a review of Tokyo Jungle
a videogame developed by SCE Japan and PlayStation C.A.M.P. and Crispy's
and published by Sony Computer Entertainment
for the sony ps3
text by ben hornsby
I would guess, gun to my head and knife to my throat, that in 2013 Tokyo Jungle will still be worth playing for two hours. That’s more than I can say for a lot of stuff. The way its mechanics unfold each time you start it up is the most fascinating part of it, despite what those images of rhinoceroses chasing cats through abandoned cities would suggest. It’s kind of a River City Ransom roguelike, sometimes, which is a really fantastic idea (that we’ve been expecting to have stolen for years). Every new game puts you at the center of the open world, free to wander the streets to hunt down berries or find other animals to beat up and eat. Your goal is just to live as long as possible. Hey! This is the kind of thing we can get behind.
Combat has a few breezy nuances to it (it could use a few more), but the dice rolls of the environment are what really stand between you and relative immortality. Your hunger is constantly ticking down to keep you moving – you’re dead in a few minutes if you don’t eat – while the spreading pollution tells you where you can and shouldn’t move, and unless you’re a raptor or some stuff there’s always something wandering around that can kill you. Eventually – sometimes pretty early – these drains on your health are going to be at odds, and you’re going to have to take a risk somewhere. It might start with running past a hyena or with fighting a hyena or with eating a poisoned hyena corpse, but eventually things are going to start going downhill and they probably aren’t going to stop.
Most of the ideas here taste good enough that you’d consider ordering them twice, though the real joy comes from clicking all of them against your teeth at once. The way your obstacles keep rotating minute-to-minute help the roguelike-like feeling settle in quickly, and in many ways it’s even more brutal than usual, because hardly anything ever happens that gives you a significant advantage. Breeding with quality mates and eating stuff to level up helps you curve your stats against the wall bearing down on you, but really you’re never bulking up anywhere near quickly enough to survive it. Sometimes you have to eat stuff that pushes one of your bars ten points towards zero just to keep another bar five points above; items sometimes appear that will literally allow you to survive for ten more seconds. The game is bleak, and it’s nice enough to be even bleaker through its numbers than through its graphics.
You’re also given a list of missions as you begin each game which maybe-brilliantly open up in ten- and fifteen-minute chunks. They’ll ask you to do things like breed through two generations, take over a certain territory and find a specific building within the next ten minutes, and doing so will usually mean forcing yourself through the game’s building blocks a little more recklessly than you would otherwise. The frantic scrambles to meet all your goals as the deadline gets close gracefully emphasize how cleverly many of the mechanics here work together – though once you’ve played a few games you might get the impression that it might be an accident that these missions might be the cleverest part of the game, maybe. Still, though: There’s a new level to the good old Achievement Game on the horizon, and this is going to end up a pretty great example of it.
So, yeah: Here’s this whole sack of little rules and ideas, all chubby enough that their grandmothers definitely pinch their cheeks, and maybe the cutest one of all is the character select screen, where you choose from a few dozen different animals. There’s a sturdy pile of almost perfect Doki Doki Panic-esque differences between them; too many of them are tweaks to speed or hunger stats, sure, but plenty of them are tangibly lumpier, like the way vegetarians can double-jump, or the way chickens make you want to put off breeding as long as possible. They make the constant world-recycling that much more rewarding. Navigating each new game trying to complete challenges as a new animal is interesting enough that it even kind of excuses the fact that such a huge percentage of the animals need to be unlocked by completing challenges in the first place.
I guess any buzz the game is getting (yeah I go outside sometimes okay (on the internet)) is because of the screenshots. Elephants chasing crocodiles through abandoned city streets while a pack of cats follows, alligators eating dog-eating dogs, things like this. You can pay two dollars to unlock a Pomeranian, for Christ’s sake. Some people can sit in their houses and choose to play as a dog the same breed and color as the dog that is actually barking at the window for no reason right now while they’re trying to play a videogame, and I guess I’m man enough to admit that this is kind of a cute idea.
But then, hey, here’s your TV, cheating at the staring contest; here’s a gazelle running through the streets of an abandoned city, double-jumping over cars, and, in the same breath, here’s a male cat sniffing a female cat’s ass and mounting her. There’s a tastelessness that feels foreign and rubbery; there’s a weirdly ugly sense of humor that’s hard to ignore. It’s like, if a guy starts giggling when his dog gets too interested in his girlfriend’s leg, that guy’s kind of a jerk, right?
The plot chapters paste weird text abortions like “let’s take a look at this brave new order” on the screen – no punctuation and all – to help move along the limp story-tutorial missions, and anybody who spends an hour with them could think of a better way to do it. The little stories that grow gracefully up out of the game’s rules every few minutes are more interesting than the dog-stuck-in-a-house plots of the “story” missions, and even if they were good they’d certainly be better without unskippable sentences. Your premise is right there, man. This game communicates everything that it needs to cleanly and immediately – that’s what’s cool about it. You don’t need to type it up to drive it home.
There’s a wealth of interface and menu clumsiness, too, which is a shame considering the game it’s wrapped around is so close to being interesting. I don’t know how games are being released in 2012 without at least some Freelance Genius sitting there and making sure the menus are perfectly intuitive, but here’s Tokyo Jungle’s map, where triangle is “zoom” and square is “toggle” and neither quite matches its description, and here are leaderboards loading painfully and stumbling over themselves when you try to navigate to the numbers you want to see. This stuff might sound nitpicky, and I’ll tell you right now it feels nitpicky to type. But, man, there’s no reason every game can’t have a beautiful, intuitive interface, and there’s no excuse for a game that asks me to open its menu every ten minutes (at least!) not to have one.
So, yeah: When people ask us about Tokyo Jungle, we’re going to say “yeah, that was alright,” and then we’re going to stare down at our drinks for a second, not saying anything.
It’s too bad that the goofy aesthetic so obviously came first. I’d bet anything in this room – and these headphones were expensive, man – that Tokyo Jungle was originally something other than the kind of pseudo-brawler that we have now. A guy came into an office with some concept art of the elephants and the crocodiles and the cats, I bet, and that was probably about it – the ten-minute achievement-chunks and the fixed camera weren’t even in the design document.
Someday someone with a little more swagger is gonna come in, and he’s going to have “River City Ransom!!!” scribbled onto a screenshot of Doki Doki Panic‘s character select screen, and there’s going to be an off-brand Post-it note stuck to it that says something about Shiren the Wanderer, and fixed camera and ten-minute achievement-chunks are going to be the fourth and fifth bullet points on the first page of the design document, and we’re going to have a game that, five years later, will be inspiring people that play it to make new videogames. Tokyo Jungle isn’t that game – though hey, what the hell, it’s kind of close, sometimes.