Gather round children and let me wrap you in the warm embrace of a story about bears.
Melursus ursinus, more commonly known as the sloth bear, is an insectivorous species native to India and its neighboring countries. Anyone who has read or watched the Jungle Book has encountered sloth bears in the form of the lovable character Baloo. A family of these creatures is currently housed at the National Zoo in Washington DC; this is where our tale begins.
A few years ago, I was a volunteer worker on the Asia Trail at the National Zoo. Before signing up, I had hopes of feeding adorable pandas and otters while doting over their playful antics. In reality, I just cleaned up fecal matter and soiled hay out of unoccupied cages for eight hours a day. It was thankless a job, but to have any hope of getting into a career in zoology I had to slog through this sort of thing. One of the biggest areas to clean was the sloth bear cages. To the public, the exhibit seems like two wooded habitats, filled with foliage and artificial termite mounds where the bears frolic and romp. Behind the scenes, there are four large interconnected rooms which serve as cages for each of the bears. On a particular day, I was tasked with cleaning the fourth room, which would be sealed off from the other three cages for the day. I was informed that the young male sloth bear that had been on loan to another zoo was coming home, and it was time for him to meet his papa.
You see, it is rather common for a newborn animal at a zoo to be sent out to a new location relatively soon after birth. In this case, a young bear named Bala had been taken to another zoo before his father, Merlin, even had the chance to smell him. This creates a tense first meeting. Since Merlin had no idea who this rival male coming into his habitat was, there was potential of a huge territory clash between the two bears. But the staff was confident that through careful placement of food and slow introduction, Bala and Merlin would be great friends (cue orchestra and Disney father-and-son music).
Things started off well enough. Merlin was searching for hidden treats in Cage #3, while Bala was exploring his new home in Cage #1. After watching the two bears avoid each other for a few minutes, I began my cleaning duties for the day. I had most of the waste and hay cleaned out of the fourth cage when it happened: a monstrous roar erupted from Cage #2, a mere 60 feet away from my current location. This was the sort of primal noise that elicits fear in all creatures; the sound of a huge predator defending its territory. As I ran out from Cage #4, I saw the zoo employees spraying Merlin with a water hose, attempting to distract him while Bala escaped back to Cage #1. Apparently, the two males had wandered into Cage #2, and Bala had tried to eat a particularly enticing piece of fruit right in front of Merlin. Following the incident, the bears were separated and the touching reunion was rescheduled for another day.
After a lifetime of cartoon creatures and goofy internet pictures, I often forget just how dangerous some animals can be. The sloth bear is not a carnivore by nature; it only eats insects and some plant material. But when an upset 400 pound bear is trying to protect its territory, a grim reality sets in pretty quickly. Most video games fall on one side or the other of this scale. There is either a silly, cartoon mascot animal running around trying to accomplish a random task, or there are semi-realistic animals in the scenery, stiff automatons who serve as enemies and/or an item source. Tokyo Jungle manages to walk all over this line by providing an interesting experience: the humor and lighthearted scenario of animals taking over Japan juxtaposed against the harsh food chain and survival of the fittest.
From its premise, Tokyo Jungle sounds like it could be a big budget animated movie from Disney or Dreamworks. Sometime in the 21st century, humankind has vanished from Japan, leaving the once busy streets of Tokyo to all sorts of animals from the surrounding area. Lions and tigers from local zoos now roam the city streets alongside house pets and farm animals, all of which have become feral with the lack of owners and zookeepers. In story mode, every playable animal has an engaging tale, from the Pomeranian that must learn to survive without its master, to the lost fawn siblings who are searching for their mother. In each mission, the player must guide the animal through a virtual Tokyo, completing tasks and managing to survive by foraging or hunting for food. There are in-game cutscenes, most of which further humanize each creature and causes empathy for their struggles. When the stalwart Beagle pack is beset by a gang of bullying Japanese Mastiffs, I wanted nothing more than to see my puppies succeed.
It is through the gameplay that Tokyo Jungle differs from a jovial family film. Unlike most animated movies, which will exaggerate an animal’s features or redesign them from hoof to horn, all of Tokyo Jungle’s animals are realistically rendered. So instead of a cloud of dust and some slapstick during the Beagles versus Mastiffs fight, there are claws and fangs, blood and death. These brutal instincts carry over to the basic rules of play, where the player must maintain a hunger meter for each animal. If the hunger meter drops to zero, the animal’s health meter begins to drain. For the in-game carnivores, the predators must hunt weaker animals as a food source. This includes stalking, fighting, and landing a killing blow on various prey. As for the herbivores’ side, the player must forage for edible plants in the wastes of Tokyo; all while avoiding ferocious beasts that would make a meal of them. Things are rather tough when you are not on top of the food chain.
Tokyo Jungle isn’t all doom and gloom, though. As you travel the city streets, there are posts that can be marked in order to claim a territory. Once all posts have been sufficiently soiled, potential mates will show up in the area and a nest will be made available. Depending on the player’s hunting/foraging prowess, different levels of mate will be attracted to him/her and these levels determine the size of a litter. It is through breeding that the player literally creates extra lives to expend on the mean streets. What was once a single chicken running about Shibuya for a mate will become a clutch of baby chicks, flapping about to forage for more food. As new generations are sired the base stats for an animal increases, which can extend a survival session considerably.
Through a combination of an interesting and fantastic story alongside novel and engaging gameplay, Tokyo Jungle has drawn me into its wild world. While the game’s map suffers from being rather limited, the wide variety of animals to unlock and the random enemy/environment settings keeps the game fresh for several playthroughs. Plus there is some fine local co-op play to be had. If you are looking for something fun and different for your Playstation 3, be sure to check this game out.