Historically when people have talked about Sony's strong first-party network, Japan Studio has been right at the bottom of the list. One of the platform holder's oldest developers, the division is probably best known for the likes of Ape Escape and Legend of Dragoon, as well as Fumito Ueda's output. But during the PlayStation 3 generation, much like the rest of the Japanese industry, the organisation seemed to fall apart. Now I think there's an argument that the 400 person firm is among the Japanese giant's best.
The developer's output on the manufacturer's last-gen system was embarrassing to say the least. While it did have a hand in the development of Demon's Souls – which would eventually go on to become a cult classic – Sony had so little faith in the project that it passed the publishing rights on to Atlus in North America. The rest, of course, is history. Outside of that game, though, it had little to offer; small PlayStation Network titles were its forte, and while I liked Echochrome, Trash Panic, and The Last Guy, they were never going to set the world alight.
At the time, the studio's focus did appear to be on the PlayStation Portable, with series like Patapon and LocoRoco proving mildly popular. It also collaborated with Level-5 on the ill-fated White Knight Chronicles and its sequel, a property which promised plenty but ultimately delivered very little. Word is that internally the developer was in disarray, and as of 2012 there were as many as 40 or so projects in production. Shuhei Yoshida appointed Sony Santa Monica founder Allan Becker to right the ship.
And he's done just that and more in my opinion. In mid-2013 he told Kotaku that his goal was to make Japan Studio relevant globally again within two and a half years, and with 2017 kickstarted by the release of Gravity Rush 2 – the developer's third well-received major exclusive in a row – it looks like he's very much achieved his aim. In fact, personally, Japan Studio has had a hand in my two favourite PS4 titles to date: Bloodborne and The Last Guardian. The latter was obviously a troubled project, but it launched in an outstanding state.
Things started to change shortly after the arrival of Becker, for me. Japan Studio released Puppeteer and Rain in late 2013 on the PS3, two very strong titles that sadly didn't get the credit that they deserved due to the timing of their arrival. You could argue that Puppeteer probably should have been a PS4 launch game, but the developer opted for Knack instead – perhaps the only blight in its output of late, which can be forgiven due to its status as a hastily produced launch project. You can bank on its sequel being much better – in fact, previews are already stating as much.
While most developers work on one or (at most) two projects at a time, Japan Studio has its fingers in many pies. For example, it developed The Playroom VR to coincide with the launch of PlayStation VR, and the Robots Rescue minigame that's included with that is one of the best examples of virtual reality to date. In fact, even though it's got a lot on its plate, if it's not working on a fleshed out version of that concept then it's making a mistake, because it's only a matter of time before another studio "borrows" the idea.
And looking to the future, things do look bright. Rumours are rife that it will be collaborating with From Software yet again – presumably on some kind of Bloodborne sequel. Meanwhile, the director of Gravity Rush has indicated that he'll beginning work on a new project soon, while we have to imagine that Fumito Ueda – despite the formation of his own company Gen Design – will collaborate with the developer once more. And that's ignoring the likes of New Hot Shots Golf, which it's involved in as well.
I think the thing about Japan Studio that I really love – and a lot of the big Japanese developers at the moment, actually – is that it's making games that are not only very good but also have a fresh flavour in an industry that's becoming increasingly homogenised. While the Western publishers are putting out strong games, a lot of them feel the same – but there's nothing quite like Gravity Rush or The Last Guardian or Bloodborne. And that, for me, is why Japan Studio is so important: it's delivering excellent games, but it's also bringing something completely fresh to Sony's first-party portfolio.
Have you been impressed with Japan Studio's revival in recent years? Are you looking forward to seeing what the developer does next? Praise the company's proficiency in the comments section below.