When I think of Sony’s Japan branch, I think of all the oddball titles they’ve made in collaboration with smaller studios. Games like Rain, Mister Mosquito, or Tokyo Jungle.
Developed by Crispy’s, a seemingly now defunct developer based in Tokyo’s Chūō ward, Tokyo Jungle was published for the PlayStation 3 on June 7, 2012, with western releases following in September of that year. The middle release of their output, it followed MyStylist, their self-described “fashion life support tool” which remained exclusive to Japan following its February 2008 release for the PlayStation Portable. And to my knowledge, their 2014 endless runner Short Peace: Ranko Tsukigime’s Longest Day, made in collaboration with Grasshopper Manufacture, remains their last published work. Oh, and they also revamped Tokyo Jungle for mobile devices and the PlayStation Vita, although that version is shamefully unavailable to play anymore.
An action survival game, Tokyo Jungle was brutal. The developer’s post-apocalyptic vision of the future was literally a dog eat dog kind of world. Following a global catastrophe, humans vanished from the planet. Animals of all kinds, domesticated and wild, rose up and claimed it for themselves. In the core survival mode, I chose an animal to play as and then tried to survive as long as possible. My options ran the gamut from housetrained predators like the game’s Pomeranian mascot, to wild beasts such as bears and panthers, and even a couple of dinosaurs. And then there were an equal number of grazers to choose from, including deer, pigs, zebra, and more.
Regardless of my choice, an ever dwindling hunger meter ensured I sought out food, be it lesser animals or plants. I had to be mindful of other animals, because when a stronger predator noticed me, my chances of survival plummeted. It wasn’t impossible to escape as a grazer since their usually high stamina allowed me to dash away and their double jump helped me climb dilapidated structures better, but nothing was guaranteed. It was exhilarating when I managed to escape, or realize as a predator that I had improved enough take on a bigger foe.
The ultimate goal of the survival mode was to make it one hundred years, although the game continued indefinitely. Naturally, one animal couldn’t survive this long and I had to find a mate every fifteen or so years. I accomplished this by claiming a territory through marking. The game’s map was made up of a dozen territories based on real life locales within Shibuya like the Shibuya Shop District, Dogenzaka, and Yoyogi Park. As the years progressed, one passed each minute, levels of food rose and lowered in each territory, periods of drought or poisonous rain occurred, and special events occurred. In other words, I couldn’t hunker down in one place too long. These extraneous modifiers were random from one survival run to the next, so even when I replayed as the same animal, the experience didn’t feel like a repeat.
Providing me some direction during each session was a set of objectives, generally three per decade. These were unique to each critter and didn’t change from one attempt to the next, although they followed templates: mark x number of times, mate x number of times, eat x amount of kcal. Completing these increased my avatar’s stats, unlocked other animals to play as, and sometimes rewarded me with costumes that granted temporary stat improvements. In fact through mating, some of the stat boosts I earned were passed on to future generations, even when I played as that animal again in a different survival session. Essentially, I could play as an innocuous house cat over and over again, eventually improving its stats so much it was more powerful than a cheetah. This realization made that prospect tempting, but I probably hewed to a more traditional playthrough.
In addition to the survival mode, there was a story mode that offered about fifteen chapters of objective-driven gameplay with some connected narrative framing. These chapters were unlocked by collecting intelligence in the survival mode, and so I hopped between the two often. In my survival runs, I’d try to unlock a new story chapter and animal, call it a lifetime and then hurry up and die. Once the new story chapter was finished, I’d repeat the cycle. The intelligence pickups I found documented the catastrophe that befell Earth from the perspective of contemporary scientific research, news bulletins, and the like. On the other hand, the story mode itself documented the lives of a handful of the animals in the existential situation they now found themselves in.
For instance, a recurring storyline revolved around factional battles between two breeds of dogs, the lesser beagles and mighty tosas. My viewpoint shifted from one to the other as I unlocked more chapters, and because I almost always played as a different animal, there wasn’t much opportunity to get connected to any of my avatars. These chapters served to illustrate what life was like for the animal kingdom without humans around, and to inform me of the many gameplay systems at work. With little in-game instruction, it took me way too long to while to realize collecting intelligence unlocked story chapters, so I learned most everything by experimentation in the survival mode. This wasn’t the most effective way to grasp some mechanics, but it was rewarding.
When things went right in Tokyo Jungle’s survival mode, when I came out on top in a fierce battle, or narrowly escaped a bloodthirsty predator, it was among the most rewarding experiences a video game could offer. And that’s because after a dozen hours with the survival mode, I knew how devastating the alternative could be. It was crushing to have survived for decades only to make a mistake like being seen by an apex predator. There was no getting away in some circumstances. But regardless of the outcome, I was always making progress. The persistent stat improvements helped impart a sense of accomplishment with each round of survival, not to mention the practical knowledge I was gaining to carry into future attempts. I appreciated the additional context and background the story mode presented, as well as how it was interwoven to encourage a specific sequence of play, but it took a backseat to the game’s brutal survival mode. Tokyo Jungle may be the most absurd survival game out there, and considering my tastes, that means it sits atop the food chain.