Review: Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier

The world Andy Serkis has created with 20th Century Fox is one of the greatest and most interesting movie blockbuster universes out there so when I heard that Serkis would be venturing into games and creating a Telltale-esque adventure that takes place in that world, I was excited. Planet of The Apes: Last Frontier would happen between Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes and take place in the Rocky Mountains. We would follow a human leader of a town that have barricaded themselves in and a faction of apes that broke off to follow Koba during the second movie which found a new leader after the events of Dawn. It was all set up to be a cool new entry into the franchise, but fails on practically every front.

To start with the good, Last Frontier has many interesting ideas. The Planet of the Apes universe seems like the perfect setting for a game, especially with a Telltale choose-your-own-path sort of style. Last Frontier also takes advantage of the PlayLink technology that Sony has been championing for a while now. This is, however, one of the only PlayLink games that you can truly play alone. Last Frontier has everything going for it, but something went wrong in its execution.

Where it first went awry is in the story and choices. The overall story in Last Frontier (without getting into too many spoilers) deals with a town of humans who don’t seem to know much about the apes or the flu, but are walled up nonetheless because of what they have heard. On the other hand, there are a tribe of apes living in the mountain who have never interacted with the humans. We follow the leader of the humans, a woman named Jess, who’s recently-deceased husband was the mayor of the town, and Bryn, the middle of three sons to the leader of the apes. They become aware of each other and tensions quickly rise when Bryn’s older brother Tola attempts to steal cattle from the human’s farm and ends up killing one of the farmers. Eventually, their father Khan dies from a gunshot wound and Tola takes over, which is no good. Meanwhile, a duo of “ape hunters” arrive in the town and offer their services regarding the recent attacks. As Jess, you can decide whether you want to trust them or not. As Bryn, your decisions usually revolve around standing behind Tola or going against him.

What felt weird was playing as both Bryn and Jess. It was like playing both sides of the chess board, only you both had the same end goal — peace. Well, at least that was mine when I was playing. Playing as both characters means that you can affect both sides of the conflict, which gives players too much control as this omniscient being that knew what was going on on both fronts. Bryn and Jess aren’t necessarily that interesting, either. I found myself confused as to many of the decisions they made when my input wasn’t asked for. This makes it feel like the writing is taking the wheel and steering the ship to the place they want it to go, rather than letting it flow naturally. This could have also been due in part because of the lackluster voice acting, especially on the apes side, that never draws any real emotion.

Even when I was making decisions, though, I didn’t always feel like I was in control. One particular decision toward the end asked me to either ask the ape hunters for help or send them away. I said no thanks, but they still came. It truly didn’t matter what I said. That was the most drastic decision that didn’t matter, but throughout the game there were choices I was making that didn’t seem to make any difference. I think a big reason for this was the fact that there were only ever two choices, making things feel binary when making moral or any sort of important decision.

The story itself could also be better. It feels as forced as the dialogue and makes drastic twists and turns that don’t feel warranted. Characters make uncharacteristic decisions to get the plot to move in a certain way and it falls apart in the third act. The ending felt unresolved, and everything built up and came crashing down way too quickly. This was sad to see since the Apes movies have set such a precedent of good storytelling, especially coming off the heels of the recent War for the Planet of the Apes, which was another hit.

From a technical perspective, Last Frontier is passable. The graphics are detailed and the game runs smoother than a Telltale game, but it’s far from AAA quality and still has its hiccups. Characters will load in after the game has already opened to the next scene, there will be stutters and a few other quirks. The motion capture of the apes is fantastic, though, and reminiscent of the films.

Audio is another problem in the Last Frontier. Many of the effects don’t sound right and the background noise is poorly done. In one particular scene, the townsfolk captur one of the apes and are so angry that they decide to lynch it. Jess and Maria, the doctor of the town, do of course not want this to happen, so they protest. Though the scene had both times where you’d think a mob would get loud and angry and times where they would go silent, this never happened. The background noise was just a murmuring crowd on a loop, never fluctuating with the scene. The music did a much better job of playing to the scene, but it was not able to save the rest of the audio mix.

Last Frontier’s also leaves you wanting. It’s a disengaged game — most of the time you don’t even need to hold the controller — which means it’s basically a film. And that means that there are scenes to direct, which for the most part, are uninspired. There are even a few directorial rules that get broken. The 180 degree rule is one in particular that can disorient an audience and Last Frontier dramatically breaks it on multiple occasions. It’s confusing to see a poorly-directed game coming from Andy Serkis, who acted as producer on the game and comes from the film industry.

I also have two smaller nitpicks with Last Frontier, but two that stifled my enjoyment of the game. One is that there’s a tutorial message on screen at all times. The game is framed in a 21:9 aspect ratio, which means it has black bars at the top and bottom of the screen, and for some reason the developers decided to use that blank space to tell you that for an action to happen, everyone has to press the X button on their phones before time runs out. As I was playing alone, this message quickly became irrelevant, but it wouldn’t have been useful for any group for long either. My other gripe is with the trophies/achievements. The trophies/achievements are given for completing one of the five chapters in the game or for making some sort of decision. Looking through the list before playing through the game (which I always do) can be detrimental, since all of the ones regarding decisions have the outcome detailed in their explanation. They’re spoilers to the game and it’s inconsiderate not to have them hidden.

Closing Comments:

I really wanted to like Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier. The Apes world is fascinating and a Telltale-esque game set in that universe has all the makings for an amazing experience. While it’s an awesome idea, Last Frontier’s execution just isn’t there. Hopefully Imaginati Studios and 20th Century Fox don’t give up on this idea, though. Video games are iterative and developers learn from their mistakes. While Last Frontier can’t be recommended on its own merits, its concept has potential and shouldn’t be abandoned.

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