Ape Out Review
by Dylan Blight (Nintendo Switch)
APE OUT is a wildly intense and colorfully stylized smash ‘em up about primal escape, rhythmic violence, and frenetic jazz.
Ape Out is like that final scene in Whiplash starring J.K Simmons and Miles Teller. It’s a loud brash jazz band on stage that builds up slowly until you’re a rampaging ape charging down a corridor covered in blood just hoping for the best while trying to survive the monsters pursuing you. (Note: not actually a good description of that film.)
While Gabe Cuzzillo’s 'Ape Out' may be inspired by another Devolver Digital title, Hotline Miami when it comes to the fast-paced grab-and-throw-action, the biggest inspiration seems to be that of jazz music which fills the game's soundtrack, but also drives the procedurally generated levels.
Jazz as a genre is all about experimentation; live bands playing off one another, the rhythmic nature when combining emotions in the moment to create passionate music. Ape Out excels in its recreation of the genre, not only with its procedurally generated sound design and music — which is mixed on the fly to your gameplay momentum and actions — but also in having the gameplay be pared to that experience in a way that makes every action you do feel like you're the leader of a percussion jazz band.
Ape Out features four albums which are presented on vinyl covers. Each album contains a Side A and a Side B with each (baring the final album) contain four tracks, which are the game's levels. You can, of course, play through an entire album from start to finish in one amazing performance, but you’ll most likely die a lot — as I did.
Each album has you playing as a different ape — although it could be the same, very unlucky ape — as they attempt to escape from their captivity in a zoo, skyscraper building and more. All manner of progressively more armed and dangerous army soldiers and security guards stand in your way to safety as you try to escape. Making things worse, you can only take three bullets before dying and restarting the level from the beginning. When you die the camera will zoom out showing you a map which gives you a rough idea of how far you came to finishing it, but when you respawn the levels design and enemy placement will be procedurally generated, so there is no point studying it.
Ape Out can feel like a game of chance at first as you run aimlessly through corridors attempting to charge at and kill any enemy you see, but there is more strategy involved in the moment-to-moment decision making here than there initially seems. The games top-down view offers you no clues to help lead you around enemies and entering a room full of them is either a matter of reacting quick enough to leave and double back-around or being able to take on the enemies fast and most importantly, effectively.
You have two action buttons as the ape. ZR lets you push enemies, which can send them colliding with into another object causing their gruesome death. ZL lets you grapple enemies which will cause them to quickly fire off their gun in the direction you’re pointing and you can then, of course, throw them. With only these two actions Ape Out is all about the rhythm and your reaction to what's happening around you. A defensive play isn’t bad, but you’ll need to be able to play offensively to move forward in the level. Grapple, throw, push, dodge and weave — keep that momentum and rhythm going.
The flow of your decisions can be impacted by the music driving you as it amps up, which is funny considering it’s your decisions affecting the music to get more loud and bombastic. When you kill an enemy a cymbal will be heard bashing down hard and as hectic combat begins around you the music picks up into a violent array of percussion instruments. If you’re killing enemies the constant slamming of that cymbal can add to the need to move faster and faster as it drives you forward into an ape rampage.
Ape Out can be frustrating at times, but it’s not mean. If you died to four shotgun-wielding enemies it’s probably because you decided to charge head-on at them. Often taking a moment to rethink your strategy with an enemy type can lead to the life-saving decision.
Throughout the albums, there are times in the level design that add an exciting change of pace. For example, one section has the lights go out in the building leading you to creep around like a night predator on the lookout for any moving flashlights in the distance. You're caused to peak around a corner forcing you to play differently than you had been in the level leading up to it.
Ape Out features a hyper-stylized art style that uses minimalistic detail and bright colours that makes for a really unique picture. The game can be rather violent as enemies explode into pools of blood when slammed against a wall, but the art style tones down what could be a more gruesome game in a realistic design. On top of this are the inspirations of 50’s cinema and pulp visual storytelling. The levels (songs) names will flash on the screen in unison with music as the levels begin, often setting the mood, and the loading screen features a static backdrop with the sound of record needle caught crackling at the end of its run.
Once you do beat an album you can play through it in an Arcade Mode in which you have a time limit to beat per level and the aim is to set a high score. Death in Arcade Mode brings you all the way back to the start of that album though, not the level you were playing. It’s a mode designed for those wanting to prove their Ape Out skills with the high scores to prove it, but the lack of any online leaderboard system leaves little push-and-pull with your friends to try and constantly one-up one another.
Ape Outs themes can probably be guessed given the subject matter and title, but the game has very little story to tell (if any) and that’s fine, as it gets the message across loud and clear.
Controlling your own jazz orchestra with bloody firsts and a thump of your chest as you get better and better at reactionary decision making, thus creating music on your way to freedom is a lot of fun. Ape Out is a simple premise brought together wonderfully with the procedural nature of its music and level design to truly make you the maestro of your own escape.
Developer: Gabe Cuzzillo, Bennett Foddy, Matt Boch
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platforms: PC, Nintendo Switch (reviewed)
(Ape Out code provided for review)