Kaiju Video Games – City Shrouded in Shadow

A new entry in the Kaiju video games series! Sorry for the long delay between articles, Dawn of the Monsters took a lot of my 2022 energy and I’m now also producing more video content over on the official Control All Monsters YouTube channel! Hopefully more regular updates in 2023.

Genre: Action Adventure

Players: 1

Release Date: 2017

Platform: PS4

Director: Kazuma Kujo

Developer: Granzella

Publisher: Bandai Namco

What do a classic arcade space shooter, a Japanese 70s disaster flick, the PlayStation 2, and the 2011 Tohoku tsunami and earthquake disaster have to do with a giant monster game? A lot. Let’s dig into City Shrouded in Shadow.

Japan Sinks (1973) poster

To talk about how City Shrouded in Shadow, we need to go all the way back to 2002. Japanese game company Irem (most famously known for their R-Type series of arcade shooting games) has just released Disaster Report on the PlayStation 2 in Japan. The game, produced and directed by Kazuma Kujo, is a 3rd person narrative-focused action game that sees a group of people trying to escape the collapse of a manmade island. Kujo had worked with Irem beofre, contributing to titles such as In The Hunt, and Metal Slug (developed by ex-irem staff at Nazca). Kujo explained that the chief inspirations behind the game were the 1973 Toho film Japan Sinks, and Takao Saito’s 1976 manga series Survival.

Takao Saito’s Survival volume 10 (1976)

Incredibly unique in its concept and execution, Disaster Report became a success in Japan and a cult hit in North America, where Agetec released it (with a very questionable english localization that replaced the Japanese main characters with blonde-haired caucasians). The success of the first game allowed Kujo to immediately hop into a second, titled Raw Danger in English speaking territories.

This game expanded on the first with new mehcanics and a new disaster: a massive flood. Like the first game, it has a laughable localization that gives formerly Japanese characters all blonde hair. The game released in 2006 but a sequel was already underway for a new platform: The PlayStation Portable.

In 2009 Irem released Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 3: Kowareyuku Machi to Kanojo no Uta. Notice that I’m using the series Japanese title here? Well, that’s because the game didn’t see release in any English-speaking territories.

All in all, one of the most impressive elements of the series is how seriously and realistically it attempts to protray a disaster situation and the freedom it gives the player to navigate that space. Games in the series all have multiple endings, and if you so wish you can choose entirely to help or abandon people in need.

The 4th game in the series was set to be the best yet, with an earthquake setting, fully customizable characters, PlayStation move and 3D support, and the largest cast of characters in the series history. The game was set to release on March 10th, 2011, but Kujo and the team needed more time to develop the game so on February 10th, 2011, they announced a delay to “spring.”

original announcement image for the cancelled Disaster Report 4

A day and a month later, the largest earthquake in the history of Japan triggered the events that lead to the worst disaster in Japan since the Great Kano Earthquake of 1923. I don’t find numbers really do the tragedy justice, but I do want to note that this event killed over 19,000 people, injured over 6,000, and led to more than 2,500 people to be reported as missing. This isn’t even discussing the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown disaster. The aftershocks of this events weren’t limited to April 2011 Miyagi Earthquake, but were felt culturally and economically across the nation.

So it should come as no surprise, then, that Kuzo and Irem at large were not in an enviable position. They had a practically completed game about surviving and earthquake set to come out in a month or less, but how could they release it? Would it even be possible to release it? They didn’t take much time to make a decision and 3 days after the disaster they announced the cancellation of Disaster Report 4.

This would, in a way, lead to the next chapter in Kazuma Kujo’s career. In an interview with 1up, he explains:

1UP: Can you talk about the cancellation of Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 4?

Kujo: Well, one thing was that the development of the game was behind schedule. This is something that the business side of Irem and I both agreed and I have no problems with this decision, but there was no way we could have released the title after that event in March. So, we discussed, well, can we release it three months from now? Six months? There was no way we could decide on something like that after the earthquake. We also couldn’t continue to tell the press and public that we were working on a title that we couldn’t set a release date to. So, our only option was to cancel the title. That’s what was discussed and decided between management at Irem and myself. After seeing the effects of the earthquake and tsunami, it just became impossible to set a release date for that title.

1UP: Did you hear from the public about the nature of the game? Was there support for it? Did people find it distasteful?

Kujo: Yes, of course. The earthquake happened on March 11th. And, we announced the cancellation of the game on the 14th, three days after the disaster hit. During that time, we received about 20 letters criticizing us for being insensitive in creating a game about earthquake disasters. Twenty letters from the public. Then, after the 14th when we announced the cancellation of the game, we received 500 letters asking us to withdraw the announcement. And, we (Nishiyama and I) read all 500 letters.

1UP: How did those 500 letters make you feel?

Kujo: Well, they all said basically to withdraw the announcement. And, about a week after the earthquake we even received a letter from the earthquake and tsunami victim. There was a government employee who wrote saying that they were writing from a disaster struck area but not to cancel the game. And that’s when I felt that we shouldn’t cancel the game. But, could I have released the game then? Probably not. I was scared to release the game.

Irem can no longer release that game. But, not me. When I read that letter, I strongly felt that someday I have to release that game.

1UP: Is that one of the main reasons why you left the company?

Kujo: Hmm. That’s not the only reason. Toward the beginning of the year, Irem really limited what I could say to the public. One thing I can say is that the earthquake did have an effect on the cancellation of the game, but in the announcement of the cancellation of the game, it doesn’t say anywhere that we cancelled the game due to the earthquake. Other companies said in their announcements, “Due to the earthquake, we have delayed the game.” But, it doesn’t say that anywhere in Irem’s announcement. Even without the earthquake, it was becoming difficult to do a lot of things at Irem. It just happened to coincide with the earthquake, so if the game had been finished, they may have released the game.

Kujo left Irem shortly after the cancellation of Disaster Report 4, and in April 2011 formed a new studio with other former Irem staff. The studio would be called Granzella, based off the Granzella Revolution Army from R-Type Tactics II.

It took a few years for something to materialize out of Granzella, and even though in 2014 they announced the acquisition of the rights to the Disaster Report franchise from Irem, there was no new game on the horizon. A disaster game in a country so recently battered by one was still a red hot issue. But Kujo-san specialized in making that kind of game! If only there was a way to make a new Disaster Report title, without the natural disasters…

In September 2015 they announced a project in collaboration with Bandai Namco Entertainment. Project: City Shrouded in Shadow was mysteriously revealed with some images showcasing a city that would end up being destroyed by mysterious and destructive “shadows.” A trailer followed in December showing a man trying to survive as a giant shadow destroyed a nondescript Japanese city.

image from the initial 2015 teaser trailer for the game, showing shadowy giants

We wouldn’t find out until years later what the true intention behind the creation of this game was. The shadow we saw in 2015 was just a teaser, and instead the creatures we would be avoiding in the game were Ultraman, Godzilla, Mothra, Gamera, Eva Units, and Patlabors!

The concept of the game was one that Kujo and Bandai Namco Entertainment Producer Kensuke Tsukanaka had started ideating on back during his time at Irem. Tsukanaka desperately wanted to work with Kujo on a new title, and the idea of creating a game where you have to survive famous japanese science fiction scenes featuring giants was a strong one. The idea was kept practically untouched from conception to final product. Tsukanaka and Kujo insist the idea was not at all influenced by Disaster Report, but the game mechanics, tone, and staff are all shared. It’s hard not to see this as “how to make a new disaster report while sidestepping 3/11.”

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing! While the game took a while to develop, the concept is brilliant, and the response to the trailer was strong. A game filled with giant heroes and monsters where you are just a regular person is very relatable. It gives the player a sense of perspective that no other medium can really offer. In the game you can choose to run away and hide in safety or to stand there and marvel at the battles unfolding (even if it may mean death!). It allows you to put a kaiju battle into perspective in the unique way that only video games can. As I played, I found myself just watching in awe, appreciating the sights and sounds of a monster battle from this perspective. I don’t care much for VR, but this was the first time I wished a game supported it!

The game itself plays like a mix of Until Dawn and a Yakuza side mission. You need to fulfill several (often goofy) objectives all while speaking with other characters and avoiding obstacles and monsters with a mix of real time 3D navigation and quick time events. There are lengthy cutscenes and plenty of dialogue and the game is split into 15(?) stages. You can find money, items, and food to keep your health in check and you can even blow wads of cash on stupid costumes to wear while you play.

There are a lot of dialogue choices in the game, but none seem to have a significant effect on the game’s outcome. They can sometimes open up alternate routes or scenarios, but more than anything they are there to give you a feeling of ownership over your character. There is only one ending to the game, so you are free to act as you please, which is quite liberating for a game like this. My Japanese is limited, so while I was able to enjoy some of these dialogue choices (especially the comical ones- which I always chose), for non-Japanese speakers it could be perceived as a serious drag for the game’s pacing.

The game has one thing in spades: charm. While the controls are a bit janky, and the graphics certainly aren’t cutting edge, the game feels like the developers had genuine fun creating it. You will be chased by relentless gangsters attempting to beat you to a pulp, you’ll end up on a cargo ship trying to dry off your wet clothes, you’ll run around a laboratory finding key cards and avoiding alien dada, and you can even change you hair and use the toilet in a convenience store- all while your girlfriend runs alongside you happily. It’s absolutely bizarre how the game will have you play through the horrifying tunnel scene from Gamera 2: Advent of Legion one minute, and the next you’ll be given the option to laugh at a mother who lost her son, followed by a motorcycle sequence on a bridge. It’s tonal whiplash, but in a way that works, like the Yakuza series.

The real stars of this show, however, are the guest “shadows” that are terrorizing the city. These sequences are a joy to behold, and each chapter smartly builds up to their arrival. You don’t know who’s gonna show up next, and that’s part of the fun! Don’t go online ahead of time and spoil yourself on this. It’s a genuine pleasure not knowing who is coming up next, and it feels like an elaborate theme park attraction.

Kujo and co chose the characters they did based not on popularity, but on what scenarios would be the most interesting from the perspective of a regular person. What would a civillian think if they saw two Ultramen fighting? Would they know one is a fake Ultraman and the other is actually Alien Zarab? How would a bystander feel if they saw Kiryu show up and then go berserk and attack the city? The scenarios all have this element that makes being a bystander more fun than just “oh, there’s a big monster” so even the uninitiated will be intrigued. The cheeky layer on top is that many players will know the context, and those super fans will get a kick out of what they see.

While Bandai Namco and Granzella have not divulged much in terms of how they pulled off the licensing feat of getting all of these characters in one game (especially given how strict Toho can be with Godzilla), we may have some clues. First off, being an innocent bystander who cannot interfere in the battles allowed the licensors to know exactly what was going to happen every time someone played the game. When Godzilla and King Ghidorah show up, they fight each other and nobody else. When Ultraman and Taro show up, they can’t fight each other. The player never controls these larger than life characters. This limits the unpredictability.

Second is that no two company’s intellectual property ever share any kind of screen or world space together nor do they influence each other in any way, shape, or form. For all intents and purposes when Gamera shows up, it’s as if Godzilla never existed. I believe this is the key that allowed all of these groups to agree to be in the game together. Godzilla and Gamera have never shared a screen together, and this game does not change that. The closest we get is this promotional poster I photographed at TGS 2017:

However, I want to mention something. Granzella and Bandai made the bold choice to license some of the most popular science fiction characters in Japan, but didn’t include a single one on the cover of the game. When asked about this, Kujo explained that if they were trying to make a game targetting kaiju and tokusatsu fans, there would be the basic expectation that they could control the monsters or heroes on the cover. Kujo continues “I didn’t intend to make the story of the original character itself the main axis, but to make it a digest-like game in which giant heroes appear one after another.” in other words, as the box describes “THIS IS NOT THE STORY OF SOME HERO, THIS IS YOUR STORY.” Sorry Ultraman fans! You’re not becoming a giant in this game!

I bring this up because while I thoroughly enjoyed playing this game, it’s not what you would expect out of a kaiju game. It’s highly entertaining as a kaiju and tokusatsu fan, but you have to go in with the right expecation to get the most out of it. You’re a bystander, a “rubbernecker,” and a nobody. You are trying to survive a disaster, so don’t expect to play as kaiju, or even get grand narrative payoffs about why the kaiju have appeared and how the battles end up. This game is not about that.

And ultimately, that’s the beauty of this game. It really stands out in the Kaiju Video Game genre as something wholly unique and completely fitting. It’s probably the only time I’ve played a game and thought “wow, I would LOVE to play this in VR!” The fact that it is Japanese-only with no fan-translation is a bummer, but playing with a google translated guide should get most people through. So even with its drawbacks, this game gets a solid recommendation out of me!

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