Novelty is perhaps Tokyo Jungle’s strongest card, though that isn’t to damn it with faint praise, even if the word tends to conjure ideas of the faddish and the frivolous. As you witness a Pomeranian rushing, teeth bared, into a herd of sheep, it feels emblematic of the game itself: a plucky little underdog daringly attempting to upset the natural order of things.
If it’s a genuine original in execution, it does share more than a few conceptual strands of DNA with GameCube curio Animal Leader, particularly when playing as a meat-eater. Here, as there, it’s a survival-of-the-fittest tale where your chief concerns are finding a suitable mate and tearing chunks out of rivals both for food and to establish yourself as the dominant beast. Again, you get stronger by eating and mating, though whereas in Nintendo’s game your actions affected the physical development of your creature through abstract mutation, procreation here simply results in progeny with improved stats, the new generation benefitting from the strengths of their parents. Finding the right mate is crucial: prime candidates may require more effort to woo, but their superior genes will be passed down. More desperate suitors, meanwhile, convey little more than a flea infection.
An evolving checklist of simple objectives keeps you busy as you negotiate this dystopian vision of the Japanese capital. Tasks are time-sensitive, activated when your chosen beast reaches a certain age, and often involve little more than successfully making your way to a new district, marking your territory several times, or reaching a given calorie or kill tally. Apart from staying out of the way of those higher up on the food chain, you’ll need to manage life, health and stamina meters; recovery is automatic, but your stomach will continue to rumble the longer you go without food, rapidly depleting your health when emptied.
Whether carnivore or herbivore, you’ll mostly need to rely on the game’s fairly rudimentary stealth mechanics to get by. As a plant-eater, you’ll negotiate the ruined streets of Shibuya by moving between clumps of long grass, venturing out when it’s safe to munch a flower or two. Predators, meanwhile, must sneak up on their quarry: disturbing them not only precipitates a chase but ruins your chance of a clean kill with your one-hit pounce. Pity, then, that creature AI is so erratic. It’s galling to be killed by a charging boar when you were seemingly out of sight, yet at other times you’ll be no more than a tail’s width from your prey and they’ll remain blissfully unaware of your presence.