I often feel like a bit of a Rogue when it comes to my method of reviewing games. Not that I’m a rum chap who is trying to pilfer morsels from your biscuit tin (although I would). No, I am referring to the X-Men character Rogue who absorbs powers from other mutants and can then use them for a spell. So for example, when playing an XCOM game you can bet your salty giblets that I’ll have the X-Files running somewhere in the background or when reviewing Sunless Skies I was pouring over Jules Verne in-between play sessions. I guess I just like to get absorbed into the world and mindset of a project. So along comes Ape Out which is heavily influenced by Jazz, what do I know about Jazz? About as much as I know about diamonds it turns out.
Force of Nature
Ape Out is a top-down mulch simulator, created by Gabe Cuzzillo and published by the ever cool Devolver Digital. You take on the role of a powerful primate, an ape who has the ability to render human beings into a lumpy red paste with one swipe. There is no story presented to the player per se and everything you might glean from this hominids actions would suggest he has been captured, ergo these filthy humans in your path had it coming. This makes sense, after all, a large ape waking up in captivity and surrounded by hostile Homo Sapiens wouldn’t get a neat foreword or list of objectives. You are living on your instincts and your goal is to survive.
The wonderful thing about playing Ape Out is that what you must do is almost instantly apparent, due to the simple controls and uncomplicated visuals. Most humans you come across will be toting a weapon of some kind and so it’s going to be a case of hitting them first. Left trigger is grab and right trigger is punch, that’s it. As soon as you thump an enemy they will be smashed in that direction and if their flight path is interrupted by any solid object, said enemy will explode like an overripe melon. Sometimes you will have a few limbs left strewn across the splatter zone, others you will achieve complete liquidation.
This one single action never gets old and is instantly satisfying, which means that even with no other variations Ape Out could ride on this one gameplay loop for a good while. Fortunately, the tempo of the challenges ahead rises and offers more difficult scenarios and enemies to deal with. The overall objective is simple, to reach the exit at which point the next chapter will start. You can be injured and this will be represented by how much blood you are leaking as you run. On taking one too many hits, the view will pan back showing the full level and the route you took to your death. You might think this would spoil the ride but alas, every level in Ape Out is procedurally generated. This is where procedural level design is at its best because you will hit a wall from time to time and never quite knowing what is around the corner helps keep the challenge fresh.
Once you start to encounter more than one or two enemies, you will need to use a bit more imagination when dealing with threats. Grabbing humans before they can fire their pop guns is a legitimate tactic and pointing them at their mate is just plain funny. Getting your new buddy to aim straight can be problematic but then it would be wouldn’t it. If you grip a shotty guy his next blast of life stealing pellets can take down many targets at once. Holding an enemy can also provide a temporary shield but loyalty around these parts seems a bit thin on the ground because guards will open fire regardless. I love the animation on your captive guests as they pointlessly struggle and the way their feet sway as you carry them, like naughty children being carried to the bathroom to brush their teeth.
Once your passenger has outlived his usefulness you can pitch them like a meaty wrecking ball in any direction: this can be into a wall, through a window and of course you can send them in the direction of another goon (resulting in more bloody mess). There are other objects you can get to grips with, like being able to rip large metallic doors off their hinges, use them like a big hairy Captain America and then pitch it at the nearest unfortunate gib donor. You can even pick up bits from dead guards and pitch them at others for a quick distraction. I do like how often the enemies will kill each other in accidental cross-fire or the occasional misplaced bomb.
Music is such an important part of gaming and used properly can send a game scene into emotional overload. Games like Nier Automata and GRIS ride upon these melodic landscapes and the two art forms join to become one entity. According to the lead developer, Gabe Cuzzillo, the music in Ape Out was heavily influenced by the Pharaoh Sanders Anthology: You’ve got to have freedom. Jazz music playing in the background would have been very atmospheric but Gabe went way beyond that, with a score that reacts to the carnage on screen. As is perfectly illustrated in the first few seconds of the game, pretty much every act of force is represented by the music. Drums, cymbals and many more instruments pepper the audio as you play and this is how Ape Out melds its gameplay loop with the music in such an efficacious way.
I love this fusion of gameplay and audio because it shows that these two sides of a game don’t have to be separate entities. Playing and listening to Ape Out instantly takes me to films that use this kind of effect, like Birdman for example. Of course, improvisation was at the heart of Jazz music and this is another fantastic way that Jazz was the perfect choice for Ape Out. The chaotic way you move around the levels, adapting to new threats and formulating success from imperfections in your strategy, makes you really start to feel like you are part of the band riffing in your ears.
All that Jazz
So the reactionary music is a very clever thing, but how does the game perform in the visuals department. If you look at the album art for many of the more popular jazz artists you’ll notice they have a very distinct aesthetic. Loud colours, bold italics and very punchy illustrations. This visual style has been embraced with the graphical effects in Ape Out. Most objects have a single colour with slight variations to help show depth and contrast. Walls are represented from a very tight central perspective, this makes seeing what is ahead of you more difficult (which improves the gameplay loop tremendously). Jazz was, in its early days, an underground movement and the album's artwork was often made in makeshift printing rooms. This made many colour sets look washed out and mottled, which eventually just became part of the visual flavour for Jazz artwork. This effect can be seen right across the game, as even single colours and letters vibrate with energy.
The game is split into four distinct chapters that are represented by albums, two sides per album of course. I won't go into what the later themes are because I would class this as a spoiler. However, I will say they do offer a nice variation on the first album and in many ways link to popular cinematic themes that involve large apes attacking humans (or vice versa). There are visual nods to other forms of media, like the small white circles in the top right corner of a film reel which Tyler Durden quite rightly explains (Fight Club: 1999) are known in the industry as cigarette burns.
Is it PC?
The game runs on the Unity engine and for what I can see it is solid as a rock. The many effects in the game come off without a hitch and in four days of play, I have only seen one graphical bug. I also like how the elemental properties of the engine give a faithful performance. In one instance I pitched a discarded arm at a flamethrower guy, which while travelling through the flame caught fire itself and sent its target running away like a Roman Candle with legs. It is also worth mentioning that there is an Arcade mode which is a timed run of each album and has leader boards attached.
If there was ever a game that advocated style over detail it would be this one. The actual ape himself is literally one silhouette of orange, which is well animated and shows a good range of movements. Don’t get me wrong, I love more conventionally pretty games that push our rigs to their limits. Unfortunately, all too often we see games like Anthem use these jaw-dropping aesthetics to smooth over a soulless gameplay loop or a lacklustre narrative. Ape Out has more fun and originality in its hairy big toe than the Anthems of this world.
We have recently seen a great many AAA games come out to a lukewarm reception, with endless analysis of how this could happen from (insert AAA studio) with all their resources. Well for me it’s really simple, these massive and lumbering gaming studios have lost what it takes to make a game fun. Yet here we have a very small group of individuals with meagre resources making a game that just makes you smile every second you are playing. This is raw talent, game design from the burning hot forge of creativity and for me: this is what gaming is all about.
Ape Out is a game I can easily recommend you pick up on launch day because not only do you get a stonking good title but you also support a developer who really deserves a chance to make more wonderful games. I look forward to seeing what Gabe and his associated team work on next.
Thank you for reading my review of Ape Out on PC. It is worth noting that this game is also releasing on Switch which I think should be a pretty good fit for that platform. I had a review copy of Ape Out provided for free and so I would like to thank the associated PR company for this. If you enjoy my website please follow me on twitter @riggedforepic and also add us to your favourites tab.