Review: Tokyo Jungle

Tokyo Jungle - running

Tokyo Jungle is a weird one. It’s one of the strangest games to appear on the Playstation Network and is also the only great game I’ve played on my PS3.

(Cue the hollering masses telling me to play this and that. Yes yes yes I WILL, OKAY. LATER.)

The game’s core conceit is simple: all the human beings have disappeared from Tokyo and animals have reclaimed the streets. You play as a herbivore or a carnivore and do what you must to survive. This typically involves hunting, killing and eating prey, or locating edible plants, all whilst avoiding tougher predators or packs. Your animals age over time, meaning that it’s necessary to mark territories and locate a mate every so often. After breeding you gain control of a juvenile animal which matures over time; if you’re lucky you’ll also gain some little brothers and sisters who will follow you around, providing extra lives as well as support in a scrap.

Tokyo Jungle being a Japanese game it’s little surprise to find RPG elements that are mostly occluded by statistics. Stat boosts can be gained by locating the best mates as well as by levelling up each generation from normal, to veteran, to boss (yes – you can be a boss hog if you wish). You can also acquire stat upgrades by accomplishing objectives, all of which are tied to time limits, and tend to involve eating a certain number of plants, achieving a certain number of stealth kills, identifying a particular location in an area, or changing generation X number of times.

You can also dress your animals up in ridiculous outfits that you’ll periodically locate, or unlock through the single player campaign mode. Oh yes: I’ve just been talking about Survival mode before now. There’s a campaign, too, which tells the story of what happened to the humans and explains why there are woolly mammoths, sabre-toothed tigers and dinosaurs roaming the streets.

The campaign is perhaps the game’s weakest point. Campaign levels become available when players collect datalogs in Survival mode, which is not difficult to accomplish, but if you’re playing Survival mode properly it can be difficult to snag the logs whilst also achieving objectives and, well, surviving by following the food.

What makes this decision additionally odd is the way in which the early levels of the story function as an extended tutorial; the game does teach you the core mechanics in a dedicated tutorial but the first half-dozen missions unpack extended mechanics and concepts around stealth and combat as well as introducing you to more of the city. All of this you will have already encountered in the Survival mode.

None of this is quite as incongruous as the campaign’s final level, which features a boss fight against a timer. Some of the earlier levels also feature bosses – but they’re just tougher versions of animals you’ll meet in Survival mode, complete with (mostly) similar attack patterns. The final boss? Check this: spinning laser attack, homing strike attack, double dash attack, summon minions, launch rebounding projectiles.

It’s actually good fun if tricky and the final act of the story is surprisingly sweet, even going so far as to include some slight narrative branching and some melancholic closing scenes. But really, that boss fight in this game? It’s a truly odd decision, and is both mechanically and tonally jarring.

Tokyo Jungle - boss dog

This dog is a samurai. Obviously.

Tokyo Jungle is most comparable to the first Dead Rising,¬†as both games share a similar sense of threat and a relentless pace. Dead Rising’s¬†stroke of genius emerged from its demand that players make constant tough choices whilst constantly under threat of being overwhelmed. To rescue two survivors in a safe area, or to instead grab fresh weapons, fight a Psychopath and save a survivor in another? All the while you’re being beset by zombies. No time to wait – you’ve got to constantly keep moving. You literally cannot kill the undead fast enough.

Time passes fast in Tokyo Jungle: ten years will pass in about ten minutes. That’s typically how long you have to achieve a complete set of objectives (which often involves an extra reward). You therefore must constantly choose from a range of options. Do you pursue the objectives and risk everything? Do you play it safe and follow the food? Do you try and achieve the occasional special objectives to unlock new animals? Do you snag those remaining datalogs? Do you just dick about and pick a fight with a polar bear? Even once you’ve decided where you’re going, you need to decide how to get there – ground level, the rooftops, or via the sewers? Which route offers the best balance of risk and reward?

There are of course no zombies here – even Tokyo Jungle doesn’t pursue that incongruity – but game mechanics place you under threat and tension similar to Dead Rising’s supporting cast. Your hunger bar constantly decreases and if it hits empty you’ll begin to starve. Failing to change generation regularly and subsequently ageing results in your hunger bar’s max capacity slowly dropping to zero, meaning sating your hunger is more difficult and death ever closer. Tokyo’s areas suffer from roving clouds of pollution that worsen as you play on, and if your toxicity rises too high that also becomes life-threatening. It can be reduced by eating clean meat and drinking clean water, or the use of disposable items (just don’t ask where you store that inventory).

There are, of course, other animals to worry about. Playing it cautious is safest but you could starve while waiting for a crocodile to look the other way. Still, get too brash and you might die before you can blink. That’s not to mention the occasional fog which occludes your minimap, hiding food and threats alike.

The world of Tokyo Jungle is red in tooth and claw, the lives of its occupants typically brutish and short. Mutual Aid this is not; the game’s portrait of nature is resolutely Social Darwinist. Survival of the deadliest, or survival of the fleetest.

Tokyo Jungle - wise bear

Except for this wise old bear, who trains you to bear arms. Bear arms! Get it? Oh, fuck you.

So we come to my favourite aspect of Tokyo Jungle: its local multiplayer.

Tokyo Jungle is the first game in years to have sparked in me a love of couch co-op. My girlfriend and I played a great amount of it through the latter half of 2012. We spent hours playing co-operative survival mode and taking it in turns to work through the story levels, reading the datalogs and learning the ludicrous truth of what happened to humanity. We know the mechanics and framework of the game well enough that we’ll pause the game every five minutes to examine the map and plot the course our animals will take. In the later game, where death is always imminent and everything is cruelly punishing, we’ll have 30-second snap discussions about the best strategy to get us out of a tight spot.

Here’s my better half with her take on Tokyo Jungle.

ANIMALS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Tokyo Jungle may be the console game to have most excited me since We Love Katamari. It’s based on such a simple premise, yet I feel that I have a timeless mission to unlock every single animal.

Humanity has mysteriously vanished and you play an animal who has to eat, piss on stuff to claim territory and fuck to create new generations. Until the dinosaurs appear and eat you. Or everything becomes polluted and you choke to death, although with mankind AWOL for the last fifty years I am not sure who is causing this devastating toxicity. Maybe its a T-Rex’s breath?

The biggest joy is the co-op mode. What could be more romantic than sitting on a sofa pretending to be Pomeranians, frolicking in an urban wasteland with your beloved, arguing over which territory you should claim next (I do not want to move into the sewers), and tiptoeing around sleeping crocodiles.

The difference between playing as a herbivore or carnivore is also a bonus. Who wants to prance around looking for flowers to eat rather than killing lots of things? I am trying to use this to convince Shaun that vegetarians have less fun, and also got into trouble when I started attacking things as a chick…

There are frustrations with being relegated to player two. Firstly, the camera centres on player one, meaning I spend a lot of my time blissfully unaware that my animal is jumping up and down at the back of the screen trying to hump a car. Secondly, being a pack, all the animals look the same, which is particularly confusing if you’re both lucky enough to have lots of brothers and bump into another pack of your species. This can be overcome by dressing your animal up in wellies and hats and other sundries, but as these upgrade your stats and deteriorate over time, the sensible part of me says: as this is a serious grown up game, they should be saved until we need the advantage, not just used to make us look cuter. Thirdly, at the end of the game you receive less than a third of the points you would in single player, meaning sociable play severely slows down my quest to catch all of the animals. Finally, and possibly most irritating of all, is that when player one moves I get dragged along with the screen without a care for the tasty mushroom I was munching on or the territory I was marking as mine. The only thing that possibly makes up for this great injustice is the joy I experience when player one accidentally runs into a nasty, flea-ridden mate and has no choice but to have sex with the mangiest dog in town.

There are only two more things that I want from this game. The insatiable carnivore in me wants a running total of how many of each animal we have eaten (mmm, tasty tasty hippo), and I want to be a Penguin. And a Camel. And a Giant Tortoise. And a Dragon…

We’ve marked out our territory and we’re moving in.

Two Pomeranians