For a medium as aesthetically and technologically diverse as video games, a lot of actual games are kind of similar.
There are games where you kill things, games where you solve a puzzle, and games where you play a sport. That’s… kind of it. I’m being reductive, I know, but the point I’m trying to make here is that the folks at Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, the developer behind the Yakuza franchise, have landed on something in 2019’s Judgment and its new sequel, Lost Judgement, that isn’t really any of those things. Or maybe it’s all of those things? Lost Judgment is kind of The Most video game, in the sense that it contains little bits of every other video game, but it also is so unlike almost literally anything else — and I don’t mean in terms of video games, I mean anything else — that it’s difficult to really quantify.
Not to be all “let’s back up,” but, well: Lost Judgment is a follow-up to Judgment, a sort-of spin-off of the cult hit Yakuza series. In both games, you play as lawyer-turned-private investigator Takayuki Yagami, a man who spends his life either solving mysteries (ranging in stakes from “completely meaningless” to “life and death”) or getting into ridiculous, over-the-top fistfights with random arseholes walking down the street. I wanted to like the original a lot, because that all sounds great on paper, but I ultimately found the story and the game’s world a little stiff and cold.
I felt the same way at the start of Lost Judgment. I like the main characters and I still love the idea of solving crimes in Tokyo, but so much of its moment-to-moment gameplay is so outrageously tedious that I once again started tuning out until the next time I was prompted to hit a button. Lost Judgment is the kind of game where you’ll be told to walk to a door, then you’ll walk to the door and hit the “open door” button, triggering a cutscene where Yagami enters a room, talks to the people in that room, and is then asked to have a seat. The cutscene will then end, you’ll get control of Yagami back so you can push forward on the control stick for two seconds and walk him over to a nearby chair, and then another cutscene will trigger.
That may seem like a hyper-specific example, but Lost Judgment is absolutely stuffed with little moments like that where something meaningless happens, you’re briefly teased with the prospect of doing something, and then another meaningless thing happens. It’s frustrating, especially when it gets in the way of stuff that is fun or interesting.
Because, you see, there is something there. Something that sparkles. Something that shows why Ryu Ga Gotoku games have such hardcore fans. Lost Judgment is truly fascinating in a way that most video games are not, to the point where the only comparison I could make is to the previous game in the series (even the Yakuza series is a little more grounded in its reality). Where else — not just in video games, but in the entirety of fiction — can you find a story where the hero spends one minute investigating a grisly murder, the next minute getting into a kung-fu battle with teenagers, the next minute teaching a school dance club new moves, and the minute after that playing freakin’ Motor Raid in an arcade? And it all feels tonally consistent?
I would theorise that the reason there isn’t really anything like Lost Judgment, and why the moment-to-moment action of the game doesn’t make any sense, is because Lost Judgment is a bizarrely faithful recreation of real life. Maybe not the literal act of living a real life, but an artistic expression of what it’s like to live a real life — like the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater version of having a job and friends and hobbies. It’s not really like this, but it feels like this.
A real person might spend their day investigating a grisly murder, but unless they’re the hero in a detective story, it might not really consume their every waking moment. They’ll still eat meals. They’ll still… go to an arcade to play Motor Raid. Life is disjointed and weird and random. You get stuck in conversations that don’t make sense or are mostly irrelevant to whatever you’re trying to do with your day. It’s not all searching for clues and skateboarding and using deadly martial arts moves on teenagers. (This is a running joke in Lost Judgment that, to my estimation, will never stop being funny).
Lost Judgment demands patience and tolerance, the former for some of its more tedious tendencies, and the latter for its more absurd attempts to shoot for the moon. It is sometimes very fun and sometimes very engaging. Other times I hit the button to skip cutscenes or purposefully engage in difficult fights with jerks on the streets because it gives me something to do. Just like real life… well, not the street fights, so much as the being patient for the boring stuff, and tolerant of the goofy nonsense that doesn’t make any sense.