Sitting at the dog park, watching my 22-pound mutt roll around with all the other lovable little idiots, I occasionally wonder what would happen if my fellow humans and I suddenly disappeared. Would he ever escape this chain-link arena? Would he try to make it back home? When hunger gnawed at his belly, would he be the first to turn on his fellow canines?

Developer: Sony/PlayStation C.A.M.P.
Publisher: Sony
Release date: Sept. 25
Price: $15

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Score: 9/10

To be honest, I imagine he'd simply whine pathetically until he keeled over from exposure. But the Sony and PlayStation C.A.M.P. developers behind Tokyo Jungle, a downloadable PS3 title that seemingly came out of nowhere, have a different idea of what would go down.

I first wrote about Tokyo Jungle in July, when I had to double check that the trailer I saw wasn't a joke. It's set in Tokyo after some kind of apocalypse, when humans have disappeared and animals are running amok on the streets. It's a "new natural order," as the game reminds you frequently, and you'll have to do everything and anything you can to survive while taking control of an increasingly powerful parade of animals.

If starting out as a Pomeranian or a tiny deer lulls you into a false sense of security—like Tokyo Jungle's going to be some kind of gimmicky casual game—you'll to be in for a rude awakening. At least, that's what happened to me. I barely lasted five minutes on my first go, and it took hours for me to get the hang of it.

At its core, Tokyo Jungle is a simplistic but engaging brawler. The Pomeranian is quicker than some but weaker than most; the bear has monster defense and fantastic attack; and the cheetah can outrun most anything. Sneak up on unaware prey and you can launch a surprise "clean kill" attack, as long as that prey isn't too much bigger than you. Otherwise, you'll engage targets in a duel of swipes, dodging their lunge attacks and seeking openings to launch your own.

Tokyo Jungle is about survival, and the sheer number of factors waiting to kill you can feel oppressive at times. A hunger meter ticks incessantly toward your death, and for carnivores, killing and eating other animals is the only way to fill your belly. For pacifists, there are as many herbivores, which eat plants and avoid predators whenever possible (more challenging, but less fun). Either way, hunting for food will be a constant priority, although hunger isn't the only thing that's out to get you.

Age is a factor, and if you haven't found a mate after 15 years (about 15 minutes), your creature's hunger will become insatiable and it will die. Finding mates requires marking out territories, and finding a quality mate has to do with how much hunting you've done. A quality mate begets more offspring when you bed her down in a pile of hay, and more offspring means a larger pack for the next generation. Trust me, running around with five vicious, full-grown hyenas is even more awesome than it sounds. And if the pack leader dies, the game doesn't end, as your control transfers to another one.

 

Constantly searching for food and mates is made all the more difficult by a huge number of other variables. Opening the map of Tokyo reveals ten different zones (counting the sewers). Like in Battle Royale or Catching Fire, these zones take on different characteristics as time goes by. One minute you're surrounded by tasty, defenseless rabbits in Shibuya Station; cross into Dogenzaka and you're getting chased by a pack of tigers. Poisonous zones make prey inedible and tick away at your health, while foggy ones render your senses (read: radar) useless. Fleas can cause you to spontaneously stop and scratch, even in the middle of a fight. Sometimes three adjacent zones will contain practically no food, and you'll simply starve to death running through empty streets.

Death is constantly looming, more so than in any other action game in recent memory; at least in Dark Souls, you can stand still and catch your breath. But in addition to simply staying alive, you'll be trying to complete challenges (kill 25 animals, get 5 stealth kills, steal the boars' territory, etc.) and unlock new animals for your next game. Every new game presents you with a randomized set of goals, which are unlocked incrementally as time passes, and completing certain ones unlocks the next animal down the path. The Pomeranian leads to the cat, Beagle and Retriever, and eventually to lions, tigers and bears (oh my). The deer, on the other hand, leads to more herbivores; cows, horses, elephants, and others.

The game always ends in death, but dying means you can start over with a new animal, provided you completed the challenge to unlock it. There's also a story mode that boils down to a series of short vignettes with plot-driven objectives like leading a fawn to its mother or hunting a meal suitable for your aging Pomeranian parents. But story missions are only unlocked through playing survival mode, which is the real meat of Tokyo Jungle anyway.

Other factors play a role as well; life-saving items like water bottles and medicine are scattered around, and you'll also find ridiculous stat-boosting gear like baseball caps and fuzzy sweaters that fit equally well on house cats and tigers. "Anyone can just get by," the game tells you, but "a top dog survives in style."

Multiplayer (same-room only—no online, unfortunately) is a double-edged claw; having a buddy to revive you with medicine and help out against tough foes is almost priceless, but you'll have to hunt down double the food and mates. It changes things up significantly, but it's definitely a welcome addition.

Sure, it looks like a PS2 game. Online multiplayer absolutely should have been included, and considering Tokyo Jungle doesn't even use the R2 and L2 buttons, there's no reason it shouldn't be one of Sony's PlayStation "cross buy" PS3/PS Vita combos. Remote play (where you can play on a PS Vita if it's on the same Wi-Fi network as your PS3) is promised in a patch, but has yet to arrive.

Look past those flaws—plus the fact that the whole thing just seems so incredibly absurd—and what you've got is one of the freshest and most original games to comes out in some time. Sony's become known as the company that takes chances on series like Katamari Damacy and Sound Shapes, and Tokyo Jungle fits in nicely with those. It's arcadey but deep, endlessly replayable, and totally unique, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. Just watch out—it's a jungle out there.