December is a slow month for new games, so over the next few weeks we’ll look back at notable 2012 releases that we haven’t reviewed yet. Today Casey Malone reviews Sony’s unusual downloadable game Tokyo Jungle.
I’m starving and running through the streets of the Shibuya Shop district. I’ve killed my share of housecats and rabbits at this point, but now I’m finding only puddles of water and birds that constantly fly outside my reach. Then, creeping through some tall grass, I see it. A potential meal. A dairy cow. I leap at it, my floppy ears trailing behind me like tiny capes on either side of my head, and grab onto its haunches with my jaws. It shakes me off—the cow is too big to take down with my beagle skills, and as I die yet again, I see the ticker in the upper hand corner display a new event: “Dog-Monkey relations have soured in Yamanote Line East.” That, I say to myself, I will have to see. So, I start again.
Few games have forced me to process a mixture of the surreal and the all-too-real the way Tokyo Jungle does. Set in a ruined, post-human Tokyo, the game puts me in the position of playing as both predator and prey, facing the grim realities of being a wild animal. Starting out as a Pomeranian, it didn’t take long for me to get over my hesitation of killing other former house pets, the cats, rabbits and golden retrievers that have made the city their own. It’s a Japanese Watership Down, where “stripping [your prey’s] bones” for food is a gruesome but matter of fact way to survive. But because it’s Japanese, sometimes your prey is an escaped chimpanzee. Or a velociraptor. Or a chick in a robo-suit.
This is the conceit beyond this addictive action-RPG, one that has more in common with games like Rogue and NetHack than Final Fantasy.
Day one of my life in Tokyo Jungle begins with choosing either a herbivore or a carnivore. The goal is to survive long enough take over a territory, find a mate, and pass my genes (boosted stats from hunting) onto the next generation before dying of old age. When I finally get down control passes to my litter, bookmarking my progress. So, no worries if a crocodile or a bear gets their jaws on me: my steps along the evolutionary ladder are permanent, and I’ll begin my new playthrough as the latest generation.
To keep the game from devolving into the simple grind of staying alive, there are two modes to play, Challenge and Story. Challenge emphasizes racing the clock, as on top of keeping fed and finding a mate before old age catches up with me, there are a number of goals to meet for each decade of my bloodline. Some are simple, such as changing generation once, and others are tougher, like finding and murdering the Golden Retriever Boss. With these challenges set to expire at the end of the decade, Tokyo Jungle provides a palpable sense of urgency, one that requires mastery of the stealthy but simple hunting, and finding the best route through its rooftops, sewers and alleys. Helping along the way is gear. Before the humans died out, they were kind enough to scatter packages full of pet clothes which boost stats and, like new generations, carry over from game to game. These adorable bandanas for dogs and precious sweaters go a long way towards completing challenges.
Tokyo Jungle offers major rewards for completing these Challenges, too. Each animal has one challenge which unlocks a new playable beast one link further up the food chain, from deer to elk, to Pomeranian to beagle. Some of the more outlandish animals are unfortunately PSN downloads, but the dozens that come with the game provide a series of tempting carrots to chase after. With of all the challenges and rewards laid out for perusal and each playthrough taking only a half hour or so, the game begs for one more go-around after an inevitably bloody death.
Unfortunately, story mode is less compelling. Made of up short and more focused missions, each story chapter is one or two glimpses of life for these animals after the disaster that got rid of the kind citizens of Japan. While a lot of the cut-scenes are good for a quick laugh, the mini-missions feel constrictive after exploring the Challenge Mode. These modes are tied together in a somewhat awkward fashion, as completing a chapter in the story unlocks collectable logs in Challenge Mode. These scraps of information—blog posts, e-mails, newspaper articles left behind— tell the story of the fall of man. They’re so brief that they’re almost uninteresting, but I had to hunt down each one of them to unlock the next chapter in Story Mode, which wasn’t that much fun to play anyway. The result is me playing the Challenge mode over and over, ignoring the Story except when I felt obligated to do so.
The linking of these two modes is one of a few rare yet prominent clumsy design decisions in Tokyo Jungle. For instance, to access both Story AND Challenge, you are required to play the same tutorial twice. A tutorial that doesn’t even cover everything—some elements of the game are only taught in additional Story chapters! I played for hours in Challenge as a deer before discovering the crucial ability to double jump. Also in Challenge, I occasionally found myself quickly finished for my current decade, and waiting around for that clock to tick over to the next before more challenges became available. Finally, I can see no logical reason to require players to accept the PlayStation Network Terms of Service Agreement each and every time I begin the game, especially considering Tokyo Jungle’s online components seem limited to an (admittedly robust) leaderboard. None of these issues ruined my good time, but each time I hit one of these hiccups it dropped some of the momentum the game built and made me a little less excited to start the next round.
Thankfully, that desire never dropped to where I wasn’t craving just one more go. It’s rare when I fall for a game that entices me with little more than beating my old score and completing more challenges. I want a narrative to carry me through. But by carrying over enough from game to game—the generation, my equipment—to provide a sense of progress, and knowing that there are dozens of very strange animals left to unlock and inhabit, Tokyo Jungle allows me to craft personal narratives for each playthrough. An insane, feral 100 Years of Solitude, Tokyo Jungle allows me to get lost in a truly wild experience.
Casey Malone is a game designer, comedian and writer living in the Boston area. Recently he’s been thinking about getting a dog, but now maybe not. He’s seen what they’re capable of.