Lost Judgment hits an important milestone when it launches this week. As a detective spin-off of the long-running gangster brawling Yakuza series, it’s the first time a title in the franchise is shipping simultaneously worldwide rather than months or even years later that fans of Japanese games have had to endure.
It’s not quite RGG Studio’s first attempt at a worldwide launch, that would be 2012’s sorely underrated Binary Domain (albeit released in the same month rather than day-and-date). That however was also a game with an international cast designed to appeal to a Western market obsessed with gritty cover-based shooters, in other words the opposite of the intrinsically and culturally Japanese product that is Yakuza – or Ryu Ga Gotoku as it is natively known and where the Sega developer takes its name from.
The franchise’s journey from Japanese niche to the global brand that Sega now considers it as today has been a long one, and Lost Judgment’s localisation producer Scott Strichart tells us, “It’s something we’ve been building toward over the last few releases. The original Judgment was the first to get an English dub and subtitles outside English, then Yakuza: Like a Dragon expanded the platforms.”
The trajectory of the franchise also made it the perfect time to introduce English dubbing since Judgment introduced a brand new cast, as did Like A Dragon, though hardcore fans can still choose Japanese audio regardless. Nonetheless, in order to reach a wider audience, the option for not just an English dub but a high-quality dub was as essential, as much as the ability to play it day and date without the prospect of spoilers hanging over the internet for months on end.
“We never could have jumped straight into a global launch without having that know-how first,” Strichart adds. “With those pipelines established, it was kind of like, ‘And for our next trick, let’s do it all faster.’”
Of course, when a series has always been developed with the intent of being made for Japan first and then localised afterwards (indeed, from its inception creator Toshihiro Nagoshi had intended Yakuza as a game laser-targeted purely at Japanese adult men), the challenges to make it a day-one global release must have been daunting, though Strichart assures me there wasn’t any strongarming between Sega’s American and Japanese divisions to make it happen. “It was a challenge we all wanted to step up to. The cooperation and trust between our teams is very strong, and this was the ultimate test of it.”
“The complications were infinite, stemming from the primary complication of starting a localisation for a game as it was being written and built,” he continues. “This required us to have an open forum with RGG for all of our questions about the story, characters, and mechanics.”
If the challenge of localising alongside development wasn’t enough, Lost Judgment was also made during a pandemic. While Like A Dragon’s voice-acting had largely wrapped prior to countries entering lockdown back in 2020, the English recording for Lost Judgment was made possible by voice recording studio PCB Productions who had whole rigs consisting of a PC, a pre-amp, and a mic, shipped to actors’ homes to ensure the consistency of audio across the game. “We’d record over video conference, stopping for anything from noisy neighbours to gardeners to airplanes,” said Strichart. “Actors all had different booth setups too, with varying internet issues, soundproofing, and so many other variables – it’s a miracle we got this game recorded.”
Whereas previous localisations involved working with a game that’s already finished, there was technically more work localising alongside development as any aspect of the game could change, “which would in turn cause entire sections of text we’d have completed to get thrown out and need to be rewritten. I think we learned a lot about each other’s processes doing it this way.”
On the other hand, it’s also an earlier opportunity to catch and feedback anything that might prove impossible to localise, such as how in Like A Dragon you encounter an English-speaking NPC – though Strichart did come up with a masterful solution for the English dub by requesting the devs to add a fourth-wall-breaking animation to acknowledge the absurdity.
However, this didn’t mean imposing on the Japanese team on making changes for the sake of tailoring to Western sensibilities. “We take the opportunity to point out things that might not land how they’re expecting them to in the West or even just minor inconsistencies, and from there, it’s up to [the developers] if they want to adjust it,” Strichart explains. “We recognise and respect that it’s their game, and we’re all working as a team to make sure the game succeeds on a global scale.”
When talking about the recent global renaissance of the Japanese games industry, it’s hard not to consider Sega (and its subsidiary Atlus) as an integral part of this comeback – after all, what two game franchises better encapsulate modern Japanese culture than Yakuza and Persona? As a veteran in localisation for Japanese companies including Atlus, Square Enix and Level-5 before returning to Atlus and then Sega leading Yakuza’s localisation efforts, how does Strichart explain this renewed appeal in Japanese games? Has it just been a matter of timing that Japanese culture is no longer seen as too weird and exotic, better quality localisation, and better marketing?
“It’s a combination of all those things,” he replies. “When I started at Atlus in 2007, I think there was an industry-wide stigma attached to Japanese games, maybe driven by a sense of inferiority or being a niche interest that caused a lot of Japanese developers to attempt to make games specifically with the larger AAA Western market in mind. Over time though, that mindset has changed. There’s been a realization that to have global appeal, Japanese developers just have to be themselves, and Western publishers of that content have to let them do that.”
“In a nutshell, that’s what you’re seeing with the success of Yakuza. We’re giving it the localization it deserves, and the marketing is no longer spinning it like it’s some kind of Japanese GTA, it’s, ‘Get in, gamers, we’re going to Japan’!”
Lost Judgment also comes full circle for Strichart, as a substantial part of the game is set in a Japanese high school. While arguably designed to appeal to Japanese players’ nostalgia of high school, having worked on the localisation of high school-set RPG Persona 4, that must have felt oddly familiar for him too? “In more ways than one! I worked primarily on the characters within Yasogami High School for Persona 4 – the teachers, the sports club and band social links, and the students on the first couple floors,” he says.
But while it’s easy to point to the school content as a bit of wholesome nostalgia that also taps into Lost Judgment’s wacky side, whether you’re helping out an amateur detective club, taking part in rhythm-based dancing competitions, or getting around town on a skateboard, it’s also a setting for some very dark and sensitive themes like bullying and teenage suicide, and I wonder if there’s a worry that this can get lost in favour of amusing memes.
“Well, the numbers don’t lie – when we do trailers, social, or other activations around the fun side of the content, we get way larger engagement than we do on the serious stuff,” Strichart explains. “And that feeds back into it in some ways: If “You can walk the dog!!!” resonates better than “Behind every truth is either ruin or salvation” what do you think the team will (rightly) hone in on?”
Of course, longtime Yakuza fans will know how the series is prone to flip the tone between heavy melodrama and absurd comedy, something he believes more developers aiming for “cinematic grit” could learn from. “Just to be clear though, yes, Lost Judgment is dark. It’s the first time we’ve put a content warning inside the typical ‘Work of Fiction’ notice you get when you start a new game. September is Suicide Prevention Month, and we’re releasing a game that deals heavily with that subject, among others – so I’m glad the whole team at Sega is doing what we can to advise players to exercise caution before and while playing.”
A September release also puts Lost Judgment just outside of the holiday window when it could be overshadowed by the usual AAA blockbuster juggernauts, although this month has inadvertently become much busier than anyone had anticipated. Strichart is ultimately not worried about the competition, or at least doesn’t show it. “You gotta release your game when it makes sense for you as a publisher, not as some kind of sweaty-palmed ‘this date looks safe enough’ pin. Lost Judgment’s window looked empty enough back in May, and now we’re launching against Death Stranding’s Director’s cut, and that director happens to be celebrated Japanese icon, Hideo Kojima. What can you even do except put your game out with the confidence in knowing that your audience is going to come for it, and that if it’s a good game, that audience will grow?”
It remains to be seen whether Lost Judgment will grow in quite the same way as the mainline Yakuza series. Despite releasing as a cross-gen title, it’s missing PC as a platform, reportedly due to a disagreement with lead actor Takuya Kimura’s talent agency which may even see the series cut short just as it’s in its stride. Regardless of its future, it still cements the once near-exclusively Japanese franchise as a worldwide brand, and having crossed this threshold, there’s surely no going back for RGG Studio.
Lost Judgement is out now