We must admit we hadn't been paying much attention to Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier prior to it launching on PlayStation 4 this week. Maybe it's a bias against movie tie-in, maybe we've been sleeping a bit on PlayLink titles. Turns out we were both right and wrong in doing so, as Last Frontier is an interesting attempt to create a meaningful cinematic interactive experience that unfortunately falls short in a few key areas. It's a branching narrative, but for much of the game, it feels like your decisions don't hold much sway on situations, and so these choices mainly feed into the conclusion where there are multiple outcomes and scenarios that play out.
The game is set between Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes in terms of the movie chronology, a decade or so from today. It's got this settler, almost Western feel to it, where there are two camps and you get to interact with both. But the interesting conflict isn't really between humans and simians, but rather inside each of the factions. The survivalists in town get a visit from two "ape hunters", who lend their aid to the cause, whereas the ape tribe is struggling with its direction as the eldest son of leader Khan wants to hunt for food down on the plains where the humans live as winter has rid the mountain of the food supply for the tribe. You play as Bryn, the middle-son of Khan, and as Jess, the leader of the human settlement after her husband died. At first, neither group is aware of the other, but events are set in motion that bring on a massive collision.
Last Frontier is perhaps a first look at the sort of interactive companion pieces we could see next to major feature films in the future. Interaction is limited to choices the player makes during dialogue as Jess and Bryn, with the occasional generous button press to prompt actions like, say, shooting a gun (or refraining from it). This means you can invite your grandparents along to play the game if they're into the franchise (after all, it originated back in the 1960s), which is actually not a bad thing. If Telltale Games has moved away from puzzles and exploration in their games, this is certainly taking it a few steps further, eliminating any sort of player exploration or problem-solving. The benefit of that is that the pacing is always there (unless you ponder your replies an extra while, as it simply pauses the game), and the player is always given a cinematic presentation.
As with Telltale's titles you can "crowd-play" the game, and it's also PlayLink compatible so any smartphone will allow players to join in, although the benefits of using the app are very few (there's a bit of background). All players have to agree if a shot or action is to be taken, which could make for some interesting situations in the couch as you try and decide what to do in the few seconds available to act. It's a great way to experience a game like this, although given the design it means it will drag out the experience somewhat from what's already a fairly long game to get through in one sitting with a group (close to three hours).
Having seen images and a trailer for the game we thought we were going to be in for a visually impressive narrative game, but sadly we were treated to a mixed bag. Sure the environments are well modelled, the apes look and move great, but some of the human characters, most notably the lead, Jess, look a bit uncanny in spite of (or because of) the amount of detail. What's even more troubling is that we haven't seen this amount of late texture pop-in, prop pop-in, tardy lighting and shadows since the early days of Unreal Engine 3. You remember back when you first played Gears of War and it took a few seconds for shaders and textures to pop into place when a level was loaded? It's like that, only more pronounced. Simply put, it looks sloppy, and quite frankly a bit rushed given the obvious work that has gone into the character models, environments, and animations. Maybe it's stuff that can be patched out, but as it stands it's a real immersion breaker (we played the game on PS4 Pro).
The decisions you make when choosing between two options for dialogue seldom have a direct impact, but rather they feed into relationships that will be important for outcomes of certain scenes or flavour key points. It's not really highlighted, but if you're a completionist you'll actually have your work cut out for you to get that Platinum even if no actual "skill" is involved. The three main endings, one peaceful, the two others with a winner, also include variations on how the end plays out and what characters make it through to the credits. So there's replayability here, but perhaps the fairly straight-forward black and white nature of the characters isn't enough to warrant a second playthrough. We actually found it hard to let the "bad guys" win, which it felt like with any ending other than peace, but you can, of course, roleplay an anti-ape Jess, and a human-killing Bryn if that's what you want.
Ultimately Last Frontier feels a bit undercooked. There are elements here that are great such as the setting, the characters, and the way the apes look and move. Camera movements give it a cinematic feel, but at the end of the day it is let down by two things, the technical implementation leaves plenty to be desired and there is a lack of player agency, particularly early on, that left us a bit underwhelmed. It's not one you'll need to keep your stinking paws off necessarily, but neither is it a particularly memorable cinematic romp.