Developed by: Gabe Cuzzillo, Bennett Foddy, and Matt Boch
Published by: Devolver Digital
Available on: Nintendo Switch, PC
Everyone runs from a fiery ape, even the flame-throwers. That's one of the less nutty thoughts I had while playing “Ape Out,” a rollicking brawler about an ape and the people standing between its captivity and its freedom. There is a brutal simplicity to “Ape Out” reminiscent of the arcade games of the past. Almost everyone in it is an adversary. Yet fighting isn’t as important as getting from one side of the screen to the other, to an exit, as fast as possible. This straightforward scenario is stupendously energized by the game’s aesthetic sensibility which evokes the audiovisual styles of the 1950s. “Ape Out” plays like an underground cartoon caught on film stock set to percussion-driven jazz. I dug it so much I let loose an “Amen!” when the final credits splashed across the screen and the music crashed in with thunderous conviction.
The game opens on a caged ape, from an overhead perspective. Above and below its cage are helpful hints: Left stick. Right Trigger. Input that elementary controller sequence and the ape busts out, the drums kick in, and with a snap “Ape Out” sets a mood. Take a few steps out the cage and you’ll see it says “Disc One: Subject 4” on the floor. The title corresponds to the first of “Ape Out’s” four LPs. Complete the stage and you can ogle the Subject 4 album cover with its tastefully understated design and its inscription, “gorilla loves company, copyright 1954.” Just as each of the game’s four main albums is divided into a Side A and a Side B, so are its stages. Accentuating the whole analogue vibe, at the end of each stage a cue mark appears in the top corner of the screen, furthering the illusion that a projectionist is working behind the scenes to change flickering film reels.
Though there is a pacifist achievement for completing a stage without killing anyone, I have yet to earn it. For most of my playthrough I took the path of least resistance and wallowed in unabashed ultraviolence. Except for some workers in a food court pretty much everyone else has a gun and will shoot the ape on sight. Enemies, however, can be grabbed and used as human shields or flung into the distance, which dazes them, providing a temporary window to scoot out of their range of fire. An enemy can also be flung into a wall or, given sufficiently close range, at another person, causing them to explode into bits. From there, you can pick up, say, an arm and fling that at someone to temporarily stun them. “Ape Out’s” dynamic soundtrack reacts as things get wilder. A splattered body or a received gunshot wound might meet with a cymbal crash or an added drum fill. Aside from the music, the game’s striking visual palette, which recalls the bold use of color practiced by the Abstract Expressionists, adds appreciable texture to its basic fight-or-flight premise.
In the event of death, a map of the stage appears on the screen with a white line showing one’s route through it. Stages in “Ape Out” are procedurally generated. But while little details change, such as the placement of enemies and walls throughout a level, the overall contours of an area carry over. Thus, every time you play “Disc 2: High Rise” you start on the thirty-first floor of a building and must make you way down. The game’s use of mazes places it in a lineage that extends at least as far back as “Pac-Man.” I found “Ape Out’s” self-conscious primitivism — the star of the game looks like an orange blob and environmental backgrounds are sparsely decorated — seductive.
I will refrain from sharing much of the psychotic babble that raced through my head as I “took hostages” and “smashed them good.” Just know that if you need a safe space to get a little angst out, “Ape Out” is worth a swing.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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