I fell in love with Sony Japan Studio’s Tokyo Jungle somewhere between breeding a pack of golden retrievers and watching a rabbit attempt to take down a Deinonychus with hilarious, disastrous, and quite frankly vicious results. The game was originally available only in Japan over the summer and recently found its way westward as a $15 downloadable game on the PlayStation Network. When I had seen images of chicks confronting dinosaurs and a Pomeranian, the game’s sort-of mascot, about to go head to head with much bigger animals, I really didn’t know what kind of game I would be in store for but I was sold. The pleasantness comes from just what a fun, simple, and yet quite challenging game it is.
The setting takes place in the near future, a post apocalyptic Tokyo where humans have vanished, with pets, strays, and zoo animals left to fend for themselves. The entire game feels like an arcade game, where the objective is to see just how many years you can last in this dangerous world before the clock runs out. There is a large number of species that can be unlocked, a mixture of carnivorous predators and herbivorous grazers. While the predators are more focused on direct attacks and kills to feed off their prey, the grazers’ moves are tuned defensively, which means avoiding the big guys in tall grass a la Metal Gear until it’s okay to proceed to any available plants for nourishment.
Feeding is essential, as the game calculates the amount of calories ingested, which affects the ranking of the animals, as well as keeping the constantly diminishing Hunger meter full. Rookies are somewhat slow at first, but reaching the highest rank Boss can mean animals run away from your character, and said character has his choice of mate: “desperate,” “average,” and “prime,” which determine how many newborns are bred, and allow for pack traveling which helps keep the lineage going. Larger packs are crucial in taking down boss animals (yes, bosses!), which are then unlocked in the next game should your current one end.
Survival then becomes key as the game throws even more challenges at you: larger animals, a possible scarcity of flora and fauna, aging with abilities diminishing, and perhaps the most dangerous one being toxicity in the air. Toxicity is probably the most damning of the obstacles, as the higher toxicity levels (ranging from 0 to 100) can have an effect on your health as well as contaminate fresh kills and plants. Polluted areas can be hard to escape as it spreads from area to area, and Tokyo Jungle‘s areas are plenty large in relation to the animal’s speed and size, so escaping an area might feel like it’s taking forever. Nightfall and bad weather can hamper your senses, so you won’t know whether there are animals or not on your radar.
Death in the game requires a restart, which any earned attributes carrying over to the newest generation of animal (think Dead Rising), as well as Survival Points that unlock clothing items and new animals. The game has been compared to the likes of ‘roguelike’ games, featuring level randomization and permanent death. I’ve seen comparisons to Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls as well although not quite there in difficulty.
Sometimes the game can feel a bit repetitive and, depending on your mood, cheap. Toxicity is both a challenge and a burden. Avoiding fights and staying full is already itself a continual task, but I can count so many times trying to find food in a toxic area as I watch the toxicity meter rise and my hunger meter fall and all I have to go on is a bottle of water (one of many consumable items that ease things just a tad). As your animal gets older in years, the game will do everything in its power to keep you from going past 100 years. Breeding is also an important process as one animal lives every 15 years.
The thing about Tokyo Jungle is that there is always an objective. It provides sets of challenges, such as consuming X amount of calories, head to this area, mate twice, etc., which earn the player attributes and new items and bonus survival points. There is never time to rest, well, unless you’ve marked territories and then find a mate. Its controls are incredibly easy to learn and respond well to input. Its “clean kill” combat system, which allows the animal a one-hit kill with a well-timed button press, is fun to watch and key to master. Its premise alone, animals running around an abandoned metropolis, has been seen as an acclamation to the kind of games Japanese studios produce, that Tokyo Jungle is not something a western studio might even attempt barring possibly independent developers. Even the Story mode, separate from the main Survival mode, reaches amusing and absurd levels. It’s refreshing, and the potential of downloadable content, new animals or even new areas, help to extend the fun. I’ve already put in countless hours, hardly ever the same experience twice. If SCE Japan took this game back to the drawing board, figure out what could be improved or expanded upon, a sequel could be incredible.
It astounds me how into this game I would be, certainly so that it has definitely made whatever top ten games of 2012 I may put together as the year closes. What I had originally assumed to be a title worth experiencing ironically is a genuinely great game.