Game Review

by Dave Riley,

Tokyo Jungle


Tokyo Jungle
Humanity has perished and survival of the fittest has returned to Tokyo. Animals of all breeds are forced to survive on the mean streets of Shibuya by any means necessary.

In the year 20XX -- 'X' being the way we denote the post-apocalypse, as prescribed by Fist of the North Star -- the ticker-tape display informs the scrappy Pomeranian that the great Boar Daimyo has claimed the streets of Dogenzaka as his territory. The Pomeranian sends his pack of recently-born, kill-hungry progeny out to establish relations. But boars don't establish relations, they mostly just gore things; and so the illustrious Pomeranian bloodline is wiped out in an instant and the Tokyo Jungle continues unaware.

Humanity has brought about its own demise, we don't really know the hows or whys, and nature has reclaimed Shibuya, its surrounding neighborhoods, and presumably the whole world. Survival of the fittest has returned to Tokyo and the now-feral housepets have learned to fend for themselves. Stalking through the tall grass, the playable pomeranian (or house cat, or hyena) hunts easy prey like rabbits and chickens until he's able to gather up the courage (and calories) to find a mate and reproduce, at which point his young brood takes the reins, and travels a little farther, and kills animals a little bigger, and explores places a little more dangerous.

Beneath its dog-eat-dog skin, Tokyo Jungle is a roguelike with the standard trappings of randomly generated encounters and permanent death, but the actual play-style mimics Metal Gear stealth action, where you must hide in the grass to avoid the watchful eyes of more powerful animals, whose awareness of you is represented by "Danger!" and "Caution!" icons that numerically tick down as they lose interest.

Its open world isn't very big and its graphics look closer to 2004 than 20XX, but its hard to hold these things against it because its concept is so charming. Tokyo Jungle's world has a Milo and Otis kind of wonder to it, where everything feels very large and very far away. Even after several playthroughs you may have only explored the Shibuya Station starting area (can we imagine the animals to be paying homage to their spirit beast, Hachiko?) and its immediate neighbors, while the most distant areas maintain an almost mythical character. The farthest areas, the Yamanote Line and Yoyogi Park, are reached only in the later years, when the world is almost completely subsumed by toxic fog, or the player's hunger meter is near-empty, or the path is nigh-impassable because of prowling leopards and lions.

As you discover shortcuts through the sewers (to save time and hunger) and safe spots on building awnings (to hide from larger predators) the most distant places of the rather-small map lose some of their mystery, but never their allure, and each session begins with a renewed sense of purpose. Where the in-game challenge system issues edicts of "consume 2000 calories" or "change generations 2 times" these are to be completed only when convenient, as the internal goal of the player is always "go as far as I can, eat as much as I can, live as long as I can."

Play sessions last an hour at most and either sputter out, due to lack of food, or climax violently, when an overeager attack gets the player's hyena crushed beneath the heels of an elephant. Everything then resets and the player is free to try again with the same animal, whose mating sessions have permanently buffed its stats, or with a new animal unlocked through in-game accomplishments. So pomeranians unlock house cats who unlock basset hounds who unlock golden retrievers.

But not all playable animals need to kill to eat. Sika deer, thoroughbreds, and chickens (who start as fuzzy yellow chicks, their movement an adorable, awkward forward-hover) are content to graze on vegetation and hide from the carnivores. Most herbivores have the advantage of a double jump, which allows them to escape predators by clambering up onto otherwise inaccessible rooftops, but plant life is rare in the post apocalypse, and the starting animals on the herbivore track are so weak that paranoia and speed are their primary defensive skills (along with the ability to sacrifice a trailing brood member for the good of the pack).

Though the abandonment of cute furry animals comes with requisite pangs of guilt, the committed player quickly learns the value of leaving one deer in the dust if it stretches a survival run by even a couple more years. This leads to an intense catharsis once mid-tier grazers like horses and boars are unlocked, whose murder prowess rivals their carnivorous counterparts, and some of whom are just as adept at hiding in the shadows and pouncing out, dispatching the aggressive carnivore with a violent bite or stomp, and then leaving the corpse to rot while they nibble on a nearby berry bush. This leads to a somewhat grim (if silly) portrayal of these otherwise gentle animals. The pomeranian and its kin kill for food. What do the horse, the boar, or the dairy cow kill for? Sport?

You can call Tokyo Jungle weird. It is weird, because it's a stealth game about pomeranians stalking dinosaurs (there are, eventually, dinosaurs) in a toxic, post-apocalyptic train station. But it's probably not any more weird than a game where an elite secret agent goes to Russia to fight a dude who telepathically controls bees, or even as weird as a game where a bunch of soldiers kill lizard men who live underground and use a gigantic worm to collapse cities. By comparison, hiding a pomeranian in a clutch of grass and waiting for the perfect moment to strike while a group of terriers idle by comes off as pretty normal. So let's not act like this is the strangest game ever made just because it came out of Japan and because the starring character is a spritely toy dog.

Tokyo Jungle is a low-key experience where you can do approximately three things (eat, sleep, and mate). There isn't much in the way of cutscenes and there isn't much in the way of story other than "the game tasked my deer with stealing the Shibuya Woods from the pigs in order to unlock them as a playable race, so I hopped from rooftop to rooftop, chased by a whole drove of aggressive porkers, frantically peeing on territory flags in order to stake my claim before I was slain;" which is about as good a story as you can ask for half the time, and about as good an experience of harrowed persistence as any game is likely to give.

Overall : B
Graphics : C
Sound/Music : C-
Gameplay : B+
Presentation : B

+ fraught stealth/survival gameplay that fits a pick-up-and-play style, local co-op for two player pomeranian hunting
Graphics unexciting, sound uninspired

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