Games bring countless moving parts together to create cohesive experiences. Gameplay, music, controls, story, and, sometimes most importantly, presentation are pieces to an ever-evolving puzzle. Like an ape perched atop a warm jungle tree, games can be elevated by the strength of their presentation. Ape Out’s hand-crafted look and infectiously rhythmic sound are among the best independent games have to offer. However, without a strong enough grasp on many of those other moving parts, Ape Out falls just short of the peak of its tree.
Ape Out begins stronger than most other entries in the medium thanks to the solid tone it sets from the beginning of the three-to-four-hour journey. Players take control of an orange gorilla that has been locked in a cage by those bent on torturing the species. Silence pierces the bars of a cold cage as players fumble around from a top-down point of view. Then, an unobtrusive tutorial explains how to attack. With the simple press of a button, the gorilla explodes from its cage, triggering the title card to clobber the screen. Walls are now painted with the blood of an unlucky poacher and the jazz percussion kicks in.
Throughout the four-world adventure, players are treated to the dynamic sounds of Ape Out. Cymbals crash for each kill and drums beat with every step taken. Apish movement is given auditory context, as cymbals become one with the gore of those most deserving of an ape’s wrath. Better yet, each of the four worlds players are presented with have different takes on this same audio idea. Trudging through a war zone brings snare rolls, while a city setting is accompanied by industrialized sound. The music does more than set a mood, though. The percussion sets off an almost primal need to move and never stop, thus making Ape Out’s ‘break out’ objective more than clear without any hand-holding.
Ape Out does little to bruise its golden first impression within the first hour or so. This is about where the overwhelming simplicity starts to take hold. Only two buttons are necessary to progress through each of the procedurally generated maps: grab and push. Grabbing is rarely used for much more than using the nearest guard as a shield, and pushing hurls bodies into walls with little effort. Both options overstay their welcome by the halfway point of the second world, even if the ape-like satisfaction offers a solid start.
Ape Out is breakneck and can most easily be compared to Hotline Miami as a result. Many of the worlds introduce new gimmicks and enemy types at an exciting rate to keep things interesting. At their best, these mechanics force players to think about a room in a completely different way. Still, the game lacks the strategy and nuance found elsewhere in its genre. For many of the more difficult scenarios, players will find themselves beating their fists against the wall until they eventually breakout. Two buttons would suffice if the level design featured more than an occasional hoop to jump through to reach the end. Still, plenty of fun is to be had in Ape Out’s brutally challenging gameplay, but a handful of the levels end up feeling like one more obstacle in the way of escape. On occasion, a death will feel a bit cheap thanks to the slippery nature of the beast, though most failed attempts at freedom feel totally justified. Thankfully, a creatively daunting game over screen greets the player upon each death.
Ape Out offers some of gaming’s more satisfying moments in recent memory, even if the entire experience is short-lived. As stated earlier, the USD$15 entry fee will net around three to four hours of game. Depending on one’s skill level, a short epilogue is present after the credits roll, and then the only bananas left to peel are a harder difficulty, an arcade mode, and the drive to clear levels with fewer deaths. $15 is certainly an appropriate price tag, but to say Ape Out provides players with extensive value is more difficult than many of the worlds the game presents.
In the end, Ape Out is a beautiful game that is impossible to forget, yet finds itself with plenty of imperfections. The lengths the game goes to empower players in the world of a trapped gorilla are perfect and make the game easy enough to recommend. That said, some minor tweaks to the procedural level generation and more options to take out goons could have given Ape Out the tools to rise to the top. A sequel could do more to improve on the gameplay formula and should be on everyone’s radar, assuming Ape Out 2 is planned for the future, of course. Until then, Ape Out remains as an experience everyone should give a try, even if its gameplay does not quite meet the savory standards of its own presentation.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.