It’s on like Donkey Kong, or at least his Devolver equivalent.
Publisher Devolver Digital is no stranger to games that are dripping with style, and top-down action title Ape Out is their latest offering. That’s not to say there isn’t decent substance here as well, but my first and last impression is that its unique presentation and aesthetic are absolutely hypnotic. Like the two Hotline Miami games before it, Ape Out is violent and bloody, but it’s the use of color, rhythm, and procedural generation that really give this monkey business some serious punch.
There is something primal and satisfying about guiding an ape from the point at which it smashes its cage open to the freedom of the outside world. Along the way, you are tasked with navigating a procedurally-generated labyrinth—generally moving from left to right or vice versa—and slamming or dodging armed guards who attempt to put you down. The guards come in a variety of flavors, with the basic ones toting single-shot rifles and armored ones carrying shotguns that fire a spread of bullets. You eventually run into foes wielding flamethrowers and other extremely deadly weapons. The ape can generally take three hits before going down, but explosive attacks take you down immediately.
In addition to shoving enemies into a wall or each other, watching them splat in a pool of blood and limbs, you can also use them as human shields, and they will even fire their weapon one time while you are holding them up. There is a strategy to knowing whom to pick up and whom to fling to their doom. The armored guards can offer a little more protection to you—making them a solid choice—but you walk more slowly when using any guard as a shield. Sometimes the best strategy is just to run forward, avoiding contact as much as possible. Because the maze of doors, walls, and rooms changes each time you die, you have to adjust on the fly, and this gameplay hook is really compelling. I had an incredibly hard time putting Ape Out down for any length of time since it has that “one more run” feeling built into it, especially when each death reveals just how much progress you made in the stage before failing.
While the gameplay is thoroughly satisfying, it is the presentation that really steals the show. In terms of sound, every kill produces a cymbal crash, which adds punctuation to the percussive rhythm that rises and falls in the background. Visually, the graphics are indeed simple and the beginning areas more basic, but in later stages color palettes change mid-stage to indicate alarms, power outages, and darkness, and this is where Ape Out absolutely shines. Your eyes have to adjust to obstacles and enemies that have a completely different appearance. The feeling of tension rises as you become unable to distinguish between stage boundaries, walls, doors, and basically everything around you. Of course, with practice and patience you become better equipped to handle the changes, but the always-shifting labyrinth means you never feel overly safe. You never know what dangers, if any, lurk around the next corner.
This point is made even more salient as your perspective also shifts as you move around each stage. Walls and doors extend upward on the screen, blocking your vision until you turn a corner or step into a doorway. Having your vision obscured and needing to peek around corners forces you to make quick decisions: Can I smash that guard before they shoot me? Are they alone, or am I going to be dealing with a whole squad? Corridors feel narrow and claustrophobic, and in spite of the ape’s brute strength, it is very likely you will die over and over as you learn the timing of enemy attacks and how to better control the ape.
Ape Out uses albums as its game worlds, with each generally divided into four levels on Side A and four on Side B. The four albums also have harder variations, which begin to unlock after you clear the first album on normal difficulty. The harder versions present you with longer labyrinths and a higher number of guards. After clearing all of the 31 stages on normal, which can take about 2-4 hours depending on your skill level, there is a fun challenge stage that also unlocks. Adding to the replay value is an Arcade Mode for each album that sees you run through the stages against a time limit, earning points for kills and how fast you can get to the end. Unfortunately, high scores don’t seem to save and there are no online leaderboards.
Admittedly, the gameplay can feel a little repetitive, and even though environments change, your abilities and method of traversing each stage do not. There are also no boss fights or unique encounters; you are fighting about seven different types of guards, and that’s it. These issues aside, the overall experience is a solid one, and Ape Out is a fun and challenging romp from beginning to end. The Arcade Mode and harder difficulty will test even the best of players and provide a decent incentive to come back. The sheer enjoyment of flinging guards into each other or through a high-rise window to their doom doesn’t really get old, but the striking use of color and perspective truly set this game apart. If you don’t mind the gratuitous body count and related blood splatter, Ape Out is a funky and fresh take on the top-down action genre. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to rock out with my Ape Out.