Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Tokyo Jungle- Review

A few minutes into Tokyo Jungle you'll have used a pomeranian dog to take down and eat a few rabbits, marked your territory before catching fleas from a potential mate, and wandered the deserted metropolis before dying from starvation, toxic poisoning, or at the hands (paws?) of a bigger and fiercer predator. All in a day's work for one of the most original games to hit the Playstation Network in, well... ever.

Tokyo Jungle tells the story of Japan's capital post-apocalypse. For whatever reason the humans aren't kicking about anymore, which has left the streets free to be claimed by the various animals that now run free from the shackles of ownership and captivity. And as you'd imagine, it's a fairly chaotic scene. Packs of hyenas roam the sewers, battling wandering bears or hunting flocks of chickens. Wild Gazelle flock to watering spots alongside herds of rabbits, before being chased off by a particularly vicious alley cat. This isn't quite your standard arcade survival game.

You've got two game modes to choose from: Survival, which is where you'll spend most of your time, and Story, the name of which implies more than it delivers. Initially, the story isn't something you're allowed to pursue, so you're instead thrust into the Survival mode's urban jungle to fend for yourself in one of two guises; pomeranian dog, or sika deer. While the difference between predator and herbivore is theoretically the essence of the game's variety, most of the gameplay remains the same regardless of your choice.

So after being walked through the mechanics in a charming tutorial, you're plumped in the middle of Tokyo and left to fend for yourself. Three bars up top represent your health, hunger, and stamina. To keep the first from dropping down to eventual death, you'll have to keep the hunger at bay. For predators, this means hunting and devouring other creatures. Rudimentary stealth mechanics allow you to hide in patches of tall grass, sneaking up on prey before delivering a killing blow with gratifying aplomb (the "Clean Kill" banner that flashes by sure does help). Munch the body until it's nothing but a pile of bones, and hunger is staved off for, ooh about 10 seconds. The constant need to eat adds a real urgency to the challenge of survival; find yourself starving to death in an underpopulated area, and you'll be frantically searching for any tasty looking green dots on your radar, be they cat or crocodile.

For veggie animals the goal remains the same, seek out food before you painfully starve to death. Only now you're after plants to chow down on, and they're usually surrounded by an assortment of predators that want to tear chunks out of your skin. So stealth becomes the order of the day, hiding in tall grass and learning an animal's patrol pattern until you can sneak by, Metal Gear-style. But there's more to living than just eating. Since your animal has, at best, 15 game years of life in them, you'll need to find a mate. This is done by marking territory to "claim" an area. Do that, and interested females will start to show up. Impress her enough to let you breed, and you'll take control of the litter of offspring to continue your journey. Prime females produce more babies, and having a pack at your back is handy in a fight or flight situation.

The game certainly does its best to keep you on your toes. Random events will hit the city's various districts every so often. It might be a toxic cloud poisoning the food and water sources, or legendary animals making an appearance somewhere on the map. Either way you'll need to stay on the move constantly, which is also the case with the sets of challenges that roll around every in-game decade. These are usually of the "kill this many animals, reach this area" variety, but completion is often rewarded with a new bit of stat-boosting kit for your critter to wear. There's nothing quite like dressing your beagle up in kitten boots and a baseball cap to raise a smile.

Also dotted around the town are archives, files that explain the story of mankind's vanishing act bit by bit. They're also key to unlocking chapters in the Story mode, which is really a set of standalone narrative driven missions. These range from the heartwarming to the hilarious, and are a nice change of pace from the vicious battles of Survival mode.

But that's where you'll spend most of your time in Tokyo Jungle. As with most other roguelikes, death is inevitable but also a learning experience. You start each new game a little stronger, a little more aware of what you're doing, and as such you'll get a little further each time. Unlocking stronger animals gives you more of an incentive to try again, and the initially brutal difficulty curve starts to make sense the longer you play. It's not a forgiving game, far from it. And unlike, say, Dark Souls, you will sometimes feel that its difficulty is unfair, with your deaths coming more often from random factors than your own mistakes. But the rewards are there if you're willing to work for them.

It helps that the decaying ruins of Tokyo are a pleasure to explore, with a ton of secret nooks and crannies there to be discovered. It's what you'll find in them that stays with you though. From herds of wild horses running across the rooftops to meandering hippos double-jumping away from packs of wolves, you'll have a hard time predicting what might show up next. These random encounters are at the heart of Tokyo Jungle's humour and charm. Really, where else are you going to be able to kick a rabble of dogs to death with a kangaroo?

There are some real flaws. An all-too-close fixed camera means you'll find yourself dying in the jaws of unseen enemies far too frequently. That green dot on the radar could be a tasty chicken, or it could be a hungry bear. You often won't know until it's too late. The map is fairly useless in its un-zoomable state, and while you've got over 50 animals to unlock, aside from the herbivore/carnivore split it's a repetitive experience. Killing with a pomeranian is much the same as killing with a tiger, it seems, while a giraffe munches the same plants as a chicken, and can seemingly jump just as high. You'll scream out for something different once in a while.

But that's unfair, because really Tokyo Jungle is about as different as they come. There's nothing else quite like it (though it shares more than a little DNA with the Gamecube's oft-forgotten mutate-em-up Cubivore/Animal Leader). It's also the kind of game you can only really imagine happening on the Playstation, thanks to the whatever they're putting in the water over at Sony's Japan Studios. Wickedly addictive, wildly entertaining, and completely bonkers in equal measure, Tokyo Jungle is a game that needs to be tried once. And at just under a tenner, it's well worth a shot.

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