Cages suck. They’re small, uncomfortable, offer zero privacy, and freedom is tantalizingly out of reach on the other side of the bars. Worse, cages tend to be found in places designed to keep its residents secured, so escaping the initial confinement is only the first step away from captivity. That’s a problem for most humans, but a giant ape made of pure wild muscle is an entirely different force of nature. The inevitable result is a blood-soaked rampage through a compound swarming with heavily-armed guards, although it’s usually not set to such a groovy beat.
Ape Out is the simple tale of a captive simian making full use of a moment’s lapse in security. It’s also what would happen if Saul Bass and Vince Guaraldi collaborated on a wonderfully violent game about a near-unstoppable mass of hairy rage. The entire game from start to finish has the iconically blocky style of classic movie posters, with the music being a free-form jazz percussion beat that’s mostly generated by your actions. The tempo trips along quietly until you run into a cluster of enemies, then the first kill lets off a cymbal-crash that moves the rhythm into overdrive with each dismembered enemy adding its own note to the soundtrack until you’ve cleared the area. The hyper-violent action is mostly de-fanged by the art style, which turns the bloody remains of a rampage into bright red splats with a few white limbs and torsos scattered about, not exactly sanitized but still abstract enough you could put a frame around the scene and toss it on a wall.
The deceptively simple presentation is matched by the gameplay, which looks straightforward until it’s not any more. The entire game is played with two sticks and two buttons, and honestly you can mostly get by with just the one stick for movement. The action is viewed from overhead as the ape runs through each randomized level, with the walls rising above the camera to block any chance of seeing around a corner. The object is to get from one side of the level to the other without taking too much damage, and whether you kill everything in your path or try to avoid the danger is completely your call. The ape goes down in three hits, though, so while you can cheerfully massacre your way across the first few levels, it doesn’t take too long before choosing your battles becomes the better tactic.
Apes don’t have a lot of attack options, so the two buttons are for Push and Grab, although Push turns into Throw when you’re holding something. Pushing an enemy into a wall is a guaranteed kill, while while shoving one soldier into another is a little more complicated. Two enemies of the same type will obliterate each other, while an armored soldier will splatter a smaller one then stand there dazed for a few seconds before going back on the offensive. And yes, you absolutely can grab an armored soldier, shove him into a smaller one, then grab him again and repeat the cycle a couple more times before finally getting rid of him. It’s maybe a bit sadistic, but after you’ve taken one too many shotgun blasts to the face, there’s no question they’ve earned it.
Survival comes down to knowing when to push and when to grab, with each of the two moves having their own wrinkles. Push is great when going for speed, charging straight toward an enemy while they line up the shot to send them flying against the wall before they can fire or even lining up the approach so the push sends one enemy into another. Holding an enemy slows down your movement, but also comes with several advantages to make up for it. A held enemy not only acts as a shield, but also lets off a panicked round from its gun, which can be an absolute life-saver on the later levels. Advancing slowly while a machine-gun guard empties his clip or grabbing a shotgun-guard and using the blast to clear the area can be a great way to buy some breathing room. When the levels start getting crowded it’s also a good idea to keep hold of a guard not just because leading with your face is a terrible plan but also the slower pace enforces a bit more caution than you might normally use. The driving jazz beat and the ape’s naturally quick movement make it very easy to charge right into a firefight that can cut your health down to nothing in seconds. The ape is bringing several hundred pounds of raw simian fury to a gunfight, and while that can be a surprisingly effective weapon, it still needs to be wielded with care.
This is especially true when you get to the third scenario. Each set of levels is themed after a record album, most of which are four tracks/levels on the A and B sides, with each adding its own twist to the setup. The first album (titled Subject 4) is set in a lab, while the second is High Rise and sees the ape descending through the floors of a skyscraper. The first level sets the scene and introduces the mechanic of shoving soldiers out the window to splat on the pavement below, the second level has SWAT agents zip-line into the building and the third introduces snipers targeting the ape from outside the building. Album three, however, is set in a military compound packed with armored shotgun soldiers, flame thrower enemies and plenty of exploding barrels. A straightforward attack into a squad of soldiers is basically instant death, so you’ll need to use not just the strategies you’ve learned so far, but also turn the just-dumb-enough AI against itself. A flamethrower soldier can eliminate a good half-dozen enemies if you can get it to light a few barrels on fire. The ape is huge and monstrously strong, but if it’s not also smart it will get very dead, very fast.
Ape Out is an absolutely fantastic action game with an incredible sense of style. While the levels are randomized, the near-constant introduction of new elements gives each area its own personality, forcing the player to regularly update their play style to avoid or take advantage of the latest changes. Each album can be played in standard progression with infinite chances to complete each track from the start or in Arcade mode, attempting to clear the whole album on a single life while racking up the best score possible, making for excellent replayability. The four albums’ worth of content (plus bonus EP) offer a huge amount of ape action, tossing guards around like blood-filled dodge balls in one new scenario after another and ending with a perfectly-themed final level. Combine that with its unique, iconic art style and amazing soundtrack and Ape Out is simply the coolest game with the hippest tunes 1959 can supply.