I wanted to be writing about Persona 4 Golden, but my conscious wouldn’t allow it. Giving 2012 Game of the Year to a 2008 game that was simply rereleased is obviously cheating, and I couldn’t do it. And while it’s certainly the game I’ve enjoyed most this year, it’s for the best that I can’t give it GotY. It means I will instead be giving the award to a game that was far more brave, far more daring, and that did things no other game this year dared to do. Tokyo Jungle.
It was tempting to make this article pretty short– you can play as a Pomeranian, and bite a dinosaur in the jugular. Honestly I don’t know what more you want from a game. But no, I told myself, let’s be professional. Let’s make a real case for this game.
And there’s a heck of a case to be made. Tokyo Jungle, for those who aren’t familiar with it, is a PSN downloadable roguelike. Mankind has mysteriously vanished, and its once mighty cities are now literal urban jungles- trees and flowers sprouting up amongst the concrete and steel. The animals of the world have rushed to fill their void– and “dog eat dog” could not be more literal. Pomeranians, cats, tigers, bears, dinosaurs… nature in all its glory is on display, trying to murder each other for lunch.
The game consists primarily of the hunt- picking your animal, wandering the ruined streets of Tokyo, and making your meals of the denizens of the area. Each session can, and optimally should, last for generations: marking territory to secure a breeding spot, passing the onus to a new generation, and taking control of the young pup to begin the hunt anew. All the while, the world around you turns on. Extreme heat causes meat to spoil. Fierce rain reduces your visibility. Radiation is a constant threat- hinting, perhaps, at the unknown cause of mankind’s disappearance.
But carnivores are only half the story. Herbivores, too, are playable characters- deer, rabbits, baby chicks, horses, sheep, and more. Suddenly, the creatures that were an easy meal are death on legs, merciless foes you have no real defense against. If you’re lucky, you have one of your packmates with you, and you can quite literally throw them to the wolves, sacrificing them to make a clean getaway. And as bad a deal that sounds right now, when a pride of lions is two strides behind you, fangs bared, it begins to look a whole lot better.
The two types of animals diversify the game, but as you play, you unlock more and more powerful animals, as well. Every step up the ladder lets you play a little more boldly, a little more bravely, a little more forcefully. By the endgame, that “100 years survived” trophy is looking pretty doable… even with the terrifying threats that pop up later on. I won’t spoil that for you, but the shadows hide greater dangers than mere Velociraptors.
But perhaps most importantly, what you walk away from with this game is a story. A dozen stories. Like the time I angered a swarm of chickens, and my wolf was sent running in fear from a thousand feathered foes. Leading a mighty pack of tigers, unconquered by any mortal foe, yet brought low by the mightiest foe of all- starvation. And the triumphs, too- taking on that pride of lions with a golden retreiver, and leaving them far worse for the wear. He may have once been a mere pet, but he died a warrior’s death, surrounded by the half-dozen lions he took with him.
Like any roguelike, every playthrough is a struggle, randomness and chaos giving way to a story worthy of the bards. I suppose in this case, given the disappearance of man, the bards would have to be songbirds.
Sadly, Tokyo Jungle is a simple game, short on the complexity needed to create real depth. More levels, more variation to what the animals are capable of: these things would serve it very well. I look forward to any effort at a sequel, if such an atypical game will ever warrant such. But what is there, is different, delightful, and exactly what I want to see more of from the Playstation Store.
And for a game that launched at 15 bucks? It’s just unbelievable.
Originally published for Press X or Die on December 12, 2012.