It’s interesting how modern times have created something of a renaissance in game development, with more developers than ever now producing new games, yet these games, in many ways, feel like they’re becoming gradually more homogenous. Ape Out pushes back against this trend in the best kind of way, crafting a distinctive identity for itself by focusing on delivering intense, straightforward action in stylish and unconventional ways. It’s fast-paced, chaotic, difficult, and utterly intoxicating, triggering a sort of simple and primal glee that's sure to keep you coming back for more. It may not be a very long game, but Ape Out stands as a shining example of how to execute a simple concept extraordinarily well.
Ape Out sees you taking control of the titular, nondescript ape and your job is simply to get ‘out’ of wherever you’re being held, tearing through everything and everyone that’s unfortunate enough to get between you and the one exit. Each level is only a couple minutes long, but every second is fraught with a special kind of hair-raising intensity that few games manage to capture; the hallways are well patrolled with all manner of armed guards, and it only takes three shots for your rampaging simian to go down for good.
The ape’s only two abilities are that it can grab or throw, but these two things are critical to surviving the meandering, maze-like hallways. A quick tap of the throw button will push any guards within range hard in the other direction, and if they happen to collide with another guard or a wall, everybody involved just explodes in a messy blossom of blood. Most of the time, you’ll find yourself running down narrow corridors, but every now and then the randomly-generated levels like to throw a few open spaces at you, too, and this is where the grab becomes critical. If you grab a guard, they’ll fire off a shot of their weapon – good for keeping control of small crowds – and also take a bullet for you if any of their comrades takes a shot. This simple, two-button control set up ensures that Ape Out remains extremely approachable, but it’s often surprising how energetic and varied the combat encounters can be.
At the heart of Ape Out rests a constant, moment-to-moment decision between fight or flight, and this goes a long way towards making it such a fantastic game to replay over and over. Once a guard spots you, you have a second or two to react before a shot goes off; in that second, you have to immediately decide if you’re going to try to close the gap between the two of you or if you’re going to instead try to duck around a corner, knowing full well that another guard could easily be waiting for you. Or, in another case, you might round the corner and find yourself faced with three guards spread over a fairly wide area. Who do you grab first? Do you let your hostage take the bullet or do you throw him as a projectile to take out the other guard? How do you deal with the third guard then? Each level leans hard onto this twitchy and improvisational type of gameplay; Ape Out positively revels in continuously throwing you into seemingly impossible situations and giving you next to no time to figure out a good plan of attack; it’s simply raw, desperate, terrifying action, distilled down to its most basic elements and force-fed to you whether you want it or not.
One would naturally expect that a game with such a simple gameplay premise would become tired or repetitive after some time, and while there is a little bit of that here, the repetition is mostly kept at bay by the intense action and the slow introduction of new design elements to keep you on your toes. For example, a bomb vest guard type is introduced relatively early on which explodes when it takes damage; if you hold onto one for too long or accidentally throw them into a wall too close to you, the explosion immediately kills the ape.
Or, in a later set of levels, short-fuse bombs fall from the sky at a constant clip, considerably limiting your options when it comes to potential escape routes. Just when you think you’re starting to get the hang of Ape Out, it tosses another enemy type or level gimmick at you that forces you to adapt your escape strategy once more. Although the gameplay always boils down to that same basic principle of running for your life while smashing the stuff out of everything that moves, the way in which you do this is subtly tweaked and challenged as you continue to prove your mastery.
Make no mistake, Ape Out is a hard game, but it’s also the sort of game in which death seldom feels discouraging. Every time the ape goes down, the camera zooms out to show the exact path you took and how close you were to the exit, which often inspires you to do just a bit better for that next run. Even though the level and guard layouts are completely revamped every try, you keep coming back because victory always feels like it’s only just beyond your reach; unless you get an extraordinarily bad level layout, deaths are typically the result of your own slow reactions or poor decision making. These things are honed over time, though, with each subsequent attempt teaching you more about what works and what doesn’t work in certain situations, and it’s this ongoing working knowledge that drives you to have another go and test yourself again.
Although the gameplay is stellar on its own, Ape Out is the rare sort of game where the visuals and sound are an equally important aspect of the experience, going a long way towards ratcheting up the action another notch. The soundtrack consists of an ongoing series of frantic, jazzy drum solos, which swell and recede according to the action on screen. When the ape runs down a long stretch of hallway with no opposition in sight, the drums will lower the tempo slightly to reflect the ‘quiet’ of the moment. Then, when the ape breaks through a window into a room full of guards, the drums explode in a chaotic frenzy of cymbals and thundering percussion as gunshots fill the air and bodies crumple against unmoving walls. We especially liked the little touch where a cymbal clangs every single time a guard dies, whether by being thrown by the ape or by a stray bullet. This constant drum solo that backs the whole experience really drives home the improvisational nature of the gameplay loop and does a great job of maintaining the manic tension of the escape.
Matching this stellar soundtrack is an equally gripping art style that draws heavily from the work of Saul Bass, going for lively, yet minimalist visuals that help to further carve Ape Out’s unique identity. Backgrounds have a grainy effect applied to them that jitters and flexes like an old film, and all the colours capture that faded look of vinyl album covers from decades past. What’s nice about this art style is that it not only stands out in a way that few other games manage to capture, but it proves to be supremely functional, too. Your bright orange ape is always clearly visible, and it’s equally easy to identify almost instantly what enemies and stage hazards are coming your way. In a game as reliant on quick, reactionary play as this, a less is more approach is basically a must; we applaud the developers for finding a style that fills this basic need while also being so visually striking.
A final point that bears mentioning is the overall short runtime of Ape Out, something which doesn’t come as a negative, but will no doubt affect the purchasing decision of many potential buyers. Ape Out is divided into four ‘Discs’ with eight levels each, along with a “Harder” (!) mode, an arcade mode that scores you for getting as far as possible in a disc without dying, and an extra level for those who manage to beat the final level of disc four. Altogether, it took us maybe two to three hours to see all that Ape Out has to offer, which may be a tough pill to swallow if you’re looking for more bang for your buck. Were it any longer, Ape Out would likely overstay its welcome and become stale; it’s exactly as long as it needs to be, but relative to many other popular games on the eShop, it’s not all that long. We would highly encourage you to still give Ape Out a shot; this is a ridiculously intense and wildly unique experience that’s well worth the price of entry.
The Nintendo eShop would be a considerably more exciting and interesting place if it were packed full of games like Ape Out, it’s a refreshingly original experience that more than deserves a place in any Switch owner’s library. Difficult, frenetic gameplay, a strong art direction, and an even stronger jazz drum soundtrack make this the sort of memorable game that you’ll likely keep coming back to over and over for another few runs at the arcade mode. We’d give Ape Out a strong recommendation to anyone looking for a distinct and unforgettable game for their Switch collection; it’s a bit of an acquired taste, but this is well worth your time.