the ensuing social media rumor mill surrounding the tragedies in the game, keep the story grounded.
Nagoshi also said the story of “Lost Judgment” came after much “heated debate” among its writers. That would be no surprise. The conclusion of the overarching murder mystery isn’t cut and dry, so much so that Yagami’s own friends will debate him on his decisions and principles. I won’t spoil the twists, but having played every single Yakuza game and the prequel “Judgment,” RGG Studio has crafted its most grounded, realistic narrative to date. All the character motivations are believable and beg for empathy, even among the game’s most villainous set. By the final chapter, all of the game’s themes on bullying, social media misinformation and the justice system tie together almost perfectly.
This capacity for empathy is only heightened by the facial animations and detail in the updated Dragon Engine. The artists at RGG Studio should be commended for portraying a wide variety of Japanese face shapes. Sure, the leads are all impossibly gorgeous, modeled and acted by Japanese stars. But the streets of Kamurocho and Yokohama are packed with folks along all walks of life. RGG Studio games continue to be the industry’s best approximation of life in Asia.
Combat animations are given significantly more flair, with Yagami striking powerful poses between attacks. Players can switch between three combat styles: tiger for groups, crane for one-on-one fights, and the new, electrifying snake style that focuses on counters, parries and reversals. Fights are punctuated with spectacular “EX” moves you unlock by playing more of the game, all animated with exacting attention to detail including Yagami’s bouncing mane. RGG Studio’s work approaches the level of detail you’d only find in games from Rockstar Games or Naughty Dog. Nathan Drake himself never looked this good.
The “detective” offerings are more of a mixed bag. Tailing missions and spot-the-clue sequences remain in the game, and are still boring as ever. Thankfully, most of those in the main mission are short and don’t totally become tiresome. My reference to Nathan Drake earlier wasn’t an accident, either. “Lost Judgment” will have Yagami scrambling on the sides of buildings and ledges, much like the hero of “Uncharted,” except the controls aren’t suited for that style of gameplay. Again, these moments are very short, so they’re not a huge detriment. But if RGG Studio wants to experiment with other gameplay styles, it needs to rework its entire control system for navigating the player around the city.
It’s too bad, because the detective work in side missions broaches much more interesting ideas. Finding some of these side stories involves using keyword searches in a Twitter-like social media application. Using these keyword searches and geolocation tags is not unlike working like a detective, or an investigative journalist. Some of these quests reward a sense of familiarity with the cities and its distinct neighborhoods.
The game’s multiple distractions are why the game’s main plotline often repeats plot details back to the player. There’s high potential that players of these games haven’t seen the mainline story in days, thanks to the game’s two cities brimming with other content. Players who rush through the main story first will hear a lot of repetition of the plot; I hope RGG’s writers find a better approach to catching players up on the story, and trusting that we’re caught up on the details.
One more important note: “Lost Judgment” also breaks down walls of the previous RGG Studio titles by highlighting a variety of characters outside of the seedy underbelly of Japan. Yes, gang members and sex workers still populate the story, but the Judgment cast is largely made up of public servants, particularly Saori Shirosaki, Yagami’s defense attorney colleague. Saori owns several moments in the game. While the Yakuza series was born to attract an audience of Japanese men, RGG Studio games would do well to highlight its women. And yes, they should all fight too. As one character in the story says, “Think of [fighting] as another way of communicating.” In that sense, the women of Kamurocho and Yokohama deserve to be heard too.
Despite these flaws, “Lost Judgment” is the most captivating, dramatic and transfixing story of the year, and that should be no surprise to fans of RGG Studio’s output. Video games can often struggle with longform narratives that can feel natural to TV serials. But RGG Studio has been banging these out for more than a decade. “Lost Judgment” is their latest, and their greatest work.