I am a real sucker for a classic platformer. 3D platformers were a fixture in my youth, with games like Spyro, Crash, Sly Raccoon, Jak and Daxter, and Ratchet and Clank all games that were major formational parts of my gaming growing up. Some less successful titles did also cross my path, such as Ty the Tasmanian Tiger and Croc, but Ape Escape is one I am very unfamiliar with. I’m aware of the first game and I’ve played a brief demo of the 3rd game, so when I found Ape Escape 2 available on PS4 I figured I simply had to give it a shot.
Ape Escape 2 (PS2, PS4 [reviewed])
Released Jul 2002 | Developed / Published: Sony
I’m sure it will come as no surprise in a game named Ape Escape, but capturing monkeys (well, apes, though the game uses them interchangeably) is the name of the game here. For some reason, our game’s escapees all sport experimental helmets that give enhanced intelligence, and none benefit more so than Specter, a white-haired ape who turns to evil and plots for world domination. Said world domination seems to largely involve humanity being reduced to nothing and apes ruling the world, in some kind of saccharine Planet of the Apes dystopia.
Our protagonist is Hikaru, a plucky young lad who is a lab assistant to the kindly Professor. He’s given a stun club and a net, and told to crack on with putting apes in nets and sending them back to captivity. The plot here is a little bit thin on the ground but that’s ok – this platformer, like many of its kind, definitely has kids in mind along with other players when it comes to its audience, so it carries a kind of cartoon charm. That sense of charm is elevated as well with the introduction of the Freaky Monkey Five, a quirky miniboss squad who appear to frustrate Hikaru’s efforts and to provide the occasional boss fight.
In order to capture monkeys, Hikaru is equipped with a wide variety of gadgets. Aside from his starting tools – a stun club to bop things on the head with, and a net to gather up escaped apes – he also gets access to a few more specialised pieces of equipment. Each item has its own specialised utility, both in terms of in-level usage as well as how it can be employed against Hikaru’s targets. Some are useful and remain so throughout the game; I’m a big fan of the Dash Hoop, which is a futuristic hula-hoop that lets Hikaru zip around the game’s stages in a barely-controllable dervish. While using it anything he comes into contact with gets a good smack, and it can also let him run up otherwise impassable slopes. However, others are somewhat less widely handy, and later gadgets feel significantly more narrow.
Ape Escape’s gadgets are tied to what are undoubtedly one of the original game’s greatest selling points. When the first Ape Escape released on the PlayStation it was one of the rare games – indeed, the first – which mandated the use of the DualShock controller with the attached analog sticks. It used the left stick to manage the game’s gadgets, giving an unprecedented level of control over direction to the user, and attaching a more tangible sense of feedback between the movements of the player and the character. While it was no doubt a groundbreaking move, by the release of the PS2 analog sticks had become the norm, and with that norm came expectations of controller layouts. Sticking to tradition is certainly one thing, but I can’t help but feel that Ape Escape 2 could have adopted a more effective control scheme and alleviated some of the issues I had with it. Tying the game’s gadgets to the right stick often resulted in me fudging my swings, a problem only exacerbated by the irritation of the game’s camera.The camera, which is attached the L1, can only be manually moved in jerking motions that try to centre it behind Hikaru, and all too often judging distances and depth is made notably harder than it need be. Making mistakes is a common thing, especially when one’s game is on the cutting edge but while Ape Escape can claim that title, the sequel unfortunately cannot and instead languishes in tradition rather than adopt a more practical control scheme. It seems to me that Ape Escape 2’s developers tied their game’s identity to its quirky control layout, rather than to narrative or visual design elements, and that only works against it in this case.
Ape Escape 2 has an array of themed levels, which is typical of platformers, I quite like the variety, to be honest; some levels are a little more imaginative than you sometimes get. The beginning levels are quite sedate, such as sleepy mediterranean villages but it’s not long before you’re catching apes in ninja castles, prehistoric mountains, and dark cities. The level variety reminds me a little of the latter Gex games, which also featured similar-styled levels though those were of course film-themed. I also like that some levels are a little more open and encourage exploration in order to find every monkey; this is even true of early levels, which sometimes give you a moderately sized core area, a few branching paths, and an awful lot of monkeys to find that are sequestered about the stage. It’s unfortunate that this doesn’t seem to be the case all the way through though. Some levels felt disappointingly linear, but in a kind of spread-out way as the levels became lengthy single tracks. The levels towards the end of the game are absolutely weaker than the early ones, and often rely on gimmicks to pad out their length such as awkward-controlling vehicles.
Ape Escape 2 has a lot to offer completionists, at least. You only have to catch a specific amount of monkeys in each stage during the story and you’re instantly teleported away after reaching that threshold; once you reach the end of the game you’ll probably still have a fair few monkeys to catch before you’re at 100% completion. Therefore you’re encouraged to revisit levels, though as with many platformers like this there’s little point in doing so until you’ve unlocked all the gadgets, so it really is an endgame task.
It also features an absolute glut of additional bits to collect but it’s done in a very niche and not-entirely brilliant way. Installed at the hub between worlds, Hikaru can pour coins into an in-game gachapon machine, spinning the switch and seeing what goody will roll out. It’s entirely at random, as far as I can see, which means you need to stockpile coins and then spend minutes plunking them in and cracking open virtual gachapon pods. It’s a small mercy this is a PS2 game otherwise you feel it’d run the risk of using real money in some sort of heinous microtransaction. The things you can get are admittedly neat; concept art, sneering notes from Specter, the occasional hint, and even minigames to play in the hub, but it’s down to you as to whether you fancy spending literal hours playing at virtual gachapon.
The presentation is a bit of a mixed bag. I appreciate the bright and colourful graphics, which are very cartoony with an obvious anime influence. The visual flair extends to the animations, which are very fluid, despite the game’s control issues. An unfortunate hiccup in the presentation comes in the form of the voice acting, which is atrocious. I appreciate voice-acting in games was still in its difficult formative years, but wow is Ape Escape 2’s voice acting hard to listen to; it ends up sounding like a cheaply produced kids’ cartoon.
Ape Escape 2 was certainly a breath of fresh air for me at least given I was coming off the back of some significantly darker games, and I think that probably contributed to my enjoyment of it. It’s bright, cutesy, and doesn’t take itself too seriously; besides which, I grew up with 3D platformers and I’ll always have a soft spot for them. However much I liked it, it certainly has its fair share of issues that really hold it back, and unfortunately those issues are tied to the core control scheme. If you can allow for it though, there is definitely something to recommend here.
4/7 – GOOD.
Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.