Jazz in video games is nothing new. Games like Skullgirls and Layton Brothers: Mystery Room have finger-snapping soundtracks full of wonderful drum and horn tunes. As beautiful as these soundtracks are, though, they’re made up of calculated and evenly-paced melodies. There’s another side to jazz, a wild and unhinged style of jazz that’s relentlessly loud and unmistakably chaotic. No other game has ever encapsulated the essence of that freeform, frenetic jazz in every aspect of its design as well as Ape Out has.
Ape Out is a small game with a lot of heart. It’s made by indie up-and-comer Gabe Cuzzillo and published by the constantly creative and consistently subversive team at Devolver Digital. Together, they’ve made a game that, while simple-sounding on paper, is an absolute gem of creativity.
The name of the game is as much a warning of your protagonist’s escape from containment as it is a description of the kind of carnage you’ll get up to as a free monkey. Ape Out opens with your titular ape busting out of captivity, and from there you’ll use your insane monkey strength to smash and slam your way through armed guards and maze-like facilities.
The most immediately comparable game to Ape Out that I could think of is the 2012 indie darling, Hotline Miami. Much like that game, the action is rendered in a top-down view with simple yet evocative 2D visuals. However, these games hardly share an art style.
Bennet Foddy brings a sharp and evocative style to the game with his “less is more” approach to the visuals. Everything in the game is made up of simple blocks and shapes, forming easily identifiable silhouettes of solid color. Every object is painted with rough, texturized colors that constantly move and shift like a sketchy hand-drawn animatic. As you progress through the game, the color palette shifts and changes in drastic ways, ensuring the visuals never get boring or samey.
The moment-to-moment action of Ape Out, as well, will be familiar to fans of Hotline Miami. Your tools are simple, with the right shoulder button smacking enemies with the force of a freaking truck. The left shoulder button, meanwhile, can grab obstacles or opponents to toss them around or use as shields.
These seemingly simple mechanics are offset by the unforgiving enemies and their semi-random placement in the levels. Just three shots from an enemy rifle or one hit from an explosion will spell your doom, sending you to a stylized death screen that shows the path you took through the level and an overhead view of the rest of the level, in case you want to plan your approach for the next run. Respawning is instant and stage transitions barely load at all, ensuring you can constantly dip back into the nail-biting action.
Ape Out becomes very difficult, very quickly. Running in blindly and hammering away at the punch button will only get you so far. It’s not until you start to combine all of your tools and complement them with hair-pin reactions and timing that you’ll be able to truly excel at the game. Grabbing a guard and swinging around to face another guard, having your new meat-shield accidentally blast them in the face before you toss your hostage at a third guard for a seamless chain of kills, is endlessly enthralling. Once you start thinking like an ape, Ape Out becomes an addictive mayhem puzzler.
That chaotic action is complimented by a constantly changing jazz-drum soundtrack performed by the incredible Matt Boch. The music in Ape Out doesn’t simply loop in the background as you play. Instead, the energy and tempo of the drums escalate as you destroy enemies and slow down as your carnage ceases and you scour around for your next target. The way the audio constantly matches your actions creates a nonstop and incredibly immersive experience of adrenaline-pumping, Whiplash-style intensity that never lets up.
It’s hard to find any major flaws in Ape Out. Any qualms I have with the game are pretty minor, and easily overshadowed by the positive aspects of the game. Randomized enemy placement can be a bit aggravating at times, as it leads to some pretty impossible odds during later levels. Walls are tight and hard to look past, which adds a unique challenge to navigating the levels carefully, but it also makes the action a bit too claustrophobic at times.
Still, despite those issues, Ape Out is simply an outstanding and utterly enjoyable experience. The moment I became that big, angry monkey, I was glued to the screen and never wanted the action to end. The music dropped my jaw, the visuals made my eyes go wide, and the addictive gameplay kept me entranced until I reached the final level. The ape is truly out, my friends.
A review code was provided by the publisher.