Developers: Crispy's! | SCE Japan
Publishers: Sony Computer Entertainment
Tokyo Jungle rather reminded me of Infinity Blade at first, with its rather steep learning curve and emphasis on trial and error and seemingly endless repetition. My first playthrough ended swiftly as my naive deer was set upon by two rather quick golden retrievers, who hastily hauled me to the ground and ripped me apart. Later on I saw a pomeranian take down a tiger, and watched open mouthed as a tiny chicklet wearing a hat headbutted an elephant in the face...and killed it.
Possibly one of the most bizarre games of the year thus far, Tokyo Jungle sets the player down in a Japanese capital where all of the humans have vanished, pets and zoo captives have been liberated, and the animals are running wild. There is only one real objective: keep your creature and their descendants alive as long as you possibly can. It's like a mash-up between Farthing Wood and The Godfather, only instead of Mafia families you have different species of dog.
You start off with only two creatures from which to choose - a tiny handbag pup and a fearful deer. The former, being a carnivore, demands a fairly aggressive approach, though matched with a stealthy caution as you don't want to scare off the roaming rabbits that will keep your belly full. The latter, however, lends very much towards a game of non-confrontation. Long grasses are used to sneak past marauding dogs and hyenas. Though you can kick out at predators, speed is your best friend as a deer, with herbivores throwing up some serious stealthy challenges.
Hunger is what drives the game onwards: run your biological fuel levels too low and you start losing health. Should your health bar deplete completely without any children to carry on your family, it's game over, and you have to start all over again. No save files, no checkpoints, nothing at all except a leaderboard ranking to show for it. It's the sort of game that would make for a rather good mobile game, one would suspect, and once again we're forced to slap our palms to our foreheads as there's no good reason why this isn't available on the Vita.
Animals are given a fifteen year lifespan in the game, and as your lead creature gets into double figures, it's definitely time to start looking around for a mate. Each area in the game has four or so flagged capture points that your creature must mark in order to claim a territory for themselves. Once that's done, females will enter the area to allow for some mating. Thankfully, the game's camera makes a tasteful fade to black before any actual humping starts. Expanding your pack/herd/murder down through the generations not only resets the year count and gives you extra lives to take control of should your main creature kick the bucket, but you get little genetic upgrades too perhaps increasing your attacking or defensive capabilities. In addition to this, there are tons of little stat-boosting accessories and items of clothing waiting to be looted throughout multiple playthroughs. You might not be able to carry your biological upgrades across, but that builder's hard hat? Oh, you bet.
So realism is completely out of the window, then, which is just as well considering that the AI makes no sense. Long grass can cloak you from anything, even if you're leaping twelve feet into the air above it. A chicken can beat down a kangaroo. A house cat is as predatory as a velociraptor. You'll ghost through the streets of Tokyo, peer down an alleyway, and see a kangaroo having a game of fisticuffs with a crow.
When you finally get the hang of things and, through a combination of careful gameplay and a large helping of luck, you' sitting on a multi-generational dynasty, loss can hit you hard. Perhaps one of the most surprising things about Tokyo Jungle is the way in which you become attached to your little creatures. The game really is a struggle (though whether or not that's by deliberate or poor design, who can say), and the nature of that investment means that you feel it a little more when another dynasty ends. The tone is frequently light, but rarely particularly goofy - humorous and tongue-in-cheek without being too silly. As a gaming concept, Tokyo Jungle is absolutely brilliant.
It's just a shame that it doesn't make for the best game.
You see, the problem with Tokyo Jungle is that it's just not very fun. Having one central core dynamic to your game is fine, but it needs to have a certain amount of depth to it to be engrossing. The fact of the matter is that sourcing food in Tokyo Jungle just isn't that enthralling at all. There's some light tactical work at play, and a few little nods to Metal Gear Solid of all things (particularly the exclamation marks that pop up when another creature is alerted to your presence), but otherwise it's incredibly samey and crushingly repetitive stuff. The moment-to-moment gameplay swiftly becomes boring because...well...there's nothing to do aside from run around and eat stuff.
There are other little gripes too. The level design is horrible, funnelling you into narrow corridors of streets, and it takes you an age to get from one area to the next, with the bits in between forever sparsely populated. You always start in the same place, with the same little side objectives/challenges, and occasionally levels will become awash with toxic sludge for no other reason than to piss you off. But the worst realisation is that there are only two gameplay styles - carnivore and herbivore - and that unlocking the other creatures is basically a cosmetic activity. You might expect a lion to play differently to a pomeranian, but you'd be wrong. As soon as this penny drops, you wonder what the hell you're doing this all for, and the game is rather ruined. The concept is grandstanding stuff, but the execution comes across more often than not like a knockoff mobile game, not helped by some hideous visuals that would probably have looked bad on the PSP.
It's a real shame because the ideas at work here are too good to not be used again, and indeed your first playthrough of Tokyo Jungle will be filled with chuckles, plenty of exclamations of "WTF?!", and a healthy appreciation for a game that really tries to do something new. It just doesn't do it very well in the end, and although the price in the West has been slashed to a more palatable figure for the download markets (as opposed to the retail release it got in Japan), it's difficult to see it as much more than a novelty buy, and the concept at Tokyo Jungle's core deserves better treatment than that. In the end, your enjoyment will directly correlate to your patience, and in spite of the game's occasional charms, there are too many things to make prospective gamers run for the hills.
- Fantastic concept
- Lots of unlockables
- Hints towards a surprisingly compelling game when it clicks
- But that doesn't happen very often
- Core gameplay is horribly repetitive and boring
- Dubious level design and presentation
The Short Version: Tokyo Jungle is proof that vision and execution are both qualities of the utmost immportance. In spite of having one of the freshest concepts of the year and a budget price point in the West, Tokyo Jungle can only really hint towards potential, as its execution turns a promising idea into a repetitive and frustratingly inconsistent experience.