Start a game of Tokyo Jungle for the first time and you get a brief text-based preamble explaining the scenario of all the humans in Tokyo disappearing and animals from former pets to zoo attractions taking over the streets. This all takes place over shots of a destroyed Hachiko crossing in Shibuya. The intro fades out, and we cut to a Pomeranian dog, the fashionable breed that’s been the centerpiece of marketing for the game, standing on the street, its head bobbing rhythmically in time to the upbeat techno-lite music that’s in the background as the tutorial begins.
It’s a key scene that sticks in the mind, the sheer ludicrousness of it underlining the essentially light-hearted nature of the title. It sets a clear tone for the game that might otherwise raise serious concerns and questions – after all, anyone who has seen video footage of the exclusion zone of the disaster stricken Fukushima nuclear plant after the 2011 tsunami would see formally domesticated and farm animals claiming the streets in nearby towns for real. No doubt some serious questions were asked last year over whether Tokyo Jungle should be released at all, but we should be glad that it finally has. The long coming product of Crispy’s and the Playstation C.A.M.P (a sort of Sony partners style system that has also seen the likes of Echochrome and Trash Panic come to fruition) has seen phenomenal and unexpected commercial success, sitting fairly dominantly on the top of Japanese sales charts for several weeks. From a creative merit standpoint meanwhile, it’s undeniably one of the games most deserving of attention and conversation to come out of Japan, or anywhere else, for some time- even if it may not necessarily be one of the very best.
Tokyo Jungle has two game modes on offer- story and survival. Conditioned as you might be to consider survival the throwaway score challenge mode to mess around in once the campaign’s finished, you would be forgiven for heading straight to story mode. You’d be wrong to do so, though as the real meat (excuse the pun) of the experience is in survival, a fact the game reinforces by turning you away from story until you’ve played around in the survival setting for a while.
Once through the tutorial, you’re asked to choose an animal (limited at the outset to the aforementioned Pomeranian or a deer) and are thrown outside a desolate Shibuya station, sadly without Godzilla’s favoured drinking establishment. Your task, as the mode’s name suggests, is to survive for as long as possible. You do this through an increasingly challenging cycle of eating and mating, in what amounts to a 2.5D stealth game. Although animals may differ in attributes and abilities (you’ll eventually unlock birds that can fly for brief periods, and big cats that can unleash powerful combo attacks) but essentially they all fall into two classes- carnivores that have to successfully hunt their prey while avoiding larger aggressors, and herbivores, who essentially have to avoid all the other animals in a bid to reach some vegetation, the more challenging play style countered by more spritely movement and double jumps.
Eating vegetation- or meat depending on your animal’s preferences- tops up your ever decreasing hunger bar and gives you energy, allowing you to grow and increase in rank from ‘rookie’ through ‘veteran’ up to ‘boss’. Once a stronger status is achieved, and all territory marked in an area (performed by finding flags in the environment and pressing circle to claim them), you can take a mate and spawn a litter of smaller creatures, which not only increases your chances of survival by in essence giving you several extra lives, but also helps carnivores in that larger prey can be easier hunted as part of a pack. Gauging whether its worth attempting to take down that huge crocodile with your mob of golden retrievers, or whether sneaking past those lions is worth the effort to get to the sweet apple tree beyond for your family of porcupines is the carefully balanced risk and reward mechanic that makes TJ tense fun. Games start off slowly with minimum threats (although the game is made harder or easier depending on your choice of animal) but escalate to an intense and bizarre experience as the in-game clock rolls past the forty year mark , with smog intruding on the environment, poisoning you until you can find clean food or drinking water, and the streets in, around and under Shibuya crawling with big cats, bigger bears and even dinosaurs, all of which can become playable (if you have the patience to unlock them, but more on that later). It’s impossible not to take glee in regaling people with your tales in the end game of Tokyo Jungle, how you valiantly kept your gazelle hanging on to life as you sprinted through abandoned Yamanote line train carriages pursued by a pack of lions, before meeting your end as taking cover behind some grass appeared to make things safe, but a hyena fancied his chances against one of the lions, charging, missing, and killing you inadvertently. Never has falling afoul of natural selection had the potential to create such joy.
The slow starts to the game eventually take their toll, however, and you begin to want to expand your experience in some way. Progress in Tokyo Jungle, such as it is, is governed by a system of unlocks in Survival mode. Scattered around the environment, and occasionally appearing after devouring certain prey, are presents that contain single use items to make the going easier, clothes with which to make your animal look ridiculous and improve your stats, or SD cards which contain text logs explaining just how Tokyo got to be in this mess in the first place. It’s a tale of unusually aggressive pets and zoo animals turning on their captors, with some shady corporate intrigue, robotics and neural networking on the side; not essential for enjoying the game if you’re without the Japanese skills to read it, but decent sci-fi hokum (full disclosure though- I am far from native Japanese level, and can’t comment much on the quality of the writing itself) .
In this sense, the story mode is somewhat of a misnomer, since a good deal of the narrative is uncovered by playing survival- in fact you can’t play the story mode until you’ve gained enough text archives to open the next chapter. That mode itself is a dull slog, meanwhile, short, but often not short enough, vignettes giving you a chance to play as the different animals of the game along with some pseudo nature documentary inspired text about the animals’ lives in post apocalyptic Japan. It tries, with some humourous moments, but fails to capture the energy of the game proper. Especially early on, meanwhile, the story will attempt to tutor the player on mechanics to use in survival, which makes the process required to unlock chapters look completely backwards; in effect playing the story you’ll often find you know herbivores can hide in rubbish bins and walk around a la Metal Gear Solid (say), because you’ll probably have discovered this already by accident while trying to unlock that part of the story in the first place.
Back in survival mode, you can unlock more beasts and gear by attempting to clear the challenges that presented to you in the game’s pause menu. These vary from play to play and animal to animal, but typically entail marking x amount of territory in y time, consuming a certain amount of calories, or moving to different areas of the map. Complete enough challenges and an animal boss will appear somewhere in the world- take it down and it’s unlocked for future play. The idea behind the challenge system is sound; it allows the player to interact with the game differently, and gives you goals that pass the time before the intensity ramps up. Frequently though, goals are balanced poorly- you might be tasked with moving to a certain area of town in a given period of time, but in doing so you have to pass through barren territory, meaning you can miss out on achieving any hunting or consumption based goals, or even ending your game. The map will let you know the rough area a given boss might be in, but once there,bosses may take a long time to decide to show up, which is especially frustrating as a weak herbivore, as you might be chased all around a district by a pack of hungry meat eaters while trying to find the boss before the numbers game finally and inevitably catches up to you. Frequently, story archives and challenges will be at opposite ends of the map as well, which makes trying to serve both mistresses difficult. The best way to play is to go for challenges and unlocks that are close to you, or in an area you want to explore and just enjoy the game, but this can make unlocking new content slow.
With this frustrating pace, it seems like Crispy’s have tried as hard as possible to extend a reasonably small and well cultivated selection of content into the tens of hours. It’s something no doubt born from Tokyo Jungle originally being announced as a PSN game (which presumably it will be when it releases in the west this autumn) but being promoted to retail alongside downloadable in Japan (to, it must be mentioned, great success). That trophy hunters will find no platinum here, and the lack of graphical fidelity (there’s little here that would make a PS2 sweat too hard) strengthens the sense that this is a small indie spirited game that could (and did). Yet as much as Tokyo Jungle’s status as a flock of canaries taking down the industry-at-large’s rhinoceroses makes you want to love it, the structure can frustrate, as can missed opportunities. Those final tense moments of a survival game are such amazing spectator sport, housemates or spouses will stop and gaze on entranced, but put a controller in their hands and you’ll find multiplayer is half-hearted, adding little to the regular survival mode apart from the fact there are now two of you (and local only- if, like me the thought of an online community where each player took command of a different species in a free for all excites you, prepare for disappointment).
There are those that believe that the price of a game should be directly proportional to its volume, and similarly those that might look at five seconds of video from Tokyo Jungle and think ‘no way is this a full price game’. That isn’t me, quite the opposite in fact; the philosophy of ‘never mind the quality, feel the width and look at the sheen’ is positively damaging to the medium. That makes my bottom line on this game harder to make, but it can’t be avoided- if Tokyo Jungle was a smaller, more compact downloadable game, it would be damn near essential. This isn’t a value judgement, not an issue of whinging about paying 4000 Yen for a survival mode and little else. In fact, had this been released as a downloadable only title, I feel Crispy’s wouldn’t feel cornered into inflating the game’s content behind its time consuming system of unlockables. More focus would be behind survival, with story simply being the extended tutorial it’s meant to be. The game itself, in survival would perhaps be faster, with challenges aimed toward punchier experiences.
The success Tokyo Jungle has attained is encouraging- a new IP and a truly novel concept in a market that has been criticised for having few of either. It is most importantly rioutously fun when it’s at its best, with victories, narrow escapes and crushing defeats lingering in the mind long after play, calling for you to keep coming back to the game. At the same time, it will doubtless prove to be divisive. Some may dismiss it outright, and others will soon grow frustrated with its slow progression. If it were more finely tuned, it could have been the king of the jungle. As is, it has the bear necessities to make it well worth playing (sorry).
Godzilla eats everything, but good games aren’t digested in his massive gut, ensuring they can be pooped out for later play.
3 poops is a top-tier quality game. If you’re a fan of the genre or franchise, it’s a must-buy. Even if you’re not, definitely look into it.