Thursday, January 24, 2013

Video Games: My "Tokyo Jungle" Diary!

A lot of video game developers make assumptions. They assume that most gamers are power-hungry miscreants who fantasize about being blood spilling lunkheads, be it the gruff, bandana-wearing, boombox-titted meat-heaps of Gears of War, or the obnoxious, bullet-spewing dude-bros of Far Cry 3. You’ve got us all wrong.

But then, finally, along comes Tokyo Jungle, an off-kilter game that truly understands us. It knows that beneath it all, what I really want to play is a yellow, fuzzy, soft and vulnerable baby chick, or a plucky, stunted, yipping pomeranian. And on the mean streets of post-apocalyptic Japan I can do just that. I can eat, hunt, nest, mate and fight for my right to survive. I’m going to climb up that food chain. I’m going to kick a big dent in the circle of life.

I’ve played Tokyo Jungle and this is my story... after the jump!

A $20 (Australian) download on the Playstation Network, this near 2-D animal action/survival game has some odd quirks and rough-edges but the gameplay is so unlike anything else on the market that its instantly addictive. You can unlock and pick from a huge menagerie of animals - both vicious carnivores and flighty herbivores and the goal is to see how many years you can survive. This means avoiding/destroying predators, keeping clear of toxic rain and radiation, popping out billions of fuzzy little babies, and eating CONSTANTLY. Your hunger bar drains at an alarming Oprah-like rate. And all of the encounters are random so just because there was a chicken around the corner last time you played, it doesn’t mean that there’s not a sleeping tiger lurking there now. Be alert. Death is swift and unexpected in the Tokyo Jungle.

You start out as a pomeranian or a deer and unlock the rest by completing challenges as you go. The challenges are lists of accomplishments, e.g. “defeat 10 animals” and “change generations 1 time” and the first round I found easy but after that it got difficult. I guess that’s why they call them “challenges”, huh? They often require running from one end of the map to the other, but when food is scarce and the weather is deadly, I mostly found myself unable to tick all the boxes in time. I guess that means I won’t be unlocking a lot of extra animals for a while - but worry not - there are special ways around that which I’ll leisurely get to in a while.

I chose pomeranian because who wants to be a stupid herbivore in a dog-eat-dog post-apocalyptic world? I was ready to eat some dogs. Preferably larger dogs than I was. I honed my skills by eating rabbits - which are difficult to catch and require stealth - and roaming chickens, who are stupid. It took a while before I was confident enough to try to take down a mid-sized beagle, and a wrong turn had me chased down a long alley by an extremely aggressive grizzly bear. 

But my first big death occurred when I mistakenly assumed that I could take down a cow. I was an angry pomeranian, equal parts bloodlust and beeflust, and it was a huge, but docile and delicious, lumbering cow. I figured if I attached to its neck or back in just the right way that I would down in an instant and feast on its flesh. Turns out that a cow has a health bar like an army tank and the cow promptly kicked the shit out of me. That’s an immediate game over and my reign as a small angry canine ended.

Later attempts fared better. I raised a pomeranian, and his subsequent offspring, for over 30 years, a highlight of which was dodging rogue hippopotami and killing and eating an army of feral cats on the Tokyo rooftops. I must say that the in-game eating mechanic is incredibly satisfying and you reduce your prey to a rattling collecting of appropriately shaped bones. No other game has made me quite so hungry. But much of my time was still spent dodging larger predators (which was just about everything) and I eventually died of radiation exposure in a toxic fog.

So let’s be herbivores then! Deers are not quite as fun as stripping the leaves off a plant is not nearly as engaging as stripping the flesh from a baby chimpanzee’s face. Deers are fast though, so I was outrunning packs of hyenas and kicking out at anything that got too close. But food was scarce and after wandering into a bleak section of town I eventually succumbed.

I unlocked a cat. That’s about the same as playing the dog. I unlocked a gazelle, that’s the same as the deer. But I also unlocked a fuzzy, yellow, baby chick. Now that’s a different experience altogether.

The weird thing about the chicks is that you can be six years old and still not a chicken. You don’t grow. You don’t mate. You can’t move very fast. Everything is bigger than you and you’re not much of a fighter. But you’re sooooo cute. This is my experience of playing as a chick. “Oh! This is fun! I’ll just - “ DEAD! Restart the game and, “Ok... So this time I’ll probably just -” DEAD! Restart the game. “Shit... OK, I’m going to eat this leaf, make sure there’s no dog lurking in that grass and - “ DEAD! Being a chick kind of sucks.

BUT, although I was a long way from unlocking lions and elephants, I was able to PAY for a downloadable pack of additional creatures. For $6.99 (Australian) I purchased a very odd and eclectic add-on pack of twelve “animals”. I say “animals” with ominous and intriguing quotation marks because although there were standards like a crocodile, a giraffe and a kangaroo, there was also some odd stuff too like a sabretooth lion, a neanderthal man, a robot AIBO-like dog and... a Japanese businessman?

The impractically attired businessman staggers around terrified like he’s about to shit himself, spouting Japanese phrases of alarm that I couldn’t possibly interpret for you. When I first saw this nervous wreck I predicted he would last all of 30 seconds but it turns out that humans are still surprisingly resourceful. With no weapons he leaps and tackles adversaries, managing to take down even a jackal or hyena with a minimum of effort. Man is King of the Jungle! At least until he goes up against the real King of the Jungle, which is a lion, and then he’s screwed. I was most disappointed in the fact that my business man was a vegetarian, plucking as plants as opposed to eating all the animals that he was going to murder anyway.

But the creature that did surprise me with its insatiable lust for flesh was the robot dog! He was a real dark horse who ate tons of meat and was able to take down just about everything. I played it safe with him to begin with but soon realised, upon being attacked on a train line by a pack of three lionesses, that he with relative ease he was able to smash the crap out of all of them. This bred a new robot confidence and I was soon ripping apart crocodiles, elephants, giraffes and tigers. Living nearly 60 years he seemed near unstoppable, that is until he ran into a boss character called Tosa - a large dog wearing a weird costume - who effortlessly smashed my dog into component parts.

Why was this dog wearing clothes? You can get stat boosts for your characters by dressing them in clothing items that you uncover on your travels. That’s why my deadly crocodile was wearing a jaunty straw hat and why my giant panda was dressed like a sassy Japanese school girl. Ever wondered what a “shower crown” is? Grab the game. You’ll totally find out.

Tokyo jungle is too much fun, and that fun really boils down to the stories that you craft for yourself while you play it. Whether you seriously knuckle down and attempt to complete all the challenges or prefer to simply explore, then there’s plenty to entertain you. I was easily entertained by playing as a giraffe in a Power Rangers mask who was jumping up and down on, and squishing, groups of baby chicks for no particular reason. I wasn’t even going to eat them. And I haven’t had that much fun since Far Cry 3 when I put an explosive charge next to a Galapagos turtle. Circle of life. That’s all that is.

My interest only began to wane when tasks eventually began to feel a little too repetitive. But, more than that, I began to have dark ruminations on my own mortality. Was this all life was? Performing the same routines over and over again, struggling to survive against the futility of it all, fully aware that death lurks around every corner and I'll either be taken out by surprise, taken out slowly, or simply decayed by old age? And all that I can possibly leave behind is my seed? I obviously needed to take a step back. But then I remember you can unlock a velociraptor. Something is better than nothing, right?

For $20 (or even cheaper in the US) you’ll get your money’s worth. Check it out if you missed this one like I almost did.

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