|Sony, and PlayStation titles in general, takes a lot of flack for
being more "adult oriented." Of course any adult with a PlayStation knows that
the best thing about the system is the huge variety of titles, ranging from the mature to
the grossly immature, the cerebral to the visceral, the educational to the stupifying.
Sony has brought together elements of the best PlayStation titles in Ape Escape, and
created an incredible game that has a wide range of appeal.
Of course, the key to their success is an age-old secret that has always been guaranteed to attract a huge cross-section of any potential audience: monkeys, and lots of them. In Ape Escape you play Spike, the appropriately coiffed average kid turned monkey hunter, who must travel through time to stop Specter, a monkey of pure evil who is struggling to change the course of evolution and enslave humanity. He has acquired the Professor's super-intelligence helmet, and equipped legions of monkeys with similar helmets to help him in his plot. Spike is based out of the Time Station, where Natalie and the Professor blip him in and out of different epochs of the past. They also provide Spike with different gadgets that are both way cool and very helpful.
So the concept is easy to grasp: catch the monkeys and save the world as we know it. You bounce back and forth through prehistoric lava levels, beach levels, castle levels, snow levels, and eventually modern city levels. There are 25 levels in all, and they are all quite large and interesting to explore. Like many level-based adventure games, you must return to each level to complete it entirely. The level design is great. To navigate the levels you must use all of your gadgets, and on some levels there are rowboats and tanks hanging around that you can jump into and use. This gives each level a unique feel.
But Ape Escape is not really about the story or cool levels. No, this game is all about the play. Ape Escape incorporates the most incredible control system I have ever used. A Dual Shock controller is required to play, and you use every button to do something different. The control pad moves your camera, the left analog stick moves Spike (and you can crawl if you push the stick in as you move), the right analog stick controls your gadget, the X, O, Square and Triangle buttons switch between gadgets, the right buttons control jumping, the left buttons control look and camera-snap functions, and the start and select buttons access extensive play menus. Yeah, this is a nightmare for all those people who still complain that consoles have too many buttons, but it's a blast to play. Control is quite natural, moving with the left stick and attacking with the right. It's kind of like Apocalypse, where movement and attack were done almost the exact same way, or, for those arcade classic types out there, Robotron.
On the levels where you can get into the raft or tank you must use both analog sticks to control the vehicle. In the raft you must rotate the two joysticks in a pattern that emulates rowing. It's tricky at first, but I quickly got used to it. To steer the tank you move each stick either forward or back, and the tank moves with basic left and right tread movements. Many tank games have incorporated this movement, so it was quite easy to pick up.
The gadgets are also a lot of fun to play with. You begin with a Time Net and Stun Club. The Time Net catches monkeys and sends them to the Time Station so they can be rehabilitated. The Stun Club is great because it's really a light saber that doesn't slice through the monkeys. It just knocks them down for a second so you can net 'em. As the game progresses you acquire six other gadgets: the Water Net lets you catch monkeys in the water, Monkey Radar locates the direction of monkeys and can let you view them on a monitor live via satellite, the Slingback Shooter is a slingshot that shoots three types of ammo, the Super Hoop allows you to get a turbo boost, the Sky Flyer is a propellor that lets you jump higher and glide further, and the RC Car can get in small places to hit switches and scare out monkeys.
Catching monkeys is quite tricky, and you have to be creative in how you use each of the gadgets you have at your disposal. Sometimes it pays off to sneak up on them Tenchu-style and catch them off guard. Occasionally the monkeys are in hard or impossible to reach places, and you'll have to figure out a way to knock them to a more accessible location. Oftentimes the dang little monkeys are just damn mean and will shoot you with heat-seeking missiles or slap you around or both.
But that's the other thing about Ape Escape. It's got high energy play, will keep you in front of it for hours, and is quite cool, but it's also very wholesome. Your life is gauged in cookies, which will not only give you the serious munchies, but also makes it so that you never really die you just lose your cookies. You also never kill any monkeys. You catch them and release them from Specter's control. You can view a picture and the stats for each monkey you catch in your Monkey Book, which really makes them individuals. The only things that you really kill are fantasy monsters that go poof! when you whack them and spit out coins and cookies. You blow up a lot of machinery that is being used for evil, but that's okay. Action is oriented around figuring out how to get to each part of the level and catching monkeys.
As if all this weren't enough, Ape Escape even contains three mini-games. In the Time Station there is an arcade room. If you collect enough Specter coins, which are special coins that are usually hidden or in difficult locations, the games will open up and you can play them from then on. The first is Ski Kidz, a skiing game that uses the two analog sticks to control your skier's feet. Available characters are from the main game, and for the most part this mini-game is a throwaway. After fifteen minutes I had played all of the tracks and a handful of the characters, and I was thoroughly unimpressed. The next game, Specter Boxing, was much better. You use the sticks to control each arm of your boxing monkey. The final game to unlock is Galaxy Monkey, which is great. The game is very much like Asteroids, and one stick controls your movement while the other fires laser beams at bad things attacking you. All of the mini-games are playable by up to two players, adding a much needed versus mode to the otherwise single player Ape Escape.
So Ape Escape is almost the perfect game for all ages. It's engaging, upbeat, humorous, and insanely fun to play. Unfortunately, it lacks some of the finishing touches that would make it a truly great game. The graphics are not the greatest, but would be plenty adequate if not for the horrendous clipping problem. Floors, walls, even whole buildings, trees or mountainsides blink in and out of existence. To further complicate the problem are fairly typical difficulties with the camera tracking. Although extensive camera controls are built into the game, in some of the tight areas it is tough to get a good view. While you'll curse the camera and clipping throughout the game, it is not bad enough to make you quit.
Another area that Ape Escape falls short in is sound. The story is told through dialogue, and the voice acting is not bad, but the game sound effects could be much better. There are only a few different sounds for the monkeys, and none of them sound like actual monkey vocal recordings. I would imagine that it would be possible to have a much greater range of better monkey samples in the game, and that would make the play much better.
Overall, Ape Escape is an amazing acheivement. The game has gotten great reviews so far, but has not been marketed as heavily as some games this summer. Don't take the silence as a bad sign. This game is definitely groundbreaking and a shining example that the PlayStation still has a few surprises for us.