After playing Devolver Digital’s latest published title, Ape Out I can more or less guarantee that you’ve never played anything quite like it. Ape Out is a gorgeously stylish and challenging game which steadily reveals its depth over the course of several hours.
My interest in Ape Out was piqued when I saw it referred to as ‘Hotline Harambe’ and although I do see clear similarities between it and Dennaton Games’ beloved Hotline Miami series – and although that does sound amazing – the atmosphere of Ape Out is wholly it’s own.
Created by designer Gabe Cuzzillo and with additional art assistance from Bennett Foddy – creator of the infuriating platformers Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy and QWOP – Ape Out is a top-down beat ‘em up in which you play as the titular ape as it attempts to escape from a series of increasingly difficult situations. And what a selection of situations there are.
Ape Out features four separate campaigns each holding eight levels within – except for the last one, which due to the challenge, has one less – and all of which are randomized every time you play. There are literally endless combinations of levels here and I was left surprised by just how much these change from round to round. On a first try, you might have to navigate an expansive hallway with no end to the machine-gun touting enemies before you; The next, it could be a series of interconnected rooms which give you a little respite from the madness. This forces the player to make snap judgment decisions and become well versed in your abilities quickly in order to survive.
The beauty of Ape Out’s gameplay, however, lies in its apparent simplicity. With only two abilities – other than movement – the game is incredibly easy to pick up and play, but another thing entirely to master. With only the options of grabbing or throwing enemies, Ape Out initially feels limiting in what it provides but steadily it begins to offer up its secrets. Whilst grabbing enemies, for example, they will automatically begin firing their gun in fear which allows you to go on an insane killing spree before ultimately throwing the enemy at his friend and watching the two of them burst in a meaty explosion.
It’s satisfyingly brutal to throw together combos in this way and the game slowly drip-feeds its systemic intricacies over time. For example, it took me several hours to realize that I could pick up enemy body parts and throw them at enemies to briefly stun them, morbid, but fun nonetheless.
By far the game’s most arresting feature, however, is its art style. Gabe Cuzillo and Bennett Foddy have been working on the style of the game since its creation in 2014 and it instantly shows. To put it simply, there is no game on the market which looks the way Ape Out does, whether it is the shakily animated yellow font on the title screen or the background images which steadily morph in each frame, the game is immediately engaging, pulling you in and forcing you to work with its ultra-violent subject matter.
What is perhaps most remarkable about it though is that everything in the game is so easily read, whether it be threats or your location in the world, the bold images are always communicating something and without the need for an oppressive user interface or continual popups. This includes everything from the blood splatters left behind you which suggest at your health or the changes in color to signify darkness. I can’t think of the last time that a game’s visuals have impressed me this much and have drawn me into the game to such an effect. Simply put, the game looks amazing.
In addition to working with Bennett Foddy, Cuzillo has also employed the help of Matt Boch – an Associate Professor for NYU’s game center – to work on the music for the title and it’s safe to say that he has knocked it out of the park. Where a game like Hotline Miami completely nailed the late 80’s synesthesia and techno bangers to communicate the hostility of its world, Ape Out achieves the same effect via its abrasive and ever-frenetic jazz-drumming accompaniment, and remarkably, takes it a step further.
Featuring an innovative reactive music system, Ape Out accurately scales the intensity of its music to react to the chaos on screen. What results is an overwhelming cacophony of sound during your violent combos which push you into more and more aggressive play. Each area of the game also has its own unique soundtrack which ensures that you’re always engaged, whether you’re plowing through your 100th or 1000th bad guy. It’s an incredibly effective system and one that reinforces the heavy-handed brutality of its gameplay to beautiful effect.
In terms of additional gameplay options, Ape Out also offers a hard difficulty modifier behind the completion of each campaign and this certainly isn’t for the faint of heart. Enemies are twitchier and will make things much harder on your second playthrough, especially once the game adds in the flamethrower and rocket launching enemies from the late game. As well as this, Ape Out also comes packaged with an arcade mode. This is a by the skin of your teeth mode in which you must sprint through each level and use enemy kills to temporarily delay the timer which is slowly but surely ticking down. Both of these modes encourage you to play in different ways – cautious or crazy – meaning that if you get tired of the game on its normal difficulty, there are still options to extend your interest in the title.
This isn’t to say that the package is perfect however, most notably the game has a problem with difficulty. During the late-game I became aware of the fact that the game’s randomized levels did stack combat squarely in my enemies favor and that the RNG was actively working against me, meaning that I had little option to either restart or see the hulking ape gunned down in his prime. I did also find that the controls could become a little irresponsive during moments of stress, which again, means a premature primate prison sentence. The game is still enjoyable in spite of these issues; it does sadly pull the quality of the package down a little though.
Though its influences are clear, Ape Out combines solid and visceral gameplay with an innovative music system and an art style to die for which leads to something wholly unique. It is a challenging and brutal game which is marred only when it isn’t offering you the fighting chance that you feel you deserve or fought for.