Tokyo Jungle Review: A Story of a Man and His Dog (Without the Man)

What happens to man’s best friend when man doesn’t exist? That’s the big question established in the refreshingly original premise of Tokyo Jungle, a game which sees the human race extinct, domesticated pets running feral and ferocious zoo animals ruling the streets of Tokyo, all facing a savage battle for survival.

Platforms: PS3
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Developer: SCE Japan Studio, PlayStation C.A.M.P.
Genre: Animal Survival Breed ’em Up
Release Date: September 25, 2012
ESRB Rating: Teen

After a minimalist introduction, the game opens with a tutorial that sees you controlling a Pomeranian through the basic principles of stealth, hunting and combat. The ideas are nothing too complex; tall grass provides stealth cover from enemies much like the cardboard boxes and lockers of the Metal Gear games, hunting requires you to stalk unsuspecting prey before launching a surprise attack for carnivores (or simply eating plants for herbivores) while combat links a series of paw swipes, head butts or hoof kicks and dodges to fend off would-be predators. It’s a simple premise, but in all fairness, an effective one too and a bit of skill mixed with good timing can see a small dog take on a gang of wild pigs with ease. Above all else the tutorial is a soundboard for Tokyo Jungle’s essential mantra: Kill, Eat and Mate and that last one, just like real life, can pose the biggest challenge of all.

You see, the problem with most animals is their relatively short lifespan. Domesticated pets last little longer than fifteen years with wild animals kicking the proverbial bucket at twenty. Since time seems to flow rapidly within the confines of Tokyo Jungle there is a constant need to mate and breed a new generation before the current one dies a sudden and often rather brutal death. Alas it’s not just a case of humping the nearest female species in the bushes. First you have to mark your territory by capturing (read: peeing on) specific locations around the map. Second, eating enough food to increase your rank. The more calories consumed the higher you progress (from Rookie to Veteran to Boss) with each rank corresponding to a different standard of partner (desperate, average, or prime) available for mating with. Oh yes, in the world of Tokyo Jungle, the fatties get all the fun!

Desperate partners will often give you fleas (there is some social commentary buried in here somewhere), and the average ones will simply be just that so ideally you’ll want to aim for prime as mating with these ladies not only increases your litter count (which act as extra lives, switching to a new animal as soon as the current one dies) but also bestows upon them higher attributes inherited from your good self. This generational development concept also masks an upgrade system that carries between games so with good breeding your initially weak pooch will become a strong hunter available for future playthroughs.

Stats can also be improved through decennial challenges; during the first ten years you may be asked to mark a certain number of territories or consume so much food, but as time progresses you’ll soon be tasked with exploring new areas or defeating the occasional “boss” animal. Successfully completing each one nets you with some increase to your life points, hunger levels or stamina and its here where you’ll want to mate to ensure that little junior inherits some of your bonuses. In addition, completing challenges will also net you credits, which in turn can be used to unlock further animal species to play around with. Tokyo Jungle starts off with nothing more than a dog and deer, but in due time you’ll soon be able to unlock anything from chickens, pigs, rabbits, and cows to lions, crocodiles, bears, and even dinosaurs! Not counting the DLC animals or different breeds of each species there are over fifty varieties of critter offered with some very big surprises in store further down the list.

While each species still follows the same kill, eat, mate pattern (just wait until you see a newborn chick attempt this) controls differ slightly due to the size and weight of the animals. A porcupine isn’t going to be able to jump as high as a chimpanzee though a cat can easily outrun an elephant. The differences aren’t huge by any stretch of the imagination but they do just enough to keep things amusing. In fact doing just enough to keep things amusing sums up Tokyo Jungle rather well. The graphics are adequate (more a PS2 upgrade than a PS3 breakthrough) and the soundtrack, taken away from the roars and squawks of the cast, is sufficient if not forgettable but there is a distinct charm in being able to control pretty much every occupant of Noah’s Ark as you fight to survive a post-apocalyptic Tokyo. Outside of survival mode you have a sadly brief campaign, a by-the-numbers two-player mode that doesn’t bring anything new and a selection of archives (think documents that attempt to give the game some backstory) to collect but apart from that it’s all… well… just enough.

I think Tokyo Jungle’s biggest obstacle to widespread appeal is the game’s repetitive nature that is commonplace in Japanese releases. Original ideas are often hampered by weak execution because no matter what species you choose, the game will always start you in the same location with the same set of challenges. Even with generational upgrades it’s hard to appreciate how far your species has evolved when death, be it from a random bout of toxic rain or wandering head first into a pack of hunters, forever comes thick and frustratingly fast. Is this used to force longevity and mask an otherwise shallow game? I suspect so.

Things aren’t helped by a vague map and worse still, the tendency for vegetation and edible plants to vanish (or not load to be more exact) thus giving any herbivores an annoying disadvantage and swift end to their survival through no fault of the player. Not being able to find a tomato bush as your kangaroo rapidly starves to death will have you roaring in frustration (pun intended). There are occasional support items to pick up (or purchase via credits) that act as brief powerups and energy supplements, but their extreme scarcity just adds to what feel like cheap, unfair deaths.

Tokyo Jungle isn’t a game that will redefine the adventure genre. While it has a fantastically original and exciting premise (where else can you breed a herd of sheep to take out a pack of troublesome alley cats?), it’s sadly let down by below average gameplay that will bore you long before the end. Other than a repetitive survival mode and a tacked on campaign there isn’t much else on offer unless you’re an avid animal lover or Pokemon fan who still feels the need to “catch ‘em all”. That said if you’re willing to over look the flaws (and the budget price tag certainly helps with that), then what you have here is a rare example of a new idea lost in a market oversaturated with generic shooters and uninspiring racers. For those of you looking for something a little different then maybe that too is just enough.

Review Disclosure: A retail copy of Tokyo Jungle was purchased by Warp Zoned for the purposes of this review.

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