Image courtesy of Phoenix Game Productions LLC

Crafting the neon lights and crushingly loud music of Tokyo Underground Killer

Brian Crecente |
March 13, 2023
Daniel Hedjazi is a German game creator, who has worked in the Japanese game industry for 10 years. He worked as a game designer at CyberConnect2 and Platinum Games, before opening his own development studio Phoenix Game Productions in early 2019 in Osaka.
When it hits later this year, Tokyo Underground Killer will be the first completely original game from Osaka-based studio Phoenix Game Productions.

And boy will it be original.

The game, which received an Epic MegaGrant, drops players into a neon-saturated version of Tokyo as the supernatural-powered assassin Kobayashi, as he slashes and shoots his way through legions of deranged criminals inspired by a dead pop singer turned cult leader.

We chatted with studio head Daniel Hedjazi about how Unreal Engine helped the early team of two do quick-turnaround prototyping, why the engine’s Editor Utility Widget is the secret hero of the game’s development, and what Talking Head song became the single unwavering inspiration for Tokyo Underground Killer’s story.
 

What made you decide to open a studio in Osaka?

Daniel Hedjazi:
To be honest, it didn’t take long to make that decision, since I was living in Osaka at that point for a few years already. Considering the high cost of living and the large number of development studios present in Tokyo, I felt establishing ourselves in Osaka would be the right choice for a small studio like ours. 

You’ve written about the three pillars of Phoenix Game Productions. They are creative development mixing different types of media, having an open approach towards genres, and using a flexible development style. Now that the studio has been operating for about four years, do you think those pillars still apply and how have they shaped the sort of games you work on?

Hedjazi:
The pillars are an important part of our studio, not just for Tokyo Underground Killer, but also for what we want the studio to be in the future. Depending on the project, one pillar might be stronger than another, and as the company grows the pillars evolve with it, but in the end, they should always have a presence in the projects we decide to do.

How did you come up with the initial idea for Tokyo Underground Killer?

Hedjazi:
I wrote the first draft of the game in spring 2014, while I was still living in Fukuoka. At that time, I had this really vivid image in my mind, of someone running frenetically through the streets of Tokyo, while slowly drowning in a blur of neon light and crushingly loud music, with no time to ever slow down. This image stuck with me, and so I wanted to find a way to translate it into a game. The name Tokyo Underground Killer followed naturally, and it felt right to me from the very beginning.

From that point on, I constantly thought about this game and what it would play and feel like. So when I set up the studio, I knew that now was the time to finally realize this idea. And thankfully, I found many amazing and talented collaborators, who were interested in creating this vision together.
Image courtesy of Phoenix Game Productions LLC
On the studio’s website, you write that you believe that breaking with established rules and following one`s own vision can be key to creating unique and captivating experiences. How has that belief influenced the evolution of Tokyo Underground Killer’s design?

Hedjazi:
I think without that mindset, the game would have turned out quite differently, because most of us didn’t approach the game as making an FPS. So the structure and rhythm of the levels works a bit differently from other shooters, closer to something like Hotline Miami. We also would not have put that much focus on our Visual Novel system probably, which takes up a good portion of the game.

Still, we can go much further with this philosophy, and that’s the direction I also want our studio to head into in the upcoming years.
Image courtesy of Phoenix Game Productions LLC
What made you decide to use Unreal Engine for the game’s development?

Hedjazi:
When the project started out with initially just two people, we needed to be able to quickly prototype our gameplay and iterate on it. Unreal Engine is perfect for that, and we knew that we could get quick results just by using Blueprints, so we went with Unreal Engine immediately. And it paid off: Almost all our team members have prior Unreal Engine experience from other projects, so onboarding new people went really well.

Are there any particular features of Unreal Engine that helped you realize your vision for Tokyo Underground Killer?

Hedjazi:
The Editor Utility Widget is probably the secret hero of this project.

A pretty large portion of the game consists of our dynamic comic book scenes. In order to realize these scenes the way we intended, we needed a tool that would allow us to compile and edit all these sequences directly in the editor.

Our technical designer was able to create our dream tool completely from within Unreal Engine with the Editor Utility Widget.

This tool allows us to set up comic panels, animate individual layers of each panel, set up custom speech bubbles with localized text data, soundpass each individual scene, and so much more. Basically, we wouldn’t have been able to realize parts of the game’s vision without this tool.
Image courtesy of Phoenix Game Productions LLC
What are some of the changes you implemented as you prototyped the game?

Hedjazi:
The feeling of speed is one of the core concepts in the game, and finding the right tempo took us a lot of iteration. In the early prototyping phase, we would constantly change enemy attacks and player combat abilities in search of that right feeling. I remember at one point the gameplay became much slower and defense-based; at another point it almost became a brawler. Once we found our direction, we were able to quickly throw out a lot of bloat and build on top of the successful features we had prototyped, such as the final blood skills system or weapon throwing.

How did you go about combining Japanese and Western design ideas to achieve the game’s ultimate, neon aesthetic?

Hedjazi:
I think that just came naturally. Some of us have worked more in Japan than overseas. On the other hand, some of our freelance members have never even been to Japan. And then we also have Japanese staff who never worked outside Japan at all.

But no matter the background, in the end, every idea got filtered through our core game pillars, so we just always went with what made the most sense under these guidelines.

You take a manga approach to your cutscenes. Where did this striking approach come from, and how do you think it impacts the game’s overall look and feel?

Hedjazi:
The story was always an important part of this project, and I wanted to find a way that would allow us to tell it in a memorable manner that is still feasible for a small studio like ours. Our lead artist Hans Steinbach has a background as a comic artist, and so we came up with the idea of realizing the story as a comic book. Hans’ art style is absolutely incredible, and the manga approach allowed me not only to talk with Hans about individual panels in great detail, but also flesh out the mood of this world much further than what any other approach would have allowed for.

What can you tell us about the game’s story and the inspirations behind it?

Hedjazi:
The story follows Kobayashi, an assassin with supernatural powers, who works for Gokuraku, a large crime syndicate fighting over control of Tokyo. Kobayashi dreams of quitting his job and living in Okinawa, but the cut-throat environment of his job causes him to constantly put his dreams on the backburner. At the time when our story begins, Tokyo gets flooded by attacks of deranged criminals, all of whom are seemingly connected to the deceased pop singer turned cult leader Kinoshita. As Kobayashi gets tasked with taking out these criminals, he gets caught in a net of syndicate warfare, cults, and his own past.
Image courtesy of Phoenix Game Productions LLC
One concrete inspiration for the story is actually the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime,” which resonated with me quite a bit while writing the game’s story.

How do the Blood Skills work in the game?

Hedjazi:
The blood skills are supernatural abilities that players unlock throughout the campaign. They allow players to handle larger groups of enemies by stunning them, capturing them, or otherwise changing the rules of the playfield.

Blood skills can only be activated if players have enough blood, which they collect from defeated enemies.
Image courtesy of Phoenix Game Productions LLC
The game has over-the-top effects and enemy design. We’d love to hear more about how some of those came about.

Hedjazi:
We had a blast with the designs for our enemies and bosses, and there’s a lot of amazing looking characters we haven’t even shown yet at all.

The concept for our enemies was to take designs of traditional Japanese masks and lore, such as Oni or Tengu, and combine them with futuristic technology. Hans took this concept and went absolutely wild with it. I think he did around 30 or 40 different designs before we settled on the final style.

The original electronic soundtrack for the game is being created by Andrew Hulshult, who’s worked on Doom Eternal, Amid Evil, and Wrath: Aeon of Ruin. How does his work impact the play experience?

Hedjazi:
Andrew’s work is absolutely integral to the game’s experience. Each level has its own musical themes, based on the mood we wanted to evoke, and the location we based it on. An area like Akihabara feels very different from Ginza, and we wanted to reflect that in the music.

For each mission, Andrew and I initially talked in depth about what the area should feel like, to make sure that we were completely on the same page. I think Andrew was maybe a bit reluctant at first, because it’s a very different style from what people usually associate with him, but he absolutely knocked it out of the park – his sound work plays a big part in making our vision of Tokyo feel alive.

My hope with this game is that people will still remember all the different places they visited throughout the campaign even after the game is over. And I think Andrew’s music will play an important role in that.
Image courtesy of Phoenix Game Productions LLC
Is there any design element of the game that you are particularly proud of that you can walk us through?

Hedjazi:
I’m really happy with our Blood Overdose system, which ties into the aforementioned Blood Skills.

If players decide to collect more blood after they reached the maximum amount without using blood skills, they can go beyond the maximum and temporarily unlock passive skills such as faster movement speed or decreased vulnerability. However, as they collect more and more blood, they slowly start overdosing: Their vision gets distorted, they can hear their heart pumping. This eventually leads to a blood overdose, where all blood gets forcefully unleashed in a crazy special attack, before resetting the player’s blood level.

It's a pretty fun little system that encourages players to make more conscious decisions about if and when they want to use their blood skills, without taking players out of the fast-paced flow in the missions.

We compare the system internally to drinking too much coffee and getting high on caffeine.
Image courtesy of Phoenix Game Productions LLC
The game mentions that you can explore Shinjuku between missions and decorate an apartment. What made you decide to add this layer to the game’s design and what can players expect to see and discover in their exploration?

Hedjazi:
This is one of the elements that was actually planned from the very first draft and always stuck around. Our protagonist Kobayashi is an extremely busy person who almost never has time to catch a break. So we created the hub as a small counterpart to give him some room to breathe between all the bloodshed. I liked the idea that even an assassin like Kobayashi would try to find a little bit of time to decorate their room with some idol goods or a new J-pop record.

There’s actually a ton of minigames and other fun surprises hidden in the hub, so it offers a nice balance to the relentless pace of the missions.

How did receiving an Epic MegaGrant impact the game's development?

Hedjazi:
Just before we received the MegaGrant, we were close to having to cut some of our features. Receiving the MegaGrant allowed us to continue on with the game’s vision as intended, without having to compromise.

Is there anything else you'd like to add about the studio's work on the game?

Hedjazi:
It’s still quite surreal to be able to finally realize this project after so many years, especially with such an amazing crew of talented people. There’s a ton of personality in this game, and I really hope that people will enjoy playing the game as much as we did developing it.

We’ve been keeping things a bit quiet recently to focus 100 percent on development, but we’ll have a lot more to show later this year, once we’re ready to announce the game’s release date.
Image courtesy of Phoenix Game Productions LLC
Thanks for taking the time to chat. Where can people find out more about Phoenix Game Productions and Tokyo Underground Killer?

Hedjazi:
Thanks! You can wishlist our game on Steam and find us on the following platforms:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/PhoenixGP_JP
Mastodon: https://mastodon.gamedev.place/@PhoenixGP_JP
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/phoenixgameproductions/
Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/@phoenixgameproductions9350

Additionally, you can find out more about our company on our official website.

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