Let’s get the obvious out of the way early: Tokyo Jungle is gloriously, unapologetically mental.
This is exactly the sort of game that plenty of people will describe as “very Japanese” but that’s lazy and far, far less than this game deserves. From here on out, I’ll try to avoid the clichés and trite observations. Mostly.
The game takes place in a decrepit depiction of Tokyo shortly after something has removed all the humans from the Japanese capital. The pets, of which there are many in modern day Tokyo, are left to fend for themselves. As if that didn’t unleash enough increasingly feral animals onto the streets, the zoo has also had a break out. That’s right: mixed in amongst the Pomeranians, Beagles, Retrievers and Alley Cats are Chimps, Tigers, Cheetahs, Hippos and any number of other wild creatures.
There’s Chapter mode, delivering episodes in a story which will both ease you into how the game’s various mechanics operate and help deliver the answers to the questions you should be asking already (what happened to the humans?) but that’s not where the bulk of the game lies in Tokyo Jungle. For most of your play time, you’ll be engaged in the aptly titled Survival mode. It’s progress in this mode that unlocks new installments to play in the Chapter mode, as well as the bulk of the new playable animals and clothes to dress them up in.
Oh yes, you can earn clothes to put on your animal. One of my first outfits had a baseball cap, a tight-fitting t-shirt and a set of shoes which were fashioned to look like cat paws. I got a couple of extra points added to my Defence stat thanks to the clothes and an impressive 10 points of extra Attack stat thanks to my Kitty Paws shoes. That’s a boost to how well you can perform in the game but it’s not the real benefit to dressing up your character. The real benefit is seeing a Beagle fight with a pack of Chimpanzees while wearing Kitty Paws on his feet.
The game throws certain challenges your way as you manage to survive longer and longer but in its simplest terms, the aim is to keep your hunger gauge full, lest it begins to drain your life gauge. You’ll do this by finding and eating food and, because it’s a Jungle out there, that means hunting and killing animals if you’re playing as a carnivore or grazing from scarce plants if you’re a herbivore. Meat-eating animals offer a more action-heavy style of gameplay while the veggies require more stealth. Think if it like Splinter Gazelle or Metal Deer Solid.
Survive long enough to mark out a territory by activating each of its four flagpoles and you’ll be able to attract a mate. The more you’ve eaten, the higher your rank (Rookie, Veteran and Boss) and the better standard of female you’ll be able to attract. Desperate females give you fleas (there’s a life lesson in there, kids) and more attractive ones will bless you with more offspring after you get her back to your nest and mate with her. A bountiful litter rewards you with a kind of multiple-life system whereby player control passes to the nearest pack-mate upon the death of your current charge. You can also use your litter-mates to take the fall, should your band of delicate deer get chased down by a lion. You don’t necessarily need to run faster than the lion, just faster than another deer.
Only the strong survive.
You’ll score Survival Points as you make progress, these are cumulative and go towards online leaderboards as well as giving you currency to purchase new items for the game. Some characters, like the larger predators, can be purchased via the PSN using real currency too.
The game expects you to die. You’re essentially leveling up each character over a number of in-game years and generations so that when you die, you can return with a better understanding to achieve the challenges set for you. There are a lot of different animals to unlock and play as, each with numerous challenges arising throughout the course of their lives. Playing through as a weaker animal leaves you better equipped to cope with the challenges of playing as unlocked characters.
“Desperate females give you fleas.”
As bizarre as it sounds (and it is), Tokyo Jungle is an extremely compelling game. The urge to keep living these lives, to keep returning to the simple task structure in order to build a stronger, more successful line of animals, is strong. Equally as strong, is the emotion when a lineage of creatures that you’d been surviving with for 60 years is wiped out.
- Unique idea and setting.
- Intriguing plot to uncover as you play.
- Lots of animals to play as, offering up plenty of variation and game time.
- The random nature of events sometimes leaves you wondering if it’s worth the effort.
- Presentation, from the models; textures and animation to the music, is poor.
- You’ll need to be ready for a lot of repetition.
That emotional connection is the surprising twist that Tokyo Jungle thrusts upon the player. It’s not just a wacky Japan Studio game in which you play as a hat-wearing Pomeranian: it’s got soul. Unfortunately that connection, coupled with the frequent randomness inherent to the game, is also its biggest downfall.
The random factor is important. Not knowing what dangers reside around which corners will prevent you learning how to beat levels, rather than learning survival skills necessary to keep your ancestry going. The other side of that useful random nature is less pleasing.
Imagine the scene: you’ve been struggling for hours with a species, grazing sensibly, sneaking past sleeping predators, rushing through toxic areas and doing everything right. You’re seven or eight generations into a lineage and there are four or five in your pack, heading towards the next challenge goal. Now imagine that hard fought success ruined because a hyena has chased a trio of sheep down a street and they’ve woken the two sleeping bears you were successfully sneaking past.
It’s not a videogame death you can recover from either. Tokyo Jungle is unforgiving, once your lineage dies, it’s gone. You’ll have to start again. It won’t even keep your last save at a nest after a death. Start again. From scratch.
Tokyo Jungle will be dismissed by many as a kooky Japanese oddity. It’s not quite that simple though. While there is a lot here that has obviously required a lot of what western conference rooms would call thinking outside the box, it’s all packaged around familiar videogame mechanics of levelling up; stealth; attacks and counters; mission objectives and item collection. That the lead character is a Pomeranian in a baseball cap ceases to be an issue once the compelling gameplay hooks you. Even when you’re randomly eaten by a surprising tiger eight generations into an animal’s lineage, you’ll still be watching a tiger eat a pomeranian in a baseball cap. And that’s brilliant.