As loving pet owners, it's only natural that we coddle our furry friends, but has all that pampering left Fido too soft to survive the coming apocalypse?
In "Tokyo Jungle" ($15, PlayStation Network), mankind's extinction reshapes the wild kingdom. Vegetation chokes the crumbling remains of Japan's once-glimmering capital city, while former lapdogs roam the streets in savage packs.
The goal is simple. Controlling any one of a vast menagerie of beasts, survive long enough to find a mate and pass your genes on to future generations. As a predator, hunt prey and claim territory from rival species. As an herbivore, seek out edible plants while evading hungry carnivores.
Gameplay has its share of issues, from tedious repetition to a limited open world to explore. Tense, fast-paced action, however, rewards players willing to make the investment. The first time my clowder of feral cats took down a full-grown cow to stave off starvation, I was hooked on this eccentric adventure.
"Tokyo Jungle" boasts two kinds of play: story and survival. Story mode presents gamers with a brief taste of several scenarios, from a once-domesticated Pomeranian struggling to adapt to life on the streets, to a young sika deer separated from its mother. These stages act as advanced tutorials, demonstrating common tactics while giving players a feel for the city's layout.
Survival mode, however, is easily the more rewarding time investment. With only two animals available at the outset, gamers complete challenges to unlock additional species, collecting newspaper clippings along the way that open new stages in story mode and shed light on humanity's disappearance.
The relentlessly dwindling hunger meter sets an excruciating pace. Securing food is the top priority, while additional challenges, such as killing a set number of animals and marking territory, provide bonus experience points. Consuming calories raises your pup's standing, from a low-ranking novice to alpha male. As your reputation grows, you'll attract more genetically desirable females, and in turn pass better stats on to future generations.
Each session can run from a few minutes to several hours, depending on your survival skills and the luck of the draw. Playing as a deer, I once met an embarrassing demise in the jaws of a beagle mere moments after setting out. A few attempts later, my pack of golden retrievers survived for more than 50 in-game years (nearly 90 minutes in real time) and a half-dozen generations.
The urge to unlock new animals — more than 50 in all — and climb your way up the online leaderboard offers heavy incentive to keep coming back. From adorable newborn chicks to lumbering hippos and even dinosaurs, it's a thrill each time you take a new species on a test run.
Repetitive gameplay does take its toll, however. Each animal has its own skill set, with points in categories such as speed and defense, but they all control exactly alike and use similar strategy. Also, it won't be long before you've explored all there is the see in the narrow alleyways of the city, leaving only frustration as you desperately race to reach objectives across town before time runs out.
Collecting stat-boosting clothing and items along the way not only adds much-needed replay value, but also injects a bit of oddball humor into an otherwise desperate, dog-eat-dog tale. As my proud pack of retrievers started carving out territory, I equipped clothing — some articles found in-game and others purchased with experience points — to try to tip the odds in their favor.
Fuzzy cat-feet slippers raised my canine's attack rating, while a stamina-boosting blue raincoat and an analog-TV antenna worn around his head added other benefits. Looking ridiculous, but statistically improved by his newfound ensemble, my pack leader set out in search of territory and a mate.
The clothing was passed down to each new litter of puppies, and the retrievers flourished despite the odds. It wasn't until decades later, when an ill-advised swat at a lion cub brought the ire of a dozen adult kings of the jungle, that the dogs' impressive run came to a gruesome end.
Survival mode also boasts a local co-op feature that allows two players to team up, doubling the odds of survival. Whether you band together to create a formidable pack or separate to preserve the dwindling food supply, tackling the adventure with a friend adds another reason to give this oddball adventure a chance.
"Tokyo Jungle" may not have the lasting appeal of some full-scale releases, but it earns points for being such a unique experience. Once you've seen what it takes to survive in the wild kingdom, you may never look at your pampered pooch quite the same way again.
Final score: 7.5 out of 10