Ape Out has an inspiredly silly elevator pitch. I play as an ape who has to fight its way out of each of the places it’s being held, and who’s not shy about killing anyone who stands in its way. It’s a simple idea that doesn’t wear out its welcome — the entire game can be “finished” in around five hours. But don’t mistake that as a complaint. Like a great elevator pitch, Ape Out feels focused and purposeful, leaving me wanting more.
Ape Out plays like a twin-stick shooter, but, you know, with an ape. From a bird’s-eye view, I navigate my buddy to each new stage’s escape door. With one button I can grab characters. With another I can shove them away from me. I use my fists to fight my way out of the game’s various forms of captivity, such as laboratories, military bases, private estates, and transport ships.
I can’t pick up guns directly, but I can pick up gun-toting enemies and aim their weapons at their friends. Or I can use them as human shields to protect myself from the rain of projectiles. I can only be hit three times before dying, so that’s often the best choice.
Everything about the game is efficiently communicated: The ape is trapped but powerful, the enemies are many but weak, and the music reacts to my on-screen actions to let me know when I’m doing well and when I’m not. Ape Out’s color palette is simple but striking, making it easy to read the action and go with my gut instincts; my first reaction to each situation often seemed to be the best one. I became better at the game the less I thought about what to do and the more I did what felt right.
There’s something about Ape Out that just feels cool. Rampaging through security complexes to the game’s jazzy soundtrack, painting the rooms with colorful blood. It’s brutal but silly. Referential but self-aware.
Each kill is accented by a sharp cymbal hit as I haul ass to to the exit, cutting through tight corridors, labyrinthine mazes, and open plains. The music combines with the noticeable screen shake — adjustable in the game’s menus if such effects make you sick — to give every attack a sense of weight and power. The enemies may have numbers on their side, but I have size, rage, and brute strength to my advantage.
The enemies do lack intelligence. Throughout the game, most guards make the same predictable decisions: Spot ape, walk backward away from ape, and fire gun. I don’t need to grab them to use their weapons to my advantage; I can use my own body as bait to line them up just right so that they kill each other with their gunfire.
Some have different weapons and protection, but the enemies, collectively, are predictable. I can come up with a strategy for each situation the moment it begins. I know what everyone in the room will do.
It’s easy enough to funnel them into a single room to make quick work of them, and in many cases I can just sprint around them. They don’t put up much of a fight, even on the harder difficulty setting. I would have enjoyed more of a challenge at times, but being able to predict the behavior of and then crush all the people trying to keep me locked up has its own charm.
Like so many games, Ape Out is a power fantasy. Unlike so many games, Ape Out seems keenly aware of its purpose.
I mentioned that I completed Ape Out in about five hours, but I have plenty of reason to revisit it. Stages are procedurally generated, so each level is different every time I play. This makes it ideal for quick sessions to blow off steam after a stressful day. A few annoying crashes and glitches interrupted some of my sessions, though. When I want to smash, I want to smash, and being held back by the game’s technical issues can be frustrating, even though it is infrequent.
Ape Out’s rhythm, in both play and soundtrack, is fast and loud. The game is at its absolute best when everything comes together like a well-rehearsed band, and my attacks and rampages work with the music and use of color to create something that looks like a Saul Bass short.
Ape Out gives me an adrenaline rush every time I barely make it through a stage, bleeding and limping along after taking a few shots early on. I died often: 193 times in my approximate three-hour playthrough, to be exact. But jumping back into the game after a quick death is fast and easy.
Whether or not I make it to the end of the level is almost immaterial; I feel powerful and free from the moment the game begins.
Ape Out is available now on Nintendo Switch and Windows PC. The game was reviewed on Switch using a final “retail” download code provided by Devolver Digital. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.