Arriving stateside after a successful run in Japan, Sony’s Tokyo Jungle has enjoyed a modest amount of positive buzz. Most of this stems from its unique concept: In the near future humanity disappears, and you play as one of dozens of different animal species trying to survive in the ruins of a wild, dilapidated Tokyo. Persist, and you’ll eventually find clues that sketch out what happened to the planet’s once-dominant species. This concept is undeniably evocative and cool; unfortunately, the game isn’t especially fun to play.
The basic gameplay structure has potential. You start out near the bottom of the savage new pecking order, with just a Pomeranian dog and a small deer to commandeer. But play them well and you’ll steadily move up the ranks, eventually unlocking powerhouses like woolly mammoths and raptors. (Certain animals are only available via paid DLC.) Stat upgrades and unlockable items come by completing a series of challenges, and you can pass a portion of your power boosts to your progeny by settling down with a nice mate, at which point you continue foraging as your children.
In practice, it’s not much fun. Despite having free run of the (mostly linear) environment, you’ll usually only have one place that seems worth heading toward at any given time, usually dictated by the current Challenge. Along the way, randomized events, creature locations, and item spawns attempt to inject a little roguelike dynamism, but often just spike the difficulty in annoying ways. Most often, an area you need to explore will suddenly turn poisonous for 10 or so minutes (an eternity when in-game years pass every minute), which, while possibly an interesting idea, doesn’t translate to much fun. The save system is also bizarre; why does saving kick you back to the title screen?
But Tokyo Jungle’s cardinal sin is that there’s very little meat to its moment-to-moment gameplay. You can only jump, attack, dodge, and, in the case of herbivores, graze. Character movement lacks momentum and weight and environmental interaction is minimal, so running from one end of this side-scrolling Tokyo to another isn’t half as interesting as you might hope. Some games can skimp on such basics because they do many other things well. Tokyo Jungle is solely about running around and eating things, so it’s highly problematic that doing so isn’t rewarding or engaging.
The game also makes little effort to give even radically different species unique feels or play styles. You’ll sneak more as an herbivore (as much as the irritatingly fixed, side-scrolling camera will allow) and act more aggro as a carnivore, but aside from looking different, later animals mainly just have better starting stats. Each species starts in the same area, receives most of the same missions, and experiences the same bland sequence of progression.
Struggling to survive, mate, and generally make your way in a savage new world has potential. Alas, Tokyo Jungle somehow spins its killer concept into a mundane, frictionless side-scroller. That’s too bad, but nothing a little Discovery Channel marathon can’t cure.