There’s a scene in a recent episode of ‘Louie’ in which Louis C.K. enthuses over the jokes his young daughter tells him. “I’ve been doing comedy for over twenty-five years’, he tells an audience. ‘I know every joke. Even if I haven’t heard it, you start telling me a joke, I know how it’s going to work. But her jokes, I have no idea what’s going to happen.” The joke in question (‘who didn’t let the gorilla into the ballet?’) just barely has a punch line (‘just the people in charge of that decision’), but Louie loves it still. Even after years of perfecting his comedy craft, he has not
heard this joke, because it’s coming from the mind of someone who doesn’t think the same way as the comedians he deals with all the time.
Tokyo Jungle is, in many ways, the videogame equivalent of that joke. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: all human life has been wiped out, and it’s up to you to guide various animals in their survival of the harsh post-urban jungle of Tokyo, hunting, breeding, and exploring streets that grow increasingly hostile and dangerous as time goes by. You can all but guarantee that this game isn’t anything like the last game you played. The developers, happily, didn’t want to make that game again.
Of course, originality isn’t enough on its own to make a game worth recommending, but Tokyo Jungle backs up its wonderfully zany premise with strong gameplay fundamentals. There are two modes to choose between, Survival and Story, which both take the game’s mechanics in slightly different directions. The Story missions – which can only be unlocked by gathering collectables in Survival mode – are not much more than a fun diversion, ultimately, but you’ll still want to play through them all. They flit between different animals, letting you get a feel for various mechanics and tricks, and present stories that are generally pretty wacky, but occasionally surprisingly heartfelt (anyone who has ever seen Bambi will inevitably get heavily invested in a young doe’s quest to find her mother). The mystery of humanity’s disappearance, woven into these missions, is actually pretty interesting as well.
Survival mode is where the real meat is, in terms of content and in terms of this being a game, largely, about hunting, killing, and eating animals (see what I did there?). Yes, many of the animals are herbivores, sustaining themselves on the plants that have sprouted up everywhere, but the thrill of the hunt is such a drawcard that it’s hard to pull yourself away from the animals with claws and sharp teeth.
Tokyo Jungle’s loose adherence to the food chain is a thing of beauty. Your starting animals are a Pomeranian and a deer: a double-jumping herbivore and a tiny, wussy-looking dog, which is none the less capable of taking down a damn lion with a single bite under the right circumstances. The combat favours the stealthy – sneaking up on an animal and pressing the pounce button in time with an on-screen prompt often allows for a vicious one-shot kill, which can be an incredibly proud moment if you’re the clear underdog (or undercat, undermonkey, underdinosaur, etc.). Anecdotes are actually a pretty major part of the Tokyo Jungle experience; while there is a fairly limited local multiplayer mode, the real social bent comes from simply discussing the game with others, and sharing your craziest moments. The actual combat isn’t exactly the most polished system out there, but there are some great kill-or-be-killed moments, and one-shot-kill counters that can only be launched after an enemy tries a one-shot kill of their own. Plus killing an animal clearly above your station never, ever gets old.
Survival mode is objective based, beyond the obvious goal of keeping your species alive as long as possible. There are objectives for boosting your stats, and although death is permanent, these improvements can be carried over into your next game if you manage to attract a mate by eating enough food (a method that has done me no favours in real life, sadly), then breed with them (an action signified by a delightfully gross controller rumble). The objectives are generally pretty simple – kill a bunch of animals, reach a certain area in Tokyo, consume a bunch of calories – but finishing them all within the time allotted will have you jetting back and forth like a loon, and they get harder the further in you get. There’s a constant tension in Tokyo Jungle, as certain areas suddenly turn toxic or so hot that meat starts to spoil, your hunger meter drops in a totally food-free area, your animal starts losing strength from age (breeding puts you in control of the next generation), and after a while areas start to fill up with animals far bigger, meaner, and stronger than yours is.
A few in-game years into survival mode (a year lasts about a minute), you’ll generally be tasked with tracking down and killing a ‘boss’ animal, which will grant you the ability to play as this animal in Survival mode. Your instructions are vague (you’re only told the area the animal is in, and each area is pretty big, plus the animals tend to move around), but this gives each hunt a sense of grand adventure. It’s refreshing not simply being told exactly where to go, and it’s a great way to learn Tokyo’s intricacies. We did, however, experience one unfortunate situation in which we weren’t rewarded adequately for our epic quest to hunt down a certain animal (the Tosa, a great big bastard of a dog) because our poor golden retriever died shortly after killing it, before the game had registered the objective as complete. There’s an unfortunate lack of polish around some things like this; occasionally you’ll have to wait out an in-game year before you can start your new objectives as well, which is frustrating. But it’s worth carrying on, getting as good at the game as you possibly can, to see the crazy stuff that starts to emerge once you’re surviving for close to 100 years.
As amazing as this all might sound conceptually, it’s worth noting that Tokyo Jungle plays and looks like a PlayStation 2 game, with its weird physics, limited environments and simplistic graphics. This is far from a bad thing, though. While some may be turned off by how simple the whole thing looks and feels, the truth is that Tokyo Jungle harks back to a period where big releases seemed more comfortable with taking risks, and Japanese development was a lot more popular than it is today. This was, incidentally, a retail release in Japan: despite weighing in at over 4GB, the game feels more at home as a downloadable title, and the cheap price point makes all the DLC animals a bit easier to swallow (none of them are available for purchase at the time of writing, but we’d expect them to be live when the game goes online, and we’re fully intending to pick a few of them up).
For all its rough edges, Tokyo Jungle is one of the year’s most exciting games, a work of such originality and clear vision that you end up sort of hoping that a sequel never gets greenlit. Tokyo Jungle does exactly what it wants to do, crafting a particularly unique apocalypse and revelling in both the ludicrous nature of its premise and the very real, human concerns of staying alive for as long as possible, passing our legacies down and making a mark on this ever-changing world. No doubt readings of Tokyo Jungle as clever commentary on modern society will emerge, because for all its craziness, this is a smart game. And no matter how many games you’ve played before, you most definitely haven’t played this one… but you should.