Some people might think Ape Out is a little on the pretentious side, and when you sum it up succinctly it's hard to disagree with that sentiment. Gabe Cuzzillo's whacky new top-down adventure is certainly a little odd, as it mixes brutal ultraviolence with freeform jazz and a kaleidoscope of colours in what's ostensibly a procedurally-generated animal escape simulator.
Despite the leftfield description, the gameplay itself is actually pretty straightforward. You control an ape, a giant gorilla who at the start of the game is trapped inside a glass cage. Things instantly turn violent, however, when you break free from your cell and embark on a murderous rampage through the facility in order to find your freedom. The thing is, between your escape and the exit, there's a whole ton of blood to shed as you massacre hundreds of heavily-armed guards, splatting them all over the place, turning their severed limbs into projectiles, and even using them as human shields as you advance through the building.
Each level is procedurally-generated for the most part, although there are certain bottlenecks that endure between runs that give each level its own flavour, whether they be certain doorways that remain in place or massive corridors filled with entrances that you have to rush past. Beyond the pre-scripted sections and the sense of familiarity they give each stage, the rooms themselves are rearranged for each new run, and the use of perspective also means that it can be hard to see where units are coming from and you're therefore never truly comfortable with your surroundings. Guard placement is also shuffled, which means a fresh-ish experience every time you start a new attempt.
And you'll be starting new runs all the time because Ape Out is a tricky beast and you're constantly getting hit by bullets or dying in the flames of nearby explosions because apparently you, an ape with no name and a penchant for jazzy tunes, were a resident of the most heavily-armed facility in the history of animal testing. Using a top-down gameplay style that's reminiscent of the likes of Hotline Miami and The Hong Kong Massacre, you need to use the environment to your advantage as you try and push through and/or sneak past the waves of guards looking to put you down. That sounds grizzly - and it is - but the violence is somewhat undermined by the bold colour palette and use of visual filters to create atmosphere, and of course, there's the dynamic soundtrack that sees your interactions represented on screen via the crash of percussion instruments.
Progress is banked when you get to the end of a particular level, a moment that can often mean a rather large sigh of relief, especially if you've been struggling with a certain section. One example that had us sweating was a passage of play whereby we had to rip a door from its hinges and use it as a shield from the bullets that the soldiers on the other side started firing at us. It's not quite a one-hit kill situation, but you're not so invulnerable that you can take too many hits before you're forced to start again, and that keeps things tense throughout.
Things get more complicated as you advance, with new mechanics layered in at a steady pace. As we advance we're also greeted by new enemies, with standard soldiers soon helped by shotgun-wielding heavies, and then later explosive-throwing bombers. Once you've cleared the first world you're whisked off to a new setting, a building you must descend, and here you get fleet-footed pistoleers and SWAT guys who swing in through the windows and carry assault rifles. In fact, there are four main chapters to play through, including one set on a cargo ship and another that's (mostly) outside, and each one adds new elements such as units that carry flamethrowers and fresh environmental dangers.
Depending on how silky your skills are, it's going to take three or so hours to complete the main chapters, but once you've done that you can go back and play them in Arcade mode which gives you a points tally for each level based on how long you take to complete it and how many guards you splat on the walls as you go. There's also an option to play 'Break In' and get back into the facility where it all started. Finally, if you're after a sterner challenge that are harder versions of the levels that you can play, giving you a fair amount of replay value, especially if you're the sort who likes to go chasing high scores.
Our only real criticism of note is that we feel like maybe a bit more depth could have been added, especially towards the end. It's great fun powering through the levels, using guards as grenades and generally causing mayhem wherever you go, but a touch more interactivity with the environment wouldn't have gone amiss and that alone would have made the later levels and repeat plays more interesting. Ape Out is at its best when you're adapting on the fly, using your enemies as weapons, outfoxing the AI, and dodging incoming shots before unleashing hell on your enemies, and a touch more environmental interaction would've helped increase the variety around the otherwise excellent moment-to-moment gameplay.
Minor gripes aside, we still found Ape Out to be utterly mesmerising and we couldn't put the Switch down at times, such was its pull and our need to have "just one more try". The gameplay is engaging thanks to satisfying physics and precise controls, and the dynamic soundtrack and vibrant art style is candy for the eyes and ears, despite the whole thing being brash and discordant. If you can stomach the game's nonchalant attitude to violence and you don't mind a bit of jazz, Ape Out is an engaging and bold indie title that doesn't pull its punches, and despite that fact that it would have benefited from a touch more nuance, we still came away having been thoroughly entertained.