Review: Ape Out
Title: Ape Out
Genre: Action, Arcade, Adventure
Developer: Gabe Cuzzillo
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platform(s): PC, Nintendo Switch
Release: Feb 28, 2019
For whatever reason, I never forgot the first time I saw gameplay footage of Ape Out a handful of months ago. It looked bonkers and self-aware in just the right ways that I really appreciated, and it lets you play as a viscerally violent gorilla of all things. My reaction at the time could best be summed up by what I undoubtedly uttered to myself upon seeing it: “Huh, that looks neat.” After finally getting my hands on it and watching the credits roll after its blisteringly fast-paced campaign, I sat back and thought to myself, “Huh, that was neat.” Ape Out may not have the staying power or polish of more mainstream indie darlings, but it’s still a bombastically entertaining romp that takes pride in having more style than substance.
The Tip and the Top
Ape Out is frantically dumb fun. It borrows heavily from Hotline Miami while simplifying the mechanics even further to make you feel more like the instinctual, titular ape. It’s a top-down smack-em-up that has you running from one end of a level to the next while smashing through anyone and anything that might be standing in your simian path. You’ll be slamming gun-toting guards into walls, smashing through glass, and ripping through barriers in an attempt to complete your sole objective: getting out alive. It’s a wonderful video game power trip that provides heaps of viscerally violent catharsis.
What makes Ape Out so remarkable is its slick and stylish presentation. There’s a freeform jazz motif going on here that was entirely unexpected but immensely enjoyable to experience. The soundtrack consists almost exclusively of drums that dynamically react to your in-game actions - it feels like the most appropriate and thematically synchronous soundtrack for a game in which you’re playing as a lumbering gorilla that has to constantly improvise. Drum beats drone on as you gallop through the game’s many labyrinths, and each kill is accompanied by a momentous cymbal crash. The style permeates even further with level intros that are accompanied by a brief drum interlude and level text that moves to the music, and the visuals also add to the game’s feeling of constant dynamism by have this constantly moving construction paper look. Ape Out exudes style, and it’s a complete joy to play something with such a staunchly unique identity.
The Flip and the Flop
Ape Out is full of punishing challenges that require you to restart sections over and over until you get them right, and the game’s random enemy placement makes the constant restarts far more frustrating than they would be otherwise. The random nature of the enemy placement prevents you from memorizing their locations and strategically planning your route around them. While such a design decision keeps things unpredictable and spontaneous, it feels like the system often fails when it does things like dump a bunch of enemies right where you spawn or cluster together enemy types that are nigh-on-impossible to surpass. Instead of engendering self-education through trial and error, it makes levels feel more like a luck of the draw than tests of skill.
While Ape Out’s visuals are very stylistically unique, the constantly moving construction paper look commits the cardinal video game design sin of being too distracting and disorienting to easily focus on actually playing the game. While the high contrast makes most portions easily discernible, sections where the lights go out become explosions of neon colors that are extremely hard to parse. These sections also look really rad, but they’re incredibly hard to actually play through.
Ape Out is a bit light on content with only four locales called “disks” that consist of eight levels each. The limited in length story prevents Ape Out from overstaying its welcome, but one of the settings feels like it doesn’t quite fit as nicely as the other three. Each level does have an arcade mode which times and scores you, and there’s an entirely separate hard mode playthrough that throws even more enemies your way; but the fact that both of these modes just reuse the same levels saps at their potential. The game’s length relies heavily on how many times you have to retry each stage before succeeding with some stages being over in a mere handful of minutes if you can make it through without any major slip-ups. However, regardless of skill, Ape Out won’t take much longer than a single evening to power through, and it feels like it left a few too many ideas and concepts unexplored.
While Ape Out exudes style from every pore, it still lacks some polish around the edges. Sometimes the engine shows its shortcomings with jittery animations, clipping through walls, and other clearly unintended occurrences that happen fairly regularly. Thankfully none of them impeded progress, but they did stand out in a game that’s focused so intently on maintaining its stylish image.
Final Verdict: B-
Ape Out makes for a perfect afternoon distraction after a long day. Its mechanical simplicity, short length, and repetitive nature make it far more enjoyable in short bursts; and its unabashedly idiosyncratic style makes for a fascinating work of interactive art. The best thing that can be said about Ape Out is that it leaves you wanting more. It can often be more frustrating than fun, but it still stands out as a uniquely stylistic gem that wouldn’t exist without the current independent development scene.