Review – Ape Out
There’s something special about a live music performance. The passion, the excitement, and that undeniable urge to sway can overwhelm us in the best way. When a song is at its peak, you’ll notice how a room quiets down and, regardless of who everyone arrived with, the reverberance becomes the crowd’s singular dancing partner. The power of music and its capacity to widen our understanding of any subject have been studied for generations. Its effects on our emotions however, requires no further analysis: its intrinsic and immediate. We all know when a song can make us feel something the moment that note echoes in our ear. What is a mystery though, is how a gorilla made me experience all these things while sitting on a couch.
Ape Out is a top down “pusher” by Gabe Cuzzillo, one of my new favorite designers, and published by Devolver Digital. In the three to four hour playtime, you’ll be embodying a disoriented gorilla as you try your best to escape this labyrinth-esque structure your captors have devised for you. Along your maddening rush to the exit, you’ll interact with a diverse cast of meat bags all begging to be popped like an overzealous water balloon. Throughout your run, you’ll be escaping from a host of exotic locales like: a laboratory, an office building, a ship, and a warzone. Each come with their own unique set of challenges, obstacles, and colorful cast that help maintain the pacing of the title across all its chapters. You might be thinking now, “oh, so this is Hotline Miami, but with a gorilla instead?” And you’d be right in a sense, but what makes this particular game so outstanding is every small detail that’s been added on top of the top down formula.
Here’s the thing, this game is essentially a jazz sequencer. I know that makes no sense, but bear with me. Each level has a masterfully composed back track that embodies the emotions and situations the player is currently faced with. As the game begins, you are introduced to several mechanics gradually. Each of these mechanics and/or actions are associated with a particular cymbal, crash, hi hat, or sound. Whenever you perform any of these actions, the sound is triggered and that unique track reacts to your input. In other words, every time you push a person against a wall, the music will change. The more times in a row you do that, the faster and more aggressive the music will get.
I personally have never been part of an improvisational jazz band, but man-oh-man did I feel like I was while playing Ape Out. Every second felt like I had an ensemble of incredibly talented musicians orchestrating my playthrough. When I would run as stealthily as possible to avoid confrontation, my faithful band would be quiet, serene, and mellow. But as soon as a shot would ring out and got hit, the music would swell and so would my adrenaline. You see, the music is as much part of the gameplay loop as any other mechanic. The sound design was made so artfully, so ingeniously that it became of the main driver of my playthrough. Even now after the glass has shattered and the walls have been wiped off, I can still hear that crash reverberating after I skillfully maneuvered my way through a group of ten thugs.
Taking out enemies is not a straightforward affair. Like those before it, it requires risk assessment and near-perfect player input to make it out alive. Afterall, you’re only a 300-pound gorilla against an onslaught of metal slugs. There are no weapons, shields or perks at any point. What you do have is your brutish strength, your speed and your unwavering rage. With these seemingly innocuous traits you can actually do a lot. Like for example grabbing your oppressors to use them as a temporary means of defense. When grabbed enemies will react in different ways: some will shoot, others serve as bombs and some will make you into a moving gatling gun. Its all great frenetic fun. This limited yet deceptively deep pool of options creates desperation in a way its contemporaries have failed to inspire in me for quite some time. You are constantly scrambling to make it to the other side by any means necessary. In one of my runs I began weaving and dodging through corridors while narrowly escaping multiple aggressors, only to lure them into a trap and catch them all by surprise in the next corner; taking them out one by one as soon as they appeared on screen. At other times I limped all the way to the exit leaving a trail of my failings behind me. Its impossible to plan ahead, and it’s what makes this such a joy to play.
Throughout the 4 racous chapters you feel like exactly what you’re playing as: a poor and defenseless animal trying to survive in an unknown and hostile environment. And there’s a lot going on beyond the base mechanics that help create that personification. The top down perspective has a slight three-dimensional effect which produces a rather interesting labyrinth by partially covering portions of the level. All which have some light random level generation, keeping the players on their toes on each run and further reminding them that a raging gorilla wouldn’t know how a building works. The impasto art style with its loud and textured brush strokes convey a constant state of adrenaline as the colors and stroke directions shift haphazardly every second. It’s just all too much. Exactly how a caged animal might feel. Which brings me to one of the most important emotions this game creates: introspection. By hurling us into the role of a crazed animal, we start to see that they might not be crazed at all. I found myself questioning what I would do if I woke up in strange place with lights and strange foreign beings around me. If I had the means to escape, would I or would I accept my fate? This brief glimmer of doubt reminded me of the cruelties we inflict as people, and how easy it is to dismiss a living being as being just a “wild” animal.
There’s a lot to love here, almost to a fault. Once these chapters are over, you’ll be begging for more. Thankfully there are a few post-game surprises to tie you over. But as you’ll discover soon enough, there isn’t anything better than that first high. During my time with Ape Out I found it difficult to determine where you’re aiming. On multiple occasions on Switch, I found myself flinging bodies into empty spaces at key points in my run that ended up costing me the game. Which can prove frustrating during a practically perfect playthrough. The game does do a great job at keeping things moving during respawns by keeping loading times short to practically inexistent, but I found that transitioning to a new chapter was a tad lengthier than it should. At any rate, these are all very minor gripes to an otherwise impeccable package.
In conclusion: Ape Out is an incredible time from start to finish. If you’ve been on the lookout for another title that could scratch the itch that Hotline Miami may have left, you’ll find that here and so much more. I wouldn’t say this game will make you into a fan of the top-down shooter genre, but it’s definitely one of the most imaginative and adrenaline-fueled options out of the shrewdness (a group of apes). If not for the spectacular and simple gameplay alone, you owe it to yourself to experience the audio-design; it is quite simply something else. If that wasn’t all enough, there’s a powerful message underneath all the blood and crisp cymbals. It goes to show that you shouldn’t put Kong in the corner, he may just push back.
Gorgeous and heavy brush strokes bring this game to life and perfectly convey its main theme: adrenaline.
Although not highly innovative, the combination of small changes elevate this title above any other in the top-down genre.
An auditory masterpiece from start to finish. You’ll be swaying to the sound of bones crashing.
Fun Factor: 9.0
A high octane thrill ride. It won’t take you long to finish, but you’ll be looking for that high for months to come.
Final Verdict: 9.0
Ape Out is available now on Switch and PC.
Reviewed on Switch.
A copy of Ape Out was provided by the publisher.