In an industry which is seemingly obsessed with burly soldiers packing massive machine guns and other associated heavy ordinance, it’s somewhat ironic that 2012’s most shocking representation of video game violence should come from a title which features no automatic weapons whatsoever, but instead insists that you utilise tooth and claw to inflict damage on your foes.
Tokyo Jungle offers up a truly terrifying vision of the future, where humans have been replaced by beasts as the masters of the planet. A cataclysmic event has taken place that has wiped mankind off the face of the earth, the cause of which is slowly and deliberately revealed as you progress through the game’s robust Survival mode.
Man may have disappeared, but he has left behind his works and creations. Ruined buildings and crashed cars create an eerie backdrop for the game’s unrelenting battle for survival, and the sense of destruction and desolation is chillingly communicated. But for all its grim predictions, Tokyo Jungle is shot through with a devilishly playful sense of humour, much of which merits a wry smile or even a chuckle from the player.
The Story mode - which presents self-contained missions based around different animals - is surprisingly well scripted. Depending on which beast you’re assuming control of, the objective of each chapter is different; as a predator, you might need to find food for your family, while the more placid and vulnerable herbivores are usually tasked with grouping together with others or escaping the clutches of bloodthirsty rivals. The drip-fed nature of these missions means that you can put the skills you’ve learned in the Survival mode to good use.
Speaking of the Survival mode, it unquestionably forms the core of Tokyo Jungle. You’ll spend the lion’s share (pun intended) of your time in this portion of the game, which basically opens up the entire city of Tokyo and leaves you to fend for yourself, with the ultimate aim being to achieve a high score based mainly around the number of years you can survive for. As a meat-eater, you’ll have to kill other animals for sustenance, while plant-eaters have to adopt a whole new set of tactics, avoiding confrontation and ensuring that the next edible piece of vegetation is never too far away.
Irrespective of which type you choose to play as, there are core goals which remain constant. Food is arguably the most pressing, as your animal’s hunger gauge is in a constant state of depletion. If it drops to nothing then your health begins to reduce, with the end result being starvation. Consuming food - be they plants or other animals - also awards you calories, which are used as a crude form of experience. Eat enough calories and your rookie animal will become a veteran and eventually a ‘boss’, allowing you to increase your stats.
To keep the game going you need to mark territory points (four markers allow you to claim ownership of a region) and find a suitable mating partner. Once you’ve done this, you are placed in command of the resultant offspring, who receive a slight stat boost from their parents. Another upshot is that if you’re playing as a small pack animal, the siblings of the litter follow you around, granting you strength in numbers. Should you die either from starvation or battle, control passes to one of these companions - assuming they haven’t also been taken out by the same massive, slavering tiger that killed you, of course. It’s here that the game’s local multiplayer takes form, as you and a friend can control two of the same animals, adding an even deeper tactical edge to proceedings.
With these basic building blocks in place, Tokyo Jungle creates an experience which is quite unlike anything else you’ll play on your PS3. The closest match is possibly Dark Souls; while From Software’s cult adventure is less free-form and has considerably more depth, it shares the same ethos as Tokyo Jungle - you have to be methodical about your approach, otherwise you’re going to gazing into that Game Over screen with alarming regularity.
When you begin playing, it’s all about slowly feeling your way through Tokyo’s ruined streets, keeping to cover and watching your radar for signs of life. With each subsequent game you begin to learn more about your surroundings and survival tactics; you ascend the food chain and become less of a target and more of a threat to others.
Your actions become bolder and more aggressive, and instead of shying away from that pack of hyenas, you instead learn to evade their attacks and dash in for that fatal bite to the jugular. However, even as your confidence grows there’s a sense of danger around every corner; before you can become too cocky, your battle-scarred pomeranian is gulped up by a crocodile or even a dinosaur (yes, you read that right) and you’re back to feeling like the minnow once more. Because the city is constantly in a state of flux, animals migrate from area to area. That previously safe shopping street you walked through half an hour ago can quite easily be teeming with lethal enemies the next time you visit.
By keeping the controls as simple as possible, Tokyo Jungle gives you all the tools you need to survive in its hostile world. Normal attacks are mapped to a single button, with a more lethal blow being available when you tap the R1 shoulder button. This is effective enough to kill any animal that is roughly the same size as the one you’re currently controlling, but timing is everything - press it before you see the bright red ‘jaw’ indicator and your attack will fail to connect properly, leaving you injured and exposed.
Movement is naturally assigned to the left analog stick, but the right stick can be quickly flicked to perform an evasive maneuver or a quick dash. This move is limited by your stamina gauge, which slowly restores over time. When used correctly, it can mean the difference between life and death, allowing you to leap out of the way of a killer blow or dash into cover, avoiding the attention of a stronger opponent and jumping into the protection of cover, like long grass or other vegetation. Knowing when and how to utilise it becomes one of the game’s sterner and more rewarding challenges.
As you progress you gain access to larger, more potent animals, which gives Tokyo Jungle an astonishing level of replayability. Each species has subtle differences, and it’s genuinely fascinating to match the different types against one another; you have to stop and ask yourself why no other video game has ever thought of vividly illustrating what would happen when a tiny pooch squares off against a massive, hulking elephant. Annoyingly, some animals are placed behind a paywall, forcing you to spend additional cash to acquire them. Given that we’re playing less for the game than our Japanese counterparts (Tokyo Jungle was a full retail release in Japan) it’s hard to grumble, but it still seems unfair to lock away some of the more entertaining animals.
For all of its capacity to entertain, Tokyo Jungle does have some less appealing aspects. The forced side-on perspective initially seems a bit weird; it’s almost like a 2.5D view, and while it makes judging some of the game’s platforming-style sections easier, it occasionally means that vertical connecting pathways are hard to discern, forcing you to rely heavily on your radar for navigation.
The visuals are also decidedly average in places, with some of the animal models featuring the kind of detail that wouldn’t look out of place on a PS2. Given the sheer number of different creatures available this is forgivable, even more so when you consider that at some points the screen can be literally awash with animals. It should also be noted that the environments are generally decent and some parts of Tokyo offer genuinely stunning vistas, despite their abject level of destruction.
Ultimately, these complaints are irrelevant when you consider the package as a whole. The perfectly-pitched risk-and-reward gameplay encourages thoughtful tactics yet still offers ample opportunity to hone your reflexes, while the urge to explore every last nook and cranny of the crumbling city is palpable. Last but by no means least is the game’s unique atmosphere; the decaying ruins of Tokyo make for a truly awe-inspiring backdrop, and the gentle yet often ominous ambient musical score complements the on-screen fight for survival perfectly.
We’re going through a period right now where people are crying out for new and different games, and Tokyo Jungle is the answer to those prayers. It should come as little surprise to learn that the game almost didn’t get the green light, but we’re eternally grateful that it did. We’re also pleased that Sony has released it digitally in the west at a reduced price point; while it might indicate a lack of faith in Tokyo Jungle’s commercial potential (which is a fair point - this is the kind of quirky game that would sink at physical retail), it means that it should reach as wide an audience as possible - and it certainly deserves to. It’s definitely not lacking in bite.