“This is a work of fiction” stresses the opening screen of PlayStation C.A.M.P. and Crispy's survival ‘em up Tokyo Jungle. It is a message that is as redundant as a nut allergy warning on a walnut cake but it manages to wring a dry smile from me everytime I play. This is a game that envisions a post-apocalyptic Japan where humans have disappeared and animals now rule, everything from a Pomeranian to a Hippopotamus roam freely and fight to survive.
The goal here is simple; survive and reproduce. You are thrown into an unforgiving vision of Tokyo where everything has the potential to kill you, from the animal inhabitants to the polluted air there is always a risk. You will begin the game as a diminutive Pomeranian or a nimble, but very easily killed, deer and you are served with feeling very vulnerable very quickly. The selection of animals increases as you progress through the game and complete challenges, you can also purchase new animals from the PSN store in a move that may be considered slightly cynical. The game’s HUD is very basic and it all focuses around your Hunger meter- it’s obvious to say that if this hits zero then your life meter will run out faster than a startled Zebra. To keep your Hunger meter filled you have to obviously go out on the hunt or if you are a herbivore you need to find plants to sustain you. Nearly every time you feed you will have to weigh up the risks because much like the natural world itself one wrong decision and you will go the way of the dodo.
When you are new to the world you will find yourself stealthily going after prey, using the long grass to conceal your movements or the abandoned vehicles as cover. The game-world itself is very linear, there is no open world feel here and the horizontal paths make t have more in common with a side scrolling beat ‘em up than a grand Theft Auto clone. This linearity serves it’s purpose well, keeping the hunt exciting as the you rely on moving forward to see what’s ahead rather than using a first person view to scope out potential danger. It generates fantastically tense stuff and with your hunger gauge ever decreasing you will feel the tension ramp up, think of it as Solid Snake meets David Attenborough. A mistimed attack can result in a variety of outcomes, your prey may simply run away or you might be able to catch it and take it down in a messy way. However, your prospective dinner may turn around and attack you or even worse they may call in their friends to help them out. I have never felt as tense in a videogame as I was while running away from a flock of jump-kicking sheep and hiding in some grass while they looked for me. Terrifying stuff.
As you eat you fill up a calorie counter that acts as your XP meter and you will see yourself rank up, when you couple this with an increase in stats from your survival time you will find yourself becoming a little more brave. Suddenly you will wade into battles with packs of dogs, take on a chimpanzee and think little of it but the great thing about Tokyo Jungle is how quickly things go horribly wrong. You may be stronger and faster than you were when you started but one mistimed evade action in a fight and it’s game over, no continues and the game announces Dead in a matter of fact approach that wouldn’t be lost in Dark Souls.
To survive for longer in Tokyo Jungle you procreate and live on through your children and yes this does mean you have to engage in a little bit of loving. Firstly you must mark your territory in a particular area, typically this will involve you ‘marking’ four flagged points in each area. Once you control an area and are of a certain level you will find females of your species wandering around looking to mate, these will fall into the categories of Prime, Average and hilariously Desperate. Your choice of mate will have a bearing on your next incarnation as stats are passed down from generation to generation. Probably the most ridiculous button you will press in a videogame this year is “Press O to Mate”, it is accompanied with some bum sniffing, mounting and then a very classy fade to black. My first experience of this was made more ridiculous as a friend arrived for dinner just as I mounted my lady Labrador, try explaining what you are playing to an observer and see what happens.
The Survival mode will be the mode you play most, trying to extend your score and surviving longer than you have managed before, online leaderboards help to add to the desire to keep trying. Your performance in the Survival mode will unlock chapters in the Story mode that is a nice diversion with hilarious scripting but ultimately it lacks the tension and finality in failure of straight up survival. There are also collectibles here to bulk out the game, these come mostly as items to increase your stats but there are also files you can collect that will pad out the bonkers story that you are a part of. Tokyo Jungle is a strange game, for many reasons, but particularly because it feels like a game that you probably played before many years ago. From the hand-drawn introduction or the insane plotting to even the slightly last generation look, something about Tokyo Jungle feels familiar. It’s comforting in a way but some may be put off by the low budget anachronism that this game exists as.
I had felt that Sleeping Dogs was my sleeper hit of the year but Tokyo Jungle has taken that accolade for me this year. The mechanics are simple, graphics average, plotting ludicrous but it is never dull and if you don’t have a story to tell your gamer friends after every time you play it then you are doing it wrong. Some people may turn their noses up at Tokyo Jungle for being insane and unpolished and to that I say, “Today my baseball cap and bikini wearing Pomeranian made love four times, barely escaped a pack of chimpanzees and just killed an oversized alligator, so there.”
It's a dog eat zebra world we live in.