Tokyo Jungle is one of those games that seems purpose-built to make Western audiences shake their head knowingly and say, with a smile, “Japan, eh? Ker-azy.” Coming across like a demented mixture of Metal Gear Solid, SOS: The Final Escape, and an animal version of The Warriors, it’s not surprising that the game enjoyed such good buzz: it’s about as far away from the norm as you can get. You play as a Pomeranian, and that’s just how the game starts. Wait until you see the polar bears.
What is surprising is that there’s a genuinely good game under all the hype: Tokyo Jungle’s buzz might be built on people’s shaky grasp of its concept, but its mechanics are solid. With all human life eradicated, the only inhabitants left are the members of the animal kingdom. Starting with the aforementioned species of dog, your mission is to survive long enough against predators, hunger and occasional environmental toxicity to propagate your species. Live long enough and you might just find out what happened to the humans in the first place, via archives left dotted around. Yeah, the animals can read. They can also wear stat-boosting clothes.
It’s a simple conceit, but an addictive one underpinned by core mechanics that don’t really change; they merely become more difficult to achieve as the years roll by and the next generation of animal takes to the streets. Tokyo is split up into various districts, each differing in type – urban/rural, commercial/suburban, and so on – and, more importantly, food levels. At its base level, Tokyo Jungle is about securing flags to form a nest, which also enables you to safely exit the session, finding a mate, and producing offspring to survive the generations.
Easier said than done. The streets are in some cases literally crawling with predators, ranging from your own species to dinosaurs and everything in between. Food levels naturally decrease over time, and worst of all you have to prove your worth to find a mate that doesn’t have fleas and hence produce stronger offspring. No problem if you’re a polar bear, but trickier if you’re a chick.
You’re also constantly challenged by the game to achieve certain goals, with stringent success/failure conditions attached to them. Complete these gauntlets and excel in other areas, such as overall bloodline length, and your all-important survival ranking will continue to rise. Die, and it’s all over bar a new entry on the high score table.
So while you might have created a nice little nest in Tokyo’s downtown shopping district, soon you’ll be asked to make the trip all the way across town to track down and unlock another animal, or eat a certain amount of food, depleting your stash in the process, or any of the other tasks thrown your way.
It’s risk versus reward, and beguilingly addictive. As you struggle for survival and roam the streets, there’s a great sense of adventure in discovering new areas and their inhabitants. It’s hard not to get attached to your ever-increasing pack of animals, especially when you’ve been keeping the bloodline going over scores of years and it could all end any minute.
Each species has its pros and cons, usually broken down over the speed/strength axis, and you’ll have to choose your strategy wisely. Predators may have the luxury of being able to eat everything via a simple stalking/stealth kill mechanic, or more conventional attacks when face to face, but they have to engage their food, meaning risk. Prey can only feed on plants and water found in the world, but can use superior speed to evade hunters while also relying on the game’s stealth mechanics to hide in the thick undergrowth that litters the city as nature reclaims it.
Either way, soon you will encounter trouble, and it’s here that the best-laid plans of mice, men and every other animal fall apart. Levelling your current generation of animal makes all the difference in both fighting and fornicating, but there will come a time when you’re hopelessly outgunned and on the run, and it’s here that Tokyo Jungle is at its best. With a constantly depleting hunger meter, food running out and challenges to be completed, the sense of trepidation, excitement, fear and anticipation about setting off for pastures new is enhanced.
Not bad for a game that, at first glance, appeared to be, at best, a cute little download game that couldn’t be more Japanese if it tried. It’s rough around the edges, no graphical wonder even if it does have a keen sense of place, and there’s no denying that, after a while, the game can become samey, especially if played over long periods.
But it’s also quietly alluring, constantly encouraging players to beat their own and their friends’ scores. Almost everything you do is ranked in Tokyo Jungle, and while the rinse and repeat nature of Survival mode might irritate some, it does play nicely into applying what you’ve learned for a better score each time. Frustrating it may be to lose the latest powered-up beast in a lineage that stretches back years, but you’ll soon want to start it all again.
The rewards for playing well also stretch beyond bragging rights, with a steady string of unlocks up for grabs. With an entire ark full of animals on offer and a chapter-based story mode to dive into as well, there’s a constantly evolving roster to play around with. It might be bonkers in its concept, but in execution Tokyo Jungle is solid, addictive and best of all, different.