No one comes to the Like a Dragon (or Yakuza, or whatever you want to call it now) series looking for subtlety. In fact, you’d be foolish to do so—the combat involves beating the snot out of hundreds of people on the street, the stories are so operatic they have little basis in reality, and the side quests range from the hilariously over the top to the corny and heartwarming.
Honestly, that’s the charm of the series: every time I pick up a game from RGG Studio, I know I’m in for the ridiculous and the wild. So, when I heard that Yakuza: Like a Dragon dealt with more serious issues, notably the plight of underprivileged and homeless people, I was trepidatious. While the game was imperfect on that front, luckily it was thoughtful and, dare I say, subtle enough to say some serious and important things about its topic.
Lost Judgment tries to do something similar with bullying in Japan, specifically in their schools. Unfortunately, this time RGG Studio ditches the thoughtfulness. They ditch the subtlety. The worst part is that Lost Judgment thinks it has something interesting to say about bullying and justice. It doesn’t.
The story does open compellingly, though. In the first scene, a corpse is discovered that has decayed almost beyond recognition. At the very same moment, a former police officer is being sentenced for sexual assault. As the verdict comes down, he declares that a body will be discovered. Meanwhile, Takayuki Yagami, the series’ lead and a detective based in Kamurocho, is investigating a bullying epidemic in Ijincho that has ties to both the police officer on trial and the dead man. It turns out that the dead man was both a student and a student teacher at the school, who was accused of bullying the police officer’s son years ago. What is their connection? How did the police officer know about the dead body? What do we do about bullies who aren’t punished for their crimes? What is justice anyway? It’s Yagami’s job to find out.
Despite its fast start, Lost Judgment has problems that also plagued Judgment: pacing and respecting players’ intelligence. The narrative shifts from doling out information at a glacial pace, spinning its wheels until we can’t possibly miss a single detail to suddenly moving at such a breakneck speed that nothing ever really congeals. I called the “antagonist” many chapters before Yagami figured it out. After the reveal, there are multiple, self-serious chapters that continually harp on different ideals of justice, none of which make much sense and have certainly been dealt with better elsewhere. The few dumb plot twists the developers toss in later don’t help, either.
And therein lies the most fundamental problem: the ludicrous mixed with the serious. Other RGG games do a great job balancing the ridiculous with the important, but they badly miss the mark this time. Let’s make one thing clear: bullying is a real and prevalent problem in schools. As an American high school teacher, I can attest to that. From what I’ve read, that is certainly the case in Japan too. The bullying in Lost Judgment, though, is so over the top, so insane, it doesn’t have much to do with reality. Scene after scene includes some of the most horrific bullying I’ve ever seen in media. Lost Judgment doesn’t give any attention to the more subtle forms of bullying that are just as insidious, just as horrible, and far more prevalent. By making every incident so intense, the game takes the sting out of the reality it’s trying to shine a light on.
Even worse? The adults’ reaction to it. Yagami seems to think it’s okay to beat the ever-loving daylights out of teenagers on school grounds (and not get arrested for it). He plants cameras in bathrooms to catch the bullies—and somehow, that’s cool. Others seem to think an even more severe punishment is in order. How else are kids these days going to learn? No other reasonable alternatives are offered, certainly by the professionals who, ya know, are actually trained to work with the students. What might make all of this even more frustrating is that there are great moments littered throughout. A teacher reckoning with her silence on bullying. A murderer looking the consequences of his actions in the face. But the rest of the game lets those moments down. Look, I know it’s all meant to be exaggerated and mildly satirical. But Lost Judgment tries to have it all the ways, and as a result, it falls grossly flat.
Maybe the most ridiculous part of the whole story is that beating up children somehow qualifies Yagami to lead a club in the school: the Mystery Research Club. This leads to an optional set of side quests where Yagami embeds himself in multiple groups trying to discover the identity of a “Professor” who is leading kids astray. You might help the dance club spice up their routine by participating in a set of rhythm games. You might help the robotics club have battles with other schools by engaging in a weird tactical game. You might even get to go out and grind some rails with the skating club. Luckily, despite the unbelievable set-up, Lost Judgment‘s side stories are excellent, and a step up from the main story. They focus on the struggles and hopes of real kids who are well-characterized, and the mini-games, while sometimes frustrating (that robotics mini-game will be the death of me), are fun and satisfying. These stories focus on the real issues facing kids, bring in the ridiculous, and manage to balance them effectively, and they positively sing as a result.
The rest Lost Judgment‘s side content is what you’d expect from an RGG title. The side stories are universally delightful; whether you’re chasing down one of the (apparently multiple) perverts around town or trying to take down your self-assigned “Moriarty,” it’s all fun. There’s also a ton of stuff to do, ranging from trying your hand at the batting cages to even playing Master System games in your office. Granted, there’s not a lot that’s new here on the side content front, at least when you take other RGG games into account, but it’s still a blast to hang around in Kamurocho and Ijincho.
When it comes to the gameplay, Lost Judgment is once again a case of…more of the same. That’s mostly good when it comes to things like its action combat. It was already fantastic in Judgment, and it’s even stronger here. You still have multiple combat styles to switch between as you fight the denizens of Kamurocho, including a slower, damage-dealing style (Tiger) and a faster style meant to be effective at taking out mobs (Crane). They’ve even spiffed up those styles to make them more viable. Additionally, they’ve added a “Snake” style, focused on defense and turning the enemies’ moves against them. These styles combine to turn Yagami into, quite frankly, a god in combat, making taking down the enemies shockingly easy and fun. And if you struggle? You can always spam items. It’s fun, it’s fast, and it’s bone-crunching. I’m glad that despite abandoning the action combat in the “main” series, RGG is still working on perfecting it over here in this side series.
Unfortunately, Lost Judgment still struggles to integrate the “detective” elements effectively. Luckily, tail missions have been minimized, but they’re still boring and frustrating. The “find the clues” sections still boil down to walking around and waiting until you click on the right thing to advance the plot. The “present the evidence” sections are so painfully obvious that they lack any punch. They’ve even added a few new half-baked mechanics to further my frustration. This time you can go into “stealth” mode, but that mode is shockingly linear, with only a couple of tools at your disposal to move through them. Oh, but wait…this time, you get to do PARKOUR! Once again, it’s underutilized, not very intuitive, and not nearly as fun as it should be. I feel RGG needs to focus more on improving the existing mechanics before adding more. Then maybe they could be on to something.
Fortunately, there are two things RGG absolutely has down with these games: the look and the sound. I played Lost Judgment on my Steam Deck, and even running on higher graphical settings, I had absolutely no problems (though my battery didn’t love me). It looks great in motion, and while it’s not going to rival something like Elden Ring, the visuals more than do the job. The soundtrack is filled with excellent track after excellent track, effectively matching the emotions I should have had during the different moments. Even though it feels like they’ve lost a bit of the noir-inspired jazz from the first game and are now focusing more on guitar-driven tracks, the music still works. Plus, the voice acting is outstanding from top to bottom.
I know I’ve been pretty negative about many elements of Lost Judgment, but it’s because it does so much well. The balancing act RGG plays with its titles is a tricky tightrope to walk, and they usually knock it out of the park. That they failed to do so here is just disappointing. Nonetheless, the fact that this game came to Steam might—might—mean we can see more titles in the future, and there’s a lot of potential here. If they can build a more compelling mystery, be more thoughtful about the serious issues they want to address, and fix the detective elements, they might be onto something special here. Most people seem to think they already are. Maybe next time, I can too.