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My Game of the Year: Tokyo Jungle

I wanted to be writing about Persona 4 Golden, but my conscience 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: 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.

You’d be surprised what these purse dogs can do when they have to.

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 with from 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 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.

A small fraction of the number of beasts at your fingertips.

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.

  • I bought this game after reading the article. The article got me interested; the coop struck the killing blow. Good nomination.

    • Colin Dettmar

      I haven’t had a chance to play the coop! I wanted to do it with a friend, rather than with randoms, and so it just never happened. We shall have to give it a shot!

      Thank you for your kind words, as well. The GotY discussions are going to be interesting this year….

      • I haven’t even started the story yet. My sister and wife were kind enough to play the survival with me for a few hours earlier today, and after that I’ve come to the conclusion that my only real niggle is the toxic gas. It’s just annoying. Still, I’m glad I bought it.

        I thought the game was only local coop though?

  • I remember first playing this game at Eurogamer Expo in September and I loved just how fresh the idea was. It’s something zany like this that you kinda think “Oh, only the Japanese could come up with something as bonkers as this.” But they’re right, and it’s kind of a slight to Western developers who are still tied up in war and shooters and all that lark, that anything original and new seemingly has to come from somewhere where these games are the polar opposite from commonplace.

    I’ve not sunk many hours into it since I bought it, admittedly, but it’s definitely deserving of its place in the mix though. Kinda hard to believe that over in Japan that this was a full-fledged, boxed retail game though, but the risk of moving it to PSN over here paid off. Can’t say it would have got a great reception at retail, given the core concept.