“Lost Judgment is a very personal thing for me, because you can’t really call something an IP until it becomes a series,” Lost Judgment director Kazuki Hosokawa tells me about the upcoming sequel, the second chapter in a spin-off to the beloved Yakuza franchise.
Having spent years as a niche Japanese property, the last generation of consoles saw Yakuza explode in the West, adopting millions of new players and allowing Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio to push the series in untold new directions. As the story of Kazuma Kiryu drew to a close, experimental releases like Yakuza: Like A Dragon saw it adopt a RPG template in a similar vein to Persona, while Judgment strived to maintain the brawler combat while moving away from a narrative defined by the criminal underworld. The spin-off was a huge success because it was so different, and the team wasn’t afraid of criticism for rocking such a steady boat.
“For the past six of seven years I’ve just been working on Yakuza, and had always been thinking about wanting to create a new IP,” Hosokawa-san says. “There were definitely a lot of ideas that weren’t greenlit, but one of the ideas that actually made it to launch was Judgment. There weren’t many uncertainties in my mind about fans not accepting something different, it was more of a mindset of really wanting to create something new, because I want to present an experience to players that is totally different from Yakuza. There’s a lot of limitations, because the framework is based on Yakuza, so it’s not an entirely separate universe, but I’m so happy I was able to realize this and create something.”
Hosokawa-san’s first time in the director’s chair came with Yakuza: Dead Souls, a critical and commercial failure in the West that fared moderately well in Japan. This was before the property would become a global blockbuster, and poor sales saw Sega put Yakuza on the backburner for the foreseeable future. Yakuza 5 was launched in the interim, and it wasn’t until three years later thanks to incredibly vocal support from fans that it would receive a digital release outside of Japan. For so long, Yakuza faded into obscurity, but Hosokawa-san doesn’t share any regrets from his time on Dead Souls, yet recognises the limitations he had to work with. “[Dead Souls] was the first game I directed and it was filled with learning experiences,” Hosakawa-san explains. “I learned how to manage a game and bring it through the initial stages of development and properly wrap things up for release. There was so much I learned for my personal growth, even if business wise it might not have led to much. Personally, it was an experience that I wouldn’t be here without.
“This is a little bit of behind the scenes stuff, but the team was also working on Binary Domain, so resources were limited when creating Dead Souls. It was a very small team with other limitations, and so we saw it as a testing ground to see what we could do with [Yakuza]. It was a great environment, and there wasn’t much pressure because it was such a small game, and it’s something that still resonates with me a lot today.” Hosokawa-san has since helmed the likes of Yakuza 5, 0, and Judgment, all of which are beloved by fans and helped shape the studio into what it is today. Dead Souls might not be huge amongst fans, but it remains an important milestone in the series’ history, and for that very reason it shouldn’t be discarded as an abject failure.
Lost Judgment is also a proving ground in many ways, acting as Hosokawa-san’s first sequel as a director and a way for the team to build upon the original game’s ideas. “The themes and dramatic storytelling were received very well globally, so we once again want to have a really good storyline, and maybe even surpass the original Judgment,” Hosokawa-san tells me. “As for the different game elements and features, Judgment was the first time we created a lot of them, so we received a lot of feedback from fans on what could be different or made a bit better. We tried to make everything more intuitive and more fun.” While Judgment still has a major focus on combat, far more time is spent solving puzzles, tracking down suspects, and donning disguises – all elements the studio were toying with for the very first time. For the sequel, all of these elements feel smoother, like they belong.
However, much of this sequel was also developed while the world was in lockdown, with Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio having to work together remotely as Japan moved in and out of national lockdowns and mandatory restrictions. “Lost Judgment was impacted directly by the global pandemic,” Hosokawa-san says. “Both Yakuza and Judgment have overlapping team members and we’ve been working together for so many years and one of the reasons we work so well together is because of how we communicate. Our usual communication style when we’re in the studio wasn’t possible when working remotely, so it definitely took a toll on us.
“About a year ago when we were in the initial phase of development there was no lockdown in Japan, and the situation wasn’t as severe, but once we entered the final stages of production, things were getting serious and it became harder to communicate. There was a loss of speed and we wished we were able to discuss things faster. If we were in person, we would have been able to do that, so it was definitely a cause for stress." Hozokawa-san praises video conferencing software as a perfect way to list out tasks and duties, but when it comes to exploring creative ideas with fellow team members, it simply isn’t the same as speaking in person. Sadly, it might be around for the foreseeable future as things slowly but surely return to normal.
The pandemic has been accompanied by a continuous surge in popularity for Yakuza and Judgment, with a large number of games in the series arriving on new platforms in the past couple of years. As a director, Hosokawa-san is keenly aware of this global success, and how it might impact a team who are arguably used to working within smaller parameters. Given the toll simply living life has taken on people’s mental health in recent months, he wants to be there for his team. “I’m the producer of the series, so I’m looking after the development staff and making sure their work environment is a healthy one,” Hosokawa-san tells me. “I want to make sure they’re able to come to work motivated and do their jobs. Having [Yakuza and Judgment] on different platforms around the world, it wasn’t just the workload that put pressure on the team, but mentally it was stressful to manage not just for me, but for the entire team. It was a challenging experience, so much so that I’d feel so much stress I wouldn’t want to go into work some mornings.”
During the roundtable interview, Hosokawa-san talks about the studio’s future, and how it hopes to continue with worldwide launches for future titles while possible exploring games in the Yakuza series that leave Japan behind, taking characters to new countries with new locations to explore, battles to fight, and mysteries to uncover. Much like Tales of Arise, Japan is now looking towards the wider world with a solid understanding of why its games are so appealing. People love Yakuza for how it depicts iconic Japanese landscapes and has an understanding of its culture, all told from a touching, melodramatic perspective.
To end our conversation, I decided to shift things into a rather silly direction. John Wick is a powerful man, but could he win in a fight against Kazuma Kiryu? “So [Kazuma Kiryu] isn’t really a human, so it’s hard to have an equal battle with John Wick,” Hozokawa-san says, laughing as he remembers me asking him the same question a couple of years ago. “I think Kiryu is probably stronger than John Wick, because you can’t kill him even after shooting him with a gun.” Judgment’s protagonist isn’t so lucky: “On the other hand, Yagami is human, he isn’t superhuman like Kiryu, and since John Wick is pretty good with knives and guns, I don’t think he’ll have a chance against him.” Let’s get Keanu Reeves into Yakuza 8 and settle this once and for all.
Lost Judgment is coming to PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S on September 24.