by Jed Pressgrove
Early on, Ape Out seems to sell itself as Hotline Miami “if you were an ape,” mainly setting itself apart with a percussion-driven soundtrack that responds to what the protagonist does, such as barging into a room and smashing three or four gun-wielding humans into bloody flesh. A beat accompanies one’s successful kills. The way the audio punctuates the violence is at first attention-getting, even disorienting. The drumming in question is taut and crisp, superbly executed.
After some time the interplay between the music and the action doesn’t matter. Figuring out how to advance through the increasingly difficult stages becomes the point. The drums serve as redundant distractions from the split-second reactions that will keep the ape alive. This is not to say the music is an absolute gimmick; it’s just not as essential as the evolving score of Octahedron, a game where the marriage of sound and imagery is sexier, less contrived, and more fluid.
Once survival instincts and ideas dominate the thoughts of the player, Ape Out reveals itself as easily superior to its main influence Hotline Miami. Despite Ape Out’s graphic violence, it’s easier to sympathize with an escaped ape than with any character in Hotline Miami. That sympathy proves indispensable, as it makes the stakes appear larger and more dramatic. Ape Out’s man vs. nature theatrics are far preferable to Hotline Miami’s self-aware, unflinching cynicism, which is a repetitive nod to the rebellious knucklehead politics of 1990s fare like Mortal Kombat and Loaded.
Even though Ape Out has far fewer methods than Hotline Miami for inflicting lethal harm on opponents, the game demands one to do more with what’s there. During the beginning of the game, progress can often be made by simply punching threats as they appear and running for another room when it looks like the ape might get shot. A little later, such an elementary approach will get exploited by a growing number of gunmen, explosives, and dead ends. The ape has to start picking up enemies, throwing them, and using them as shields to account for the extra firepower of the men and the more maze-like structure of later levels.
The player learns quickly that the basic key to having a chance is keeping the mouse cursor near the protagonist. This positioning allows for quicker changes in direction, enabling the possibility of consecutive individual kills when one is surrounded. The throwing mechanic, however, works best when you move the cursor to the target to achieve maximum accuracy with the throw. Deeper into the proceedings, as the game calls more and more attention to the position of the mouse, as well as to the offensive and defensive opportunities presented by the whole bodies of still-shooting assassins and the scattered body parts of fallen foes, Ape Out achieves a blunt combination of brawn and brains that cannot be matched by many efforts this year.