It’s night in the city, and while that limits visibility, it also means most predators are asleep. My gazelle is moving along full-tilt to another district, munching on the odd plant along the way to keep his hunger meter at an acceptable level, and I’m anxious to get there because, apparently, there’s a thoroughbred horse wandering around. Maybe I’d have been able to add the horse to the growing list of available creatures to survive as if I’d met it, but after 60+ in-game years of avoiding predators, starvation, pollution, and other assorted hazards, not to mention multiple generations of breeding, I finally leapt when I should have looked and got eaten by a nocturnal velociraptor. Whoops.
Tokyo Jungle is one of the most refreshing, creative, addictive, and honestly disturbing games this year. It’s a story of survival in the streets of Tokyo once the humans have disappeared and animals have overrun the city as it falls into ruin. Starting out with an initial two choices (small pomeranian dog for carnivore, and a deer for herbivore) you make your way into the city, exploring, eating, mating, and discovering. There’s a story revealed by finding info archives, politely marked on the world map and, like any other item you can find, sitting in a bright white box sealed with a festive red ribbon, but the strange events leading to the end of humanity are more for the player’s interest than the animals’. They’ve got more important things to do.
At its core, Tokyo Jungle is a game of survival. Running through the mostly side-scrolling streets of Tokyo, hiding in the grass from the big predators or using it as a cover in the hunt, calculating the odds of taking out a creature that may call in its pack if you don’t score the one-hit clean kill, trying to survive the chase when you screw up and blunder right into a predator’s sight, all can lead to a quick and final Game Over. While multiple lives can be earned by breeding, with the litter following along and serving as replacements when you inevitably get taken down by a hyena or poisoned by smog, when that final life runs out, there’s no continuing. You can start over at Year 1 playing as a new species, and maybe check out a few new unlocked goodies as well, but dead is dead as dead can be.
As important as the grim task of survival is, though, there’s a strong sense of humor running underneath every aspect of the game. Tokyo Jungle plays straight with its main theme of animal nature, sometimes disturbingly so, but everything else is presented with an understated humor. The item boxes are a perfect example, but item descriptions, dressing up the animals in stat-enhancing clothing, the way mating fades to black just as the male mounts the female, and any number of other touches keep the proceedings light while never being slapstick.
A light touch is necessary, though, because survival can take you to some potentially dark places. When I first saw a cat I figured I’d just avoid it. Cats are predators, and while that makes them see you as potential food, if you’re playing as a carnivore that means they’re just as useful to you as you are to them. It’s easy to be civilized, love animals, and never dream of hurting them even in polygonal form, but when the hunger meter has bottomed out and health is ticking away, anything that moves is fair game. Warm & fuzzy doesn’t cut it here. Cats, bunnies, sheep, or whatever are all made of tasty life-saving meat. So is your own kind, for that matter, and it’s not unusual to have a beagle chow down on the corpse of a terrier if it means avoiding starvation.
Eventually you will die, though, and at that point it’s very difficult not to start over to either try to do better with a favorite species or explore your options with something different. Tokyo Jungle‘s free-form nature makes it highly replayable, and the various gampaly elements of hunting/foraging, deciding when to avoid confrontation or charge in as top predator, engaging in a bit of exploration looking for new hidden areas, or just trying to survive the trip across town are all equally engaging. There’s no denying that, yes, the obvious low budget development has left a few rough edges, and it’s not exactly a graphics showpiece, but the game has a fantastically strong heart beating beneath its sometimes-shabby exterior that makes those issues easily forgivable. Tokyo Jungle is easily one of the best games this fall season, and is going to be cropping up in gaming conversations for years to come.
Platform: PS3 (PSN)
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