Devolver Digital’s Ape Out is perfectly described by its title alone. You control imprisoned apes. And they’re going to get out. Very violently. With jazz music.
The exit doors are your best friend, and the aim of the game is to navigate and murder your way through the top-down, procedurally generated rooms to reach them. Heavily armed guards line your route to safety, fortunately for you, your primate has made-for-murder ape fists. Sound-tracking the chaos is glorious, reactive jazz that is as integral to Ape Out as the hyper-violence. Speaking of hyper-violence, your first action is to batter the guard outside your cell against the wall, pulping them into a spreadable jam; instantly, it’s clear that Ape Out is a special kind of fun.
Every aspect of Ape Out is bold, from its block colour art style, to the screen covering text delivering the fun level names, to the death screen that shows your progress through the level. Ape Out has so much style and colour that it’s hard not to want more games to 'ape' this approach. Colour is king here and it pays off remarkably; great art design enables your simian, enemies, doors, and more to clearly stand out among the madness. Your ape will drip brightly coloured blood if it is injured, with the amount of blood lost visibly increasing with each hit. It’s a very clever way of letting the player know how close to death they are. Environmental design is also great, with four distinct environments for your ape to wreak havoc within. You’ll escape from a container ship, a laboratory, a military base, or my personal favourite: a group of high-rise buildings which add the ability to launch your captors out of the windows from a great height. Each environment is vastly different, using different colour schemes, and adding new environmental elements that can both help and hinder your escape. Apart from some predetermined corridors, Ape Out’s levels are all procedurally generated, it’s implementation here works very well and helps to prevent the game from becoming repetitive if you find yourself dying a lot.
Ape Out’s unique style takes heavy ques from old projectors, with flickering walls and glass, and with a grainy filter that gives the game a retro feel. Adding to the retro inspiration is Ape Out’s use of vinyl records. Each of the four main levels is represented by a vinyl record, complete with lovely sleeve art, featuring song names on A and B sides. These song names represent each of the sub-levels that make up the four main levels. Each time you reach a bright green exit door, you will be greeted with a new song/level name. Ape Out’s throwbacks don’t stop there though; when you hit the end of side A, the game will pause for a moment while the vinyl is flipped over to the B sides. Moments like this are so wonderfully authentic, and Ape Out is full of them.
Giving the vinyl record theme some weight and purpose is the excellent soundtrack and use of music in the game. Ape Out’s frenetic, lively jazz music reacts to how well your murder spree is going; playing with brilliant intensity when your ape is splatting people left, right, and centre. In quieter moments the soundtrack subsides, but as soon as you murder again, the music bursts into life and it can create an atmosphere that is full of genuine tension. The best use of music, however, comes from the game reacting to your escaped ape; when you kill an enemy, you will hear a crash of cymbals that add so much to the music and transforms Ape Out into a kind of loose rhythm game. It’s extremely clever and really lets you impact the flow of the jazzed-up soundtrack. It really is a case of having to watch or play it to truly understand the impact music has on Ape Out. It’s one of my favourite features of any game in recent years, the implementation is perfect.
Controlling the apes is simple; with only two buttons to worry about, anyone can pick up Ape Out and have a blast throwing people against the walls so hard they take the form of a blood puddle. Playing on Nintendo Switch, the right bumpers throw/push (the main attack you will be using), and the left bumpers grab. Grabbing enemies brings some unique gameplay that adds multiple layers of complexity to Ape Out. When grabbing enemies with guns, you spin them round to not only use them as a human shield, but to use their weapons too. Each enemy type varies with how many shots they will fire off after you grab them. You'll likely only master how to use the grab effectively by lots of trial and error, letting you experiment with different enemies who all have different weapons. While the control scheme is easy to grasp, the intricacies of the combat take time to master. Discovering new techniques in Ape Out feels great though, so I didn’t mind learning something new a few hours in. You can never have too many ways to be an ape-shaped murdering machine, can you?
Simple controls do not mean you will be in for an easy ride. You will die in Ape Out. Though it’s rarely frustrating due to an instant restart that kicks you back to the start of the level. Instant restarts are essential in games like Ape Out where death is inevitable, and where some level of trial and error is expected. Being sent back to the start of the level may be a scary prospect, but don’t worry, as each level should take no more than a minute to run through, providing you survive, of course. I rolled credits on Ape Out in three and a half hours, though your experience may differ depending on how few times you fall prey to the often astoundingly accurate enemies. For those thinking Ape Out is a little on the short side, there is an arcade mode and a harder version of each level. These modes add more enemies and things generally get a bit dicier, leading to slower, more considered play. I appreciate the addition of these modes, though I prefer the speed and consistency of the standard levels. It helps that I don’t feel completely incompetent on the standard difficulty.
Devolver Digital have developed a great skill for uncovering wonderful games that may have otherwise been lost to the plethora of saturated digital marketplaces; Gris, Pikuniku, and Minit are examples of critically and commercially successful indie titles that Devolver took a chance on. Ape Out is the latest addition to their line-up, and it’s a video game experience I will hold dear as one of my favourites. The impressive use of music, intense and hugely addictive gameplay, and the most stylish presentation ensure that Ape Out is brilliantly unforgettable.