When Tokyo Jungle director, Yohei Kataoka, pitched his post-apocalyptic action game to Sony Japan Studio, it didn’t go well. “It was bad!” said Kataoka in a recent interview

“It wasn’t received so well at the very beginning. I think there weren’t so many people that thought this game could would sell just based on the concept.” The premise sounds like a sure thing in today’s gaming landscape: Survive in the ruins of Tokyo after human civilization has crumbled. That describes pretty much every single game that’s come out in the past five years. From Dead Island to Rage, the wasteland is currently one of gaming’s most popular settings.

So why didn’t Sony like Kataoka’s game? Well, house cats aren’t exactly the most popular protagonists in post-apocalyptic games. That’s how you roll in Tokyo Jungle.

No bald space marines, no rough-hewn machine guns. You get tooth, claw, and cunning as you guide the animal kingdom through what remains of Japan’s capital city when the humans have gone away. If it sounds like it might be a little dull playing as a tabby trying to cut it in a dog-eat-alligator metropolis, you’d be right. Tokyo Jungle can be exceedingly dull, every bit as banal as actually trying to forage for food and find a place to rest. But beneath some grueling game design lies a wholly unique, smart action game that balances survival and strategy to an impressive, tense degree.

The rules in Tokyo Jungle are more or less the same as when you wake up in the morning. You need to find food, shelter, and a mate to breed with all while avoiding things that want to kill you. Here you aren’t a biped with opposable thumbs and an enormous brain, just a beast whose only job is to make it through the day. The various animals you can take control of in Tokyo Jungle come in two types, even though the range goes from baby chick to slavering dinosaur: Grazers and predators.

Predators need to take on other critters by either fighting or stalking them. Crawling through a bush will conceal your feisty Pomeranian from an unwitting rabbit, and the perfect time to strike is represented by glowing red jaws on your target. Click the right trigger, pounce and feast with the circle button. The process is accompanied with the sort of visual flash that comes with a well-timed combo in Street Fighter, but it can be even more affecting, especially when you take out a larger animal that’s felled you before. You’d think since it was passive that grazing would lack the same satisfaction, but the process of tracking down edible grass and fruits on rooftops and alleys is just as compulsively enjoyable.

Eating food raises your animal’s rank, going from rookie to veteran, and peeking with boss. If you’re a boss, you can attract the best female of your species. (Tokyo Jungle, sadly, doesn’t offer much for those seeking gender equality). Before you can get potential mates to appear you have to secure a territory by marking four spots in the specific district you’re in. Do so, and you get access to a nest for mating and saving your game in the core Survival mode. A timer is constantly ticking years away though, so if you don’t mate before you hit 15-years-old, you’ll die. Mate before that, and you take control of your kids, who have beefed up health, stamina, and hunger stats.

As with life, Tokyo Jungle is all about balance. You need to weigh taking risks to secure territory or find food as you push forward and try to survive. There are mitigating factors — some areas are poisoned, tainted by the apocalypse’s fallout, but you can find equipment and items to keep yourself going, for example — but the center of the game is the push and pull of needing to find resources and racing against the clock. Survival in the real world is tedious, an exhausting, never-ending search for the things you need to keep going.

If you’re reading this though, you also know that the mundane nature of life can lead to ecstatic revelation. There’s nothing quite like having a good day. Tokyo Jungle, in its most inspired moments, captures that essential feeling. Playing as a fourth-generation gazelle, running from mountain lions across train tracks at night headed for another city district where the map says there’s food, watching your hunger meter drop away, then finally reaching your destination and finding safety for just a little while longer is a pleasure no other game will give.

But revelation is rare. Most of the time in Tokyo Jungle, you’re just slogging through the motions, trying to achieve a specific animal’s secondary goals beyond survival — reach this area, eat this many calories, find this animal in this set amount of time — raising points so you can unlock new animals to play with. Since that’s the only way to play as the coolest animals—lions, tigers, and bears, etc., that means hours of playing as a baby chick, which is as slow and cumbersome as it sounds.

Conclusion

Tokyo Jungle’s highs are so high that the game gets an automatic recommendation. For anyone looking for time value, there’s a ton here as well. In addition to all the many unlockable animals for lengthy survival mode campaigns, collecting data items slowly unlocks a mission-based story mode as well. It’s important to go in knowing, however, that there’s a mountain of grind standing between you and the best parts of the game. Jungle can be moving. It also happens to be hilarious (try not to laugh the first time you equip an a pig with cat’s paws to raise its attack power). Is it as satisfying as survival? No, not really. It offers a world and experience that no other game can though, and that makes all the difference.

Score: 7.5 out of 10

(This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3 using a retail version of the game)