Clouds of crazy have been hanging over Tokyo Jungle since it was announced for western release and for good reason. Shock! Horror! There’s no dialogue, there are no guns, and most conspicuously there are no people. Then the screenshots appeared with the star of the show, the Pomeranian toy dog, brutally attacking a dairy cow. Wow.
Tokyo Jungle brings everything back to that core Darwinian principle, “survival of the fittest”, and sets out to battle for its own survival amongst gaming's heavyweights. To pick a fight in a medium flooded with sparklier AAA games riddled with humans and combat is ballsy. For a game released into a dog-eat-dog space Tokyo Jungle can at least be called novel.
In Tokyo Jungle players must confront a harsh and decaying interpretation of Tokyo and its other bigger and deadlier obstacles in order to survive. Humans have mysteriously disappeared from the sprawling metropolis but the clues to their demise remain. Players will have to hunt, feed, mark territory, and entice potential females to reproduce, all to ensure the survival of their chosen species.
In a departure from reality, the Tokyo in Tokyo Jungle isn’t a pretty face. There is no choice but to look at it in all its dull glory, because of the constant need to search for food. Granted, the dreariness adds to the atmosphere, but it’s a poor excuse. The game’s lack of polish or sophistication singles it out from the pack of offerings on the PlayStation 3. There are a few cheeky nods to Metal Gear Solid but the game is bereft of a decent soundtrack. Cruelly, the only musical footprint left by humankind is a dog’s breakfast - a repetitive techno that threatens to dig its way into brains.
The opening tutorial teaches players all the tricks they need to fight and evade. Leaping and dodging comes naturally, and there are helpful signals to time attacks and secure clean kills. At the beginning of a new game there is no choice but to start small. The badass and larger animals are only unlocked by completing challenges in survival mode or, of course, bought through the PlayStation Network. As a caveat, larger animals require more food, and the bigger the better, so food stores run out quickly, ensuring new areas in Tokyo must be discovered in order to survive.
With that in mind, choosing to play as the Pomeranian is by far the simplest strategy. Watching an upstart little dog take down a panther is an enjoyable challenge and will fill the consistently depleting hunger bar tenfold. Stay in one area for too long, however, and the hunting grounds surrounding the nest are quickly emptied. Players have no choice but to move on and find a new nest once the next generation spawns.
Levelling up in Tokyo Jungle is perfectly natural as well as creating offspring - don’t expect to see anything of the mating dance itself though. Offspring inherit the traits of their parents so winning the affections of a fussy prime female ensures the next generation will have a better chance of survival. Survival points are also gained while hunting, reaching milestones and finding new areas. In turn, these points can buy fourth wall-defying outfits with added bonuses for all the different kinds of animals.
The multiplayer option in survival mode keeps Tokyo Jungle interesting by shaking up the approach to tactical decisions players are constantly making along the way. Worrying about alerting predators is one thing but worrying about a second player being seen brings a welcome new dynamic to the gameplay.
The ubiquitous fixed camera usually found in side-scrolling arcade-style games is applied here, though players can move around freely in camera view. However, the narrow field of view and lack of control makes death a constant as all enemies and potential meals appear as the same green dot on the map.
Discovering clues as to what happened to all the humans is also a priority. These clues are scattered all over Tokyo, from zookeeper notes to newspapers and the diaries of people who noticed the phenomenon of strange animal activity. Finding these clues unlocks chapters in the incredibly dull story mode. Survival mode is where it’s at, and it eclipses story mode in its own simple, engaging, and frustrating way.
If developer Crispy’s! goal was to create a highly evolved form of Tamagotchi – albeit with less poop - it has succeeded. Once momentum has been built and four or five generations have passed, things get harder but players will have the statistics and skills to ensure they can go on. The online leaderboards also encourage competitive survival. The game’s addictive qualities lie in the unavoidable permanent deaths found in survival mode as everything gets rewound back to the beginning for a screaming-at-the-TV fresh start.
In the wind down of this console generation it’s eat or be eaten but yappy underdog Crispy’s! has made an impression, one befitting of their Pomeranian mascot.