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Tokyo Jungle Review

Tokyo Jungle is one of those simple little games that is actually surprisingly complex. It’s just a game about animals trying to survive in ruined Tokyo, after humans have left the scene mysteriously. All there is to it is to eat, breed, and live—but as is often the case, that simplicity is what makes engaging with the complex underbelly of it all so easy to engage with.

You start out with only a Pomeranian and deer unlocked, representing nearly the lowest on the totem pole for carnivore and herbivore, respectively. After an aggressively slow tutorial sequence, you’re forced to play survival mode before you can unlock the first chapter of story mode. The basics are simple: you can hide in grass to either stalk prey or avoid larger predators. One button attacks, one button lunges for a killing blow. Another button allows you to feast on the flesh of your fresh kill. Watching a Pomeranian run around the ruins of Tokyo is cute, but it’s basically over once you eat a beagle and all that remains of it are a pile of bones. This cognitive dissonance is probably really the ultimate point, if Tokyo Jungle can even be said to have a point. It’s really basically an arcade game, where your high score is a mix of how long you lived, how many of the game’s challenges you accomplished, and how many animals you killed and ate. It’s more focused on creating an experience than it is conveying a particular worldview, but man, am I ever scared of what a Pomeranian can do to me now. Adding to that, if you’re killed by a carnivore and it isn’t otherwise preoccupied, it starts munching down on your flesh before the screen fades to the game over screen. To that cat, you were merely lunch. It’s the law of the jungle, after all, and animals have no qualms about eating each other if they have to survive.

The game goes a lot further on this eat-or-be-eaten worldview, as well. You have to mate to keep your line going, and once you do so, you control a small pack of what I’m assuming are brothers based on that all the mates are referred to as females. If one of them dies, your control just shifts to another one. The safety of the pack is more important than that of an individual animal. And you definitely will die, too, since that’s sort of the point. The game starts off with a fairly similar initial state, but as the years wear on the random elements compound. You can find items to help you along your way, like food and inflatable mattresses which not only allow for breeding on-the-go, but somehow are designed to be operated by dogs. They have surprising uses, especially when you use lateral thinking, like quickly changing to the next generation of puppies when their parents are about to die of starvation. The items especially help when the randomized elements pile up against you, and boy does that happen a lot. Sometimes, you run into a couple of bears, and there’s little you can do to prevent your pack from dwindling to one or none. But sometimes, and oh is it ever glorious when it happens, you encounter a wild, out of control group of breeding rabbits. Seeing dozens of rabbits bound over a destroyed skyscraper is a rare treat, even rarer when you view them not as adorable bunnies, but as goddamn happy meals.

But really you’re a lot more likely to get mauled by a bear, which is the real problem with this game. Dying, at least for the early animals, is very easy. Misstepping into a lion can spell instant death for your entire pack, and because the camera isn’t really in your control and only shifts over when you’re close to the edge of the screen, it’s a bit too common for something like that to happen. Areas can randomly become polluted and give no warning before doing so, which is really problematic when there’s no food in the area because you just ate everything to grow strong to attract a prime mate, so there’s no way to diffuse the growing amount of poison in your bloodstream. The problem isn’t necessarily that dying is too easy, but that it’s too random. To unlock a new carnivore you have to either beat a boss version, a paragon of the species, in unarmed combat, or mark (in exactly the way that animals mark things) the entire area it calls home to run it out of town. If you face the boss, there’s a chance he’ll be completely surrounded by his underlings. But there’s also a chance he’ll only have a couple, or you’ll get a good, clean strike on him from the bushes. It’s pretty much a toss-up, and that’s really unfortunate, because living for fifteen years only to get your pack wrecked because there were a few too many golden retrievers roaming the streets is a very disheartening experience, especially when you only have two other carnivores unlocked to play. It can spell immediate and permanent lack of interest in the game for some players, which is really too bad. When you’re in the zone, the game is a blast to play—much like other arcade style games. No one enjoys dying on the first stage of Galaga or Pac-man, but when they get on a real tear, even the most cold-hearted anti-gamer around is bound to smile in glee as lions fall to his fangs.

Everything about the game is fun, really, at least up until you get to about the sixty year mark in survival mode. That’s when the game starts flooding all the areas with the big predators like lions and cheetahs, which makes it hard to accomplish much of anything, and not really in a good way. Trying to tango with a pack of lions is a bad idea, but they’re everywhere you go, and small game is harder to hunt without getting noticed. This isn’t as much of a problem as a big predator, but in all honesty, it takes a bit too long to unlock them. The animals unlock in a pretty much linear order from weakest to strongest, so you have to spend a lot of time feeling relatively weak before you can play a hippo or panther. Also, if you mostly play carnivores, you spend a lot of time playing dogs before you get anything else, which is a real problem if you’re not really a dog person. Even then, ignoring the DLC, all but two of the carnivores are canines or felines of some sort. Some more variety would be appreciated to keep interest in the game high, especially considering that for all the random elements of the game, the layout of the city is always the same, and several of those areas are literal lines. Very, very long lines, which seem even longer when they’re full of rain, smog, and bears. Oh my? One thing that certainly shouldn’t be randomized, or at least should be better randomized, is the challenges the game generates for you. Occasionally you’ll have the arduous task of marking six locations in a brief ten years, which if it hits you at the wrong moment can become basically impossible, especially if those ever-present big predators are hanging out on a spot where you desperately need to pee. They can also ask you to walk to one location, and then the next one could be on the opposite side of the map. But those challenges aren’t hugely important, anyway. I mean, unless you want to dress your dog up in a sweet tux. It’s a real missed opportunity that there’s no playable penguins, now that I think about it.

There’s also a story mode, which provides a very, very welcome break after a three hour survival run. It’s made up of short missions and challenges usually focused around the combat. Also, interestingly, to progress through the story mode you have to go back and forth between playing it and survival mode. Getting all the available records unlocks the next chapter of story mode, and finishing that chapter adds new records to find in survival mode. If you only care about survival mode, you can just keep playing it and ignore the story, but it’s a pretty neat method of getting you to play both modes. Of course, it’s also kind of terribly implemented, because the story mode introduces the concepts of the game slowly, rather than just dropping you in the middle of the city with no explanation. It would be better if a few of the chapters were available from the start, since it teaches you things like how to breed and control a pack that you need to know just to get those archive pieces in survival mode. Survival mode doesn’t do much to tell you anything about the game; and if you can play survival mode without having to worry about story mode, why isn’t the inverse also true? What if all I care about is the tales of post-human survival, and not my arcade style high score? The game certainly isn’t very accommodating for that style of play.

All in all, I recommend Tokyo Jungle to people who enjoy arcade style high score chasing with a bit of a random bend, and to anyone who enjoys being a dog, especially if they enjoy eating other breeds of dog as a dog, and even more so if they enjoy doing so while dressed up as a Japanese schoolgirl. I also recommend the game to vegetarians, because I really wonder what they would think about it, and anyone who has a Pomeranian, so they can understand the true nature of the beast within their adorable little toy dog. If you don’t like survival or arcade games, I’d probably steer clear. But I happen to, and I imagine I’ll be playing it every once in awhile for months to come, which is worthy enough for a 7 out of 10 in my book, sure.

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