Even though I've been into gaming all my life the differences between the Eastern and Western demographics still astound me sometimes. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the release of Tokyo Jungle. What was once a full priced retail title in Japan has come to the West as a $15 downloadable game. How can a company like Sony look at two markets and come to such a huge discrepancy in what each is willing to pay for the same product, and were Eastern gamers screwed or are we getting the deal of a lifetime?
Maybe the cause is Tokyo Jungle's inherent weirdness. You play as an animal in Tokyo ten years after the disappearance of any humans. The city has been repossessed by nature in all its forms, and the strange ecosystem that comes from having freed pets surviving along creatures from the zoo allows for some particularly strange situations. The Pomeranian is the first useable animal and serves to set the mood perfectly. Watching a little toy dog viciously attack and devour a chicken before running away from a puma is simultaneously surreal and a reminder of how savage nature truly is. Later story missions take inspiration from classic animal focused movies like Bambi and The Lion King and add more original tales like a war between beagles and tosa dogs. It all culminates with an attempt to bring the absence of humans, pets reverting to savageness, and dinosaurs (yes, dinosaurs) together in a single convoluted explanation. It's all in good fun, but not Tokyo Jungle's main draw.
Story missions beyond the tutorial are unlocked by playing Survival mode which actually ends up being the main play mode of Tokyo Jungle. You choose which species you want to play as from an assortment of 40 which are unlocked by completing objectives during that same mode. Once you've chosen your combatant you're tossed into Tokyo and tasked simply with trying to live. Your Hunger meter constantly depletes and you'll quickly die unless you find something which will fill the bar and also reward you with Calories that define your prowess. Years tick away in minutes and every animal is standardized to a life cycle of about 15 years so continuing the game will also require that you find a mate before too long.
Every sub-map in Tokyo has four places that can be marked in order to take over the territory, and after you accomplish that you can have your pick of the willing females on the map assuming that you've consumed enough calories to impress them. The caliber of your mate determines how many siblings you have in the next generation which can give you more attacking power as a predator or a sacrificial lamb to further your survival as an herbivore. Maps of Tokyo tell you where you can find food, but survival mode also comes with randomized objectives that are necessary if you want to live into the later years of the game. Completing them awards you with stat increases that'll be necessary if you want to stand a chance against the stronger enemies and harsher conditions you'll face as you struggle through 100 years of survival. Randomness is also inserted in the animals you'll come across in any given playthrough as well as the food and environmental conditions of each part of the Tokyo map.
Although dying in Survival Mode forces you to restart from year one you don't lose absolutely everything. Every time you change a generation you gain a slight stat increase based on the bonuses you got from completing random challenges which will stay with that species forever. So my Sheep that I've put 12 generations into is notably stronger than he once was. You can also obtain items which act both as adorable aesthetics and functional equipment. The Hip Hop attire of the Beagle is a personal favorite even if the stats aren't the best.
What really makes this all work is the sense of constant foreboding that sinks in as you try to sneak by or fight through any animals in your way. Crawling through high grass can leave you hidden and if you time your lunge correctly you can do a devastating surprise attack that kills most animals in a single hit and even works well as a grazer. If you have a decent attack stat (mostly if you're playing a predator) you can also take out your enemies with a more direct approach with quick attacks and a God of War-like dodge mechanic that uses the right analog stick. Land enough hits and you'll open your adversary up to a lunge which doesn't seem to do quite as much damage as the sneak attack but is still usually a one-hit kill. One big issue with the general battle system is that it uses a static camera which can really mess things up when you head down on the screen. There isn't enough room on the screen to give you a proper warning and you'll often run into danger without knowing.
If there's one single thing that probably made SCEA settle on a 15 dollar price tag for Tokyo Jungle over the full retail price it had in Japan it would have to be the visuals. They do their job admirably but there's certainly nothing in the game that made me think it wouldn't be possible on last generation hardware. Unfortunately I think this gives the game an initial first look of being cheaper which forced SCEA's hand. Don't let this put you off, because there's a lot of fun to be had with Tokyo Jungle even if it isn't the Belle of the Ball. Audio fares better with some (to my knowledge) accurate animal grunts and growls. There's even the hilarious effect that as the screen cuts to black when you and a female are mating the controller shakes to give a tactile accompaniment to the love making. Not really essential for the presentation but a funny little detail that I appreciate.
I've mentioned the regional price tag disparity quite a bit, so it should be obvious where I stand on value. Tokyo Jungle gave me 18 hours of fun just in getting through the story mode with half the animals left to unlock. I still haven't unlocked the dinosaurs which I will definitely have to get to at some point. There are a few species that you have to pay to unlock, but that doesn't take away from the 40 species you get without spending an extra penny with hugely variable experiences. There's nothing like being a defenseless baby chick to show you how much you actually suck at playing stealthy.
Tokyo Jungle is my favorite kind of game, an unexpected little gem that I've hoped would make it West since it was announced. The Story mode is bonkers and Survival can sometimes make you feel like the whole world is working against you, but it's so unique and fun that I can't help but enjoy it. At a 15 dollar price point there's very little reason not to give it a shot. So get on PSN and let me know how long you can last as a chick. I'll be playing as something with a slightly higher chance of survival.
This review was based on a digital copy of Tokyo Jungle for Playstation 3.