Review: On All Counts, Lost Judgment Repeats as a Dazzling Detective Thriller

How many games let the player investigate a high profile court case, dig deep into an underground network of ex-Yakuza thugs, beat up punks and degenerates of all sorts, address bullying incidents at a school, play seemingly endless mini-games plus experience a riveting narrative that’s simultaneously both humorous and genuine?

None, other than Lost Judgment.

The latest project from Sega’s Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio does all of these, and mostly in spectacular fashion. It’s among the best games out of Japan, or really anywhere, in the past decade and a worthy follow-up to a beloved spin-off within the legendary Yakuza franchise.

Because of its framing as a detective thriller, it tackles topics that aren’t often seen in games. There’s themes of bullying, harassment, deception, politics, revenge and exposing flaws in a judicial system. What sets it apart is how Lost Judgment is simultaneously stone-cold serious and incredibly funny, a delicate balancing act where its creators never sacrifice one for the other and build upon the legacy of its predecessor.

Recently RGG Studio established a divergence in its broader “Yakuza universe.” The mainline Yakuza have transitioned to turn-based role-playing with last year’s Yakuza: Like a Dragon while Judgment takes the reigns of live action, combat-focused entries. Lost Judgment here in particular is a sequel to 2018’s amazing Judgment, which I also reviewed around the time of its worldwide launch.

At its core, the game is third-person perspective with action, combat, detective and a ton of dialogue elements with mini games and side distractions galore. It’s set in fictional depictions within two of Japan’s major districts: Kamurocho, a bustling section of Tokyo, and an urban retail center of Yokohama called Isezaki Ijincho. The former is carried over from the first game while the latter is a brand new addition here. This dual city approach means more to explore and locations to introduce, including a school that acts as a hub for major side content. It successfully feels fresh while also familiar.

The best thing about the Judgment series, and really most of RGG Studio’s works, is it successfully captures the fantasy of being in Japan’s major cities. Living and breathing the life there between cuisine to eat that offers bonuses, dive bars that serve local beverages, kitties roaming waiting to be pet and gambling halls where Yagami can hit the jackpot. The bright lights, slick pavement and detailed locales give a sense of place like few other games.

Players control sleuth and former lawyer Takayuki Yagami, who returns as the main character. Played by famous Japanese actor and icon Takuya Kimura, Yagami is the definition of an all-around protagonist: smart, agile, smooth and comical. The best type for a playground of this scope. Since launching Yagami Detective Agency last time alongside best bro and reformed gangster Kaito, he’s gained a reputation as a private eye willing to do anything for his clients.

Within this exceptional setting, Lost Judgment boasts a multi-layered narrative with engaging characters and consistent writing. The intrigue begins with the discovery of a body in an abandoned building. Cut to a tutorial mission involving a con artist that introduces many of the game’s interactions like tailing, climbing, fighting, chasing and story via dialogue. Yagami then learns from his former employer the Genda Law Office that its lawyers are in court hearing the verdict on a sexual harassment case involving a police officer. Cut to the courtroom, and this officer reveals the identity of the murdered corpse: it’s a man that bullied his son into suicide.

Just as this revelation shocks the courtroom, Yagami is contacted for help on a seemingly separate case by former thief Sugiura and computer whiz Tsukumo from the original game, a tag team that’s started an independent detective firm called Yokohama 99. Local Seiryo High School is suffering from a bullying and delinquent crisis. From here, our main cast learns there might be connections between this school and the murder, escalating its intensity when gang members, teachers and even politicians are involved. It’s well-paced, engaging and keeps organized via a case log in the menu.

Part of what makes Lost Judgment special is its character lineup, from old friends and rivals to new faces and foes. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which, it is a detective game after all. It’s as complex and interwoven as something like The Wire. The law, police and judicial elements present their own set of motivations. There’s the gangs and underground groups, making alliances and breaking them often enough. Its school story-line also introduces a plethora of great character moments between the chairman, teachers and student body namely via its club setup.

There’s even a scent-sniffing, case-cracking Shiba Inu doggo detective named Ranpo that helps track down bad guys and unearths valuable items. If a buddy like that isn’t a major selling point, I don’t know what is.

It’s hard to describe the basics of a game with this much to offer. Primarily, Yagami explores these cities doing case work as part of the main campaign plus engages in side quests of varying importance. These are organized in the menu as Main Case, Side Cases and School Stories. Main Case maps out all things related to the harassment and murder investigations. Side Cases are tangential case work, ranging from helping citizens to finding collectibles. School Stories involve an investigation into a shady character and student groups, which I’ll dig into later.

In a third person perspective, the player roams about the streets between citizens and tourists, scooping up items and navigating to the next objective. Luckily Yagami is in quite good shape, plus has a nifty skateboard this time around for faster travel. There is formal fast travel via taxis, but I rarely used it until late game because Lost Judgment makes it worth the while to learn the map and pick things up along the way.

Similar to Japanese RPGs of yesteryear, there are random encounters with enemies. There’s also a ton of fighting as part of the main campaign. Combat is great, fluid as ever. A mix between a modern 3D beat-em-up and character action game, it rewards precision of inputs plus creativity rather than button mashing. Yagami can freely swap between three different styles. Crane is for crowd control, with sweeping roundhouse kicks and room-clearing specials. Tiger is meant for mano a mano moments, aggressive bursts of speed and power with evasive maneuvers. Then there’s Snake, the newest of the bunch. This focuses on counters, disarming and turning attacks against opponents. Each of them showcase Yagami’s unique martial arts background and have their own set of skills.

Spicing up basic battling is the EX Action system which allows for unique contextual strikes and various finishers. Landing hits or consuming certain items fills up the EX gauge. Once charged, executing a button prompt will launch into a quick animation showing that respective special move. My favorite might be when this incorporates friendly fighters into the mix, like a tag-team attack from Kaito and Yagami that devastates multiple opponents at once. Then there’s Drunken Fist, a powerful, stumbling punch which activates after he’s consumed one too many libations. EX Surrender is a fun new trick that can be done on “scared” foes, where Yagami pretends like he’s going to attack then scares them enough to tap out.

When the player isn’t knocking around baddies, there’s other interactions and movement abilities. Some of which are related to actual investigative work, which sets Lost Judgment apart from traditional action games. Climbing, stealth, observing, tailing, chasing and lock-picking are all a part of Yagami’s arsenal.

Climbing is a new feature here, and it’s mostly fine. Nothing too special, reminiscent of titles where the path is clear and it’s mainly a matter of flicking the joystick in the right direction. There’s a “grip” meter that rarely dips into dangerous territory especially after a couple upgrades. These sequences open up new avenues for vertical play, even if they prove to be mostly linear and deliberate. There are alternate paths that might have items to pick up. Otherwise it’s a straight shot to the next objective.

Stealth is another system introduced in Lost Judgment. These sequences are more comical than anything, partially because of the tricks used and mostly because of incapable AI. Yagami can toss coins to distract people or toss homemade smoke bombs at their face then choke out unaware guards. I really didn’t mind them, and some were actually really entertaining. They can open up to give the player choice where to go or what to use as a distraction, plus are short enough to not overstay their welcome.

Then there’s the dreaded tailing sequence. The bane of many a game’s existence. But it’s essential in a detective thriller like this. Basic work for a private eye! And while it’s not the best quest type, Lost Judgment makes the best of them. Usually part of a broader mission. Yagami’s tailing abilities are enhanced in this sequel. Rather than only hiding out of sight, he can act busy if his mark suspects he’s spying on them. This leads to silly moments where he’s tying a shoe or pretending to text, clearly not being suspicious at all. The game even pokes fun at itself, admitting in the tutorial that these are totally normal, unsuspecting things people do. In the broader context, it’s among the best tailing in games.

Occasionally a suspect will take off, resulting in a chase. These are smarter in theory than implementation, forcing the player to make quick decisions or pick the correct route. They also get old after a dozen times. There’s light environmental puzzles during which Yagami uses observation mode, a first-person detective trick that can reveal solutions or hint at infiltration paths. The player can use a camera in a photo opportunity mode, which is pretty clever in that there are multiple objectives to snap that perfect shot. Certain cases or discussions require dialogue games or quick choices to determine which evidence is relevant. Yagami is also a master lock-picker. A quick mini-game pops up whenever there’s a stubborn door in the way.

That’s not even to mention the buzzword system and fancy gadgets Yagami finds. The Buzz Researcher phone app is a social media platform which uses certain terms to narrow down search areas. A high-tech Drone is back, which can be used for races or called at will to reach high places. There’s the Noise Amp, an audio gadget which picks up sounds in the environment. And by using the Detector the player can pick up the signal of bugged devices.

What results is a game with myriad ways of approaching investigation, allowing it to feel fresher than if one of them wasn’t present. Not every aspect is a banger yet it’s collectively excellent.

What sets it apart is how Lost Judgment is simultaneously stone-cold serious and incredibly funny, a delicate balancing act where its creators never sacrifice one for the other and build upon the legacy of its predecessor.

So, to what end does the game utilize all of these intertwined functions?

Mostly figuring out the bigger picture, solving crimes and helping people in need. Interspersed with a lot of hi-jinks and hilarity, of course.

The main campaign alone is worth the price of admission. Why would a police officer harass a woman on the train then reveal he knows information about a murder in the courtroom? Does it tie into the bullying case at the local high school because that officer said his son was bullied? How do Yakuza bosses, underground fixers and even political figures fit into the mix? There’s a lot of moving parts, so Lost Judgment does a fantastic job of recapping the story after each of its 13 chapters plus maintaining all the relevant investigation within its simple menu. I wish I could say so much more about the narrative twists and tragedies, because it’s gut-wrenching at times especially in its personal touches and how it portrays people suffering within broken societal systems.

An example of its expert design, especially as a sequel, is a chapter where one of the lawyers at Genda Law Office named Saori Shirosaki decides to go undercover at a girls bar to help Yagami and Kaito find a gang leader. It’s a throwback to one of the missions in Judgment where the player takes control of Saori when she used a similar tactic of getting glammed up to work as a hostess at this same bar. This time, her fellow law colleagues end up showing up at the bar. The player must navigate fake flirting with them while also providing good enough service to earn an introduction to the boss. The sequence involves fast decision-making and showcases the writing team’s prowess, then culminating in an epic fight in the VIP section.

Like many games by RGG Studio, Lost Judgment boasts some of the best side content in the industry. Period. The most robust optional path here is what’s called School Stories. Early in the first chapter while trying to sneakily set up cameras at Seiryo High, the player is caught by whip-smart amateur sleuth Kyoko Amasawa. Turns out she’s the leader and sole acting member of the Mystery Research Club (MRC), for which Yagami becomes an advisor.

Amasawa’s goal is trying to determine the identity of a shady character called The Professor that fulfills students’ nefarious requests on the black market, like quiz results or recent gossip. She asks Yagami to infiltrate different student groups that this Professor is targeting. It’s part advisor work and part undercover, depending on the activity. Within school grounds, the player consults on clubs focused on dance, robotics, photography and even eSports. It then expands outside to a boxing gym, biker gang, girls bar, skateboarding squad and underground casino. Like someone trying to win a “best all around” superlative.

Honestly, these School Stories and the corresponding activities are meaty enough to be their own game. While certain ones are more involved than others, each one has its own quest-line with new characters, an activity, lots of dialogue plus ridiculously funny writing.

One member of the Seiryo Rabbits Dance Club is suspected to be a “sugar baby,” a young woman looking to date older men for their money. As the player investigates, there’s a corresponding rhythm game complete with flashy choreography and frilly outfits to lead the team to nationals. Separately, the president of the eSports squad is accused of cheating and an anti-video games teacher threatens to shut it down. Yagami must perfect his skills at Virtua Fighter 5, yes the actual 2010 game, to challenge its top member to determine his honesty. Then at the casino, the player must duel against a gambling wunderkind who can seemingly predict other people’s actions. An added bonus in that case is the monetary gain, but it’s the lesson that counts right?

If there’s one critique on School Stories, it’s the repetition and resource investment to progress effectively in robotics, boxing and biker gang in particular. The Robotics Club has an entire competitive mode hierarchy where Yagami not only controls its main robot, he also makes key design decisions leading through a major tournament. It takes resources found throughout the world or earned winning scrimmages to beef up the robo-team’s capabilities. Matches can be rage-inducing. The biker infiltration is a similar instance where the player competes in so-called “death races” and must win against underlings before challenging each boss. This requires upgrading multiple motorcycles and winning races.

I’m impressed by how much the development team invested in School Stories, and the end result is pretty stunning in both the narrative reveals and fun activities. It just takes patience and building up to get there, it’s truly a story-line to itself.

There are a whopping 42 side cases in Lost Judgment, some of which are tackled alongside the main quest to gain things like gadgets or buddies like Ranpo the doggo detective. As anticipated from this development team, many of them are quirky, go to unexpected places and result in great rewards, the last of which is key for a successful optional mission to me.

One has Yagami finding The Arachnid Man, as social media chatter suggests there’s someone climbing tall buildings. Another deals with an imposter pretending to be a film studio shooting footage for a robbery scene. A time capsule hunt leads to a potential spark of romance. A particularly unique group of students chase what they think are UFOs. Supposedly a phantom ramen stand only pops up at night, with rumors about its broth being made in an unsavory manner. Someone even impersonates Yagami to give him a bad rep, even when he shouldn’t.

There’s a set of cases under what’s called the Dastardly Detective, a rival private eye that’s bugging regular folks and every day items. Another case has Yagami figuring out why bad things keep happening to people with a particular family heirloom. Separately, in an amazing callback, Judgment fans will remember white ninja Ryan Acosta. Well he’s back, losing members of his dojo to an opposing one in town run by a Russian ninja. Apparently they have some secret weapon, which ends up being one of the oldest tricks in the book.

I’m giving fair warning. I have to spoil that Lost Judgment has one of the single best tailing sequences of all time. You heard that right, an amazing tailing mission. It’s called “My First Errand.” A father contracts Yagami and Kaito with following son Toru during his first solo errand: getting bread from the store. It’s essential not to get caught, otherwise he won’t feel grown up! While tailing this brave boy on a busy street, the duo is almost found out until they blend in by putting their heads in a cardboard cutout. Turns out they are stuck! Kaito has a massive melon and Yagami used the child-sized cutout. The two have to tail behind Toru while moving the cutout, in a ridiculous sequence of banter and embarrassment. The kid bumps into a couple of street punks. The player can’t fight, so it comes down to picking the right facial expression.

This ten minute ordeal reveals the true genius of Lost Judgment: Taking the mundane and making it memorable.

It’s not all business for Yagami Detective Agency. RGG Studio brings its vast suite of mini-games and quick activities to satisfy as much downtime as the player can handle. Drone-racing, dartboards, arcades with pixelated classics, virtual reality, UFO catchers, light-gun games, batting cages, a golf driving range and more I’m probably forgetting because there are so many. Even a fully-functioning Sega Master System with eight games, cartridges like Fantasy Zone and Penguin Land hidden around its world.

The player even gets to pick names for stray kitties who then can be pet, fed and stared at affectionately around the map. It has its own experience point (XP) system, an added bonus since it’s already at maximum cute factor.

Speaking of gaining experience, Lost Judgment is generous with both cash and XP needed to upgrade general statistics and combat abilities. Money is straightforward enough, earned through missions or random finds. There’s vendors and eateries everywhere that offer health, power-ups and materials. The Skills system is robust, falling under multiple categories: Stats, Abilities, Tiger, Crane, Snake and Special. Stats house basic attributes like amount of health, attack power, EX level and experience boosts. Abilities diversify general combat, offering things like wall strikes and running assaults. Tiger, Crane and Snake all relate to each of Yagami’s combat styles. Special skills are anything additional: things like temporary buffs, tailing or observation boosts plus increasing the drunk meter.

I found investing in Abilities and Special to be the most beneficial, then dove more into the three individual fighting technique sets later game. First focused on those that gave more XP in battle and upgrades to the EX gauge, thus boasting a lot of special moves as early as possible.

Items are everywhere in Lost Judgment, depicted by a shiny mark that collects automatically when walking or flying the drone over it. The most rare of these are required to make Extracts, super powerful temporary buffs that unlock after re-connecting with the hermit named Iyama. Each requires an empty vessel and a handful of ingredients, or can be purchased for a high cost, and the result is extraordinary even if short-lived, usually for a minute or two. Die Hard allows for resurrection with full health. Deceptive Mist Tactic throws down a mist that turns foes into allies. Smoke Bomb Tactic is, well, pretty self-explanatory.

The best of the best Extracts were Boon of Fire and Energy Ball. The former gives Yagami ferocious flaming fists while the latter basically turns him into a Street Fighter character and Hadouken energy blasts for a minute straight.

An investment in powerful special moves and Extract usage really spices up what’s already great combat, especially huge group encounters and boss engagements. It’s helpful in sticky situations, some of the most absurd fun to be had within the game’s action.

The more I think about Lost Judgment, the more I adore its eccentric approach. The combination of amazing writing, hilarious dialogue, slick combat, spy tactics and an electrifying main story make for one of the most cohesive works in modern gaming.

One of the main reasons Lost Judgment shines in the context of a popular genre is how its voice acting and character portrayals really benefit its narrative momentum, plus elevate side missions into more remarkable moments. Whenever a game is set in Japan, I’ll play with Japanese audio and English subtitles. This is extremely refined here, with a dazzling cast led by the aforementioned Takuya Kimura. Its most improved aspect is its English dub where Greg Chun takes the lead role.

This ties in with its presentation, character models and attention to detail in even the slightest of areas. Close-ups are often used during cutscenes, showcasing the team’s incredible facial modeling and technical prowess. Food looks appetizing, animal fuzz is realistic, signage reads like real advertising and animations are top-notch. Its in-game menu is represented as a smartphone, each app corresponding to a different function like Skills, Cases or Buzz Researcher.

Audio design and soundtrack are in lockstep with its visual cues. Cats meow in the background. Footsteps scuff along the street. Passerby’s chat with one another. Weapons clunk when used in battle. And the music! How it changes depending on the mood, notably during dialogue sequences. Suspenseful when there’s uncertainty, joyful at times of elation. Good auditory design usually melts into the background, the best of it moves in lockstep with what the player can see.

On the technical side, it’s similar to RGG Studio’s prior project Yakuza: Like a Dragon with two graphical modes. Standard targets 1440p resolution while sticking to 60 frames-per-second while Resolution Priority hits native 4K while capped at 30 frames-per second. I played mostly in Standard where performance was smooth and unencumbered on Xbox Series X.

A game of this magnitude has a lot to organize from a user interface and overall experience standpoint. Lost Judgment does this well enough, especially its cell phone and main menu navigation. The downside is there are minimal quality of life and inconsistent accessibility features. Luckily there’s four difficulty options, including Simple which offers assist functionality. Controls can be remapped. However, colorblind options are nonexistent and text size is fixed. Quick item usage is limited to one at a time, which is borderline embarrassing for a game with this many power-ups. There’s really not much else from an accessibility standpoint, a notable gap compared to where modern games are going.

I did appreciate the team clearly showing a detailed content warning right at the start, before getting into the action. It warns there’s violence, traumatic depictions, sexual assault, bullying and other triggering themes. This is a welcome addition for the sake of everyone’s mental health.

Beyond complaints on the quality of life side and uneven nature of certain School Stories, it’s hard to find many major critiques of Sega’s latest published title. More like minor annoyances.

It certainly could be overwhelming, particularly for first-timers, due to the sheer amount of content. Partially because a lot is carried over from Judgment. While I don’t think it’s essential to play the original, it’s very helpful to at least learn about it via a recap video.

Random encounters are all over the place while exploring, which can disrupt the flow of progress. It’s not that these aren’t useful, it’s the best way to gain XP notably after buying the related abilities that boost XP rate, but can get in the way of faster progression in the narrative. There’s a Stealth Extract that lowers encounter rate, and most can be avoided using the skateboard for movement. Certain times a mini-boss will spawn that guarantees a sizable reward, so those are welcome.

For a game about being a private eye, disguises and outfits are vastly underutilized. Wardrobe changes aren’t allowed other than hyper-specific cases. I’m surprised by this given how much humor means to RGG Studio. Why can’t I dress up as a vampire or show up in cut-scenes as a ninja whenever I want?

Skateboarding around the open city is a great addition. Unfortunately non-playable character density can make it tricky to maneuver across certain areas. This mainly happens in Kamurocho, the area from the first game, because it wasn’t specifically designed for skating. Isezaki Ijincho has more open roads and less crowded areas, plus a skate park area dedicated to trick shows and races.

Its relationship portion is far inferior to Judgment, which had multiple potential romantic interests for Yagami all with differing personalities. It was fun getting to know them, picking which gifts and activities they would like most and building a close connection. Lost Judgment’s only potential match is part of the School Stories at the Girl’s Bar location, requiring a repetitive dialogue mini-game to even unlock the potential for dating.

And, well, there’s still tailing. Even vastly improved or spiced up, slowly following a target remains among the most monotonous of mission types. If someone is vehemently against tailing from a distance, these parts of Lost Judgment won’t be fun.

Its most unforgivable sin is there’s no longer a functioning pinball table at Yagami Detective Agency. How dare they!

The more I think about Lost Judgment, the more I adore its eccentric approach. The combination of amazing writing, hilarious dialogue, slick combat, spy tactics and an electrifying main story make for one of the most cohesive works in modern gaming.

Each type of sequence, whether stealth or tailing, is used in moderation and contributes to its identity as something more than standard third-person action. It’s transcendent in the genre, picking up where the amazing original game left off.

Lost Judgment is that rare jack-of-all-trades title that’s at least good at everything it attempts, if not sensational. It’s the perfect type of experience that can satisfy players of all types. Run-time can be whatever the player makes it, which is a benefit in today’s busy release calendar.

Those that want to mainline its twisting and turning main campaign will be thrilled by Yagami and team’s investigation into the mysterious murder and harassment incident as it escalates to impact teachers, criminal, judicial and even political spheres.

If someone wants to spend hundreds of hours playing mini-games and classic video games, that’s possible too. Then there’s the entire set of school cases that tells a separate unique story while incorporating a number of mini quests and activities of its own.

After plenty of laughs and a few gut-punches, figuratively and quite literally, Lost Judgment proves it’s earned master class status. A most memorable, fantastic journey that serves its audience with welcome distractions and a judicial drama for the ages.

Title: Lost Judgment

Release Date: September 24th, 2021

Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio

Publisher: Sega

Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One.

Final Score: 9/10

Recommendation: It doesn’t take a detective to deduce that Lost Judgment is a must-play RGG Studio joint. It’s a standout of game design balancing its various aspects, where the result is a whole as incredible as most of its parts.

Sources: Sega, Certain Screenshots from Xbox Series X.

-Dom

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