Version tested: PlayStation 2
As regular readers will no doubt acknowledge wearily, we're quite partial to a bit of monkey magic at Eurogamer, and the prospect of a game involving herding up a group of cheeky chimps merely increases our intake of bananas to ludicrous levels.
You're also permitted to wearily acknowledge that this is, indeed, another run, jump and collect platform game. By our calculations, about the tenth game in the genre we've played in the last three months. That's nearly one a week; surely more than even the most obsessive kleptomaniacs can cope with. But, wait! This one's got monkeys in it, and if there's one thing that guarantees a game's quality it's the presence of our banana eating friends.
No, not Phil Specter, the other one
Seeing as it's a platform game, you can probably guess that there's an evil do-er that needs to be put in his place. In this instance, it's the scowling 'white monkey' Specter, who has decided to wage war on all humans and create new world order where monkeys rule. The simians in question wander around the levels with flashing helmets on and colour coded pants, and it's your job to round up these pesky primates with an assortment of gadgets, while picking up gotcha tokens and generally taking out anything that dares to get in your way - including Specter's minions of doom, the Freaky Monkey Five.
The early levels act as more of a simple tutorial to get you into the swing of things, and give the player ample opportunity to learn about the various type of monkey (identifiable by the colour of their pants!) the different strategies involved in catching them, the basics of object collection, the controls, and mastery of the various tools at your disposal via the gadget trainer.
The controls are fairly simple and easy to get the hang of. Each of the symbol buttons on the pad represents one of your gadgets, and can be reassigned at any time by hitting select, which takes you into a gadget menu. Moving the right stick in the required direction activates the gadget (although you sometimes use the left stick as well), while the left stick controls your movement/camera movement. R1 or R2 is used for jump, L2 activates free look/aim mode, while L1 centres the camera behind you.
Catching monkeys is the name of the game here, and it's by no means an easy task. To begin with, the most resistance they offer is feebly running away, and a swift swipe is usually enough to bag them, but you're soon faced with more guile and cunning; first of all they'll outrun you, requiring a more stealthy approach (click down L3 to go prone and shuffle up to them unnoticed), then they get weapons, and it's here that the game really starts to test your mettle. With pistols, bombs, machine guns, flamethrowers, RPGs and even kisses at their disposal, these cheeky monkeys seem to always have the jump on you.
Fortunately for you, the game evens the odds by presenting the player with an increasingly powerful set of gadgets to ensnare them. First of all you get the all important Monkey Net as well as a Stun Club. As the game progresses you'll get the Dash Hoop (for quick bursts of speed), the Monkey Radar (to detect where they're hiding), the Catapult (to pick off enemies from afar), the Sky Flyer (to reach previously inaccessible platforms) the Bananarang (long distance weapon and monkey coaxer), the R.C car (to guide into small gaps) and three others. It's easy to compare Ape Escape 2 in this respect to Ratchet & Clank, but the fact is R&C wins hands down for constant variety.
The object of our affection
Object collection is all important in Ape Escape 2, with Gotcha tokens left discarded all over the place, as well as health restoring cookies, and the occasional explosive missile (for your catapult), or the odd extra 'jacket' or life. At the end of each level, there's an opportunity to cash in your winnings at the Gotcha Box; for every 10 tokens you receive a prize, which ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous: including pointless 'Secret/Concept' art, pointless Monkey Fables, pointless plinky plonky soundtracks, extra lives and missiles, or - if you're lucky - a bonus mini game, which could be Dance Monkey Dance (rhythm action with Monkeys), Monkey Tightrope or Monkey Football, all of which are superb additions to an already sound package. We could've done without the other completely pointless collectibles, but we're sure there's an audience that appreciates gratuitous nick nack nonsense. Probably the kind of people that delighted in collecting all that guff in Shenmue.
The game itself has 20 levels, plus interspersed boss encounters with the Freaky Monkey Five; the majority of which you'll have cracked within the first couple of hours play. Beyond the third boss, however, the difficulty cranks up quite significantly and this won't be a game you'll breeze through. On the latter stages you'll curse those damned monkeys, and a serious amount of luck, thought and a fair degree of skill will be required to progress, and the monkey catching antics start to vary, with the chance to board a Mech, or a Submarine. The boss encounters are a little lightweight though, and you'll suss out their attack patterns very quickly and knock them out with relatively few blows with your Stun Club.
Completing the game once rewards the player by allowing you to play as Spike, the hero of the original, with even more new gadgets available (which we haven't unlocked yet) and the chance to clear levels more thoroughly, and hence buy yourself more extras from the Gotcha Box. Then there's the two-player mode, where you can show off your monkey catching skills, and of course, Time Attack, adding a simple against the clock dynamic to the gameplay. To unlock everything will take a fair amounts of dedication, but we do wonder once you've unlocked the three mini games and seen all the levels whether you'll really be bothered to buy up the overwhelming amount of objects from the Gotcha Box.
Rough around the edges
In terms of visual excitement, Ape Escape 2 offers plenty of nice effects, but stood next to the best in the genre doesn't challenge a great deal. There's nothing really wrong with it as such; for example the scenery is uniformly pretty, and the locations are varied. Each of the levels is distinct from the last, with sunny beach resorts, a moon base, Shaolin temple, and Egyptian ruins, among the best. The characters, however, barely push the PS2 in any special way. They're cute, well drawn, full of expression, but pretty basic. In many respects, it looks like the kind of game that would have gone down a storm a couple of years back, but against more heavyweight competition it just looks a tad old school and doesn't stretch the boundaries in any way.
But if you could actually see the game properly it would help. With no direct control over the camera, (except in the fairly redundant and tricky free look mode) you're left at the mercy of the game to give you the most sympathetic viewpoint. By and large it does its job well, but you'll often encounter plenty of frustrating occasions when you're completely blind to what's going on around you, thanks to some random obstruction, or the game's decision to arbitrarily offer a totally unhelpful viewpoint. When you experience sublime dynamic camera control in other games (notably Sly Racoon), it is frustrating when other games fail to nail this fairly basic and fundamental requirement.
It's fortunate that this kind of problem occurs relatively rarely that it doesn't detract too much from the otherwise refreshingly different gameplay, but a bit more ambition in the visuals and the camera department would have garnered a more enthusiastic response from us battle-scarred platform veterans. Many areas in which platform games have improved in, such as storyline, visuals, camera work, gameplay variation, 'no load' technology and soundtrack ultimately feel somewhat lacking here. That's not to say it's a bad game, as it most certainly isn't, but it just hasn't kept pace with the progress elsewhere.
It's good, but not that good
Bearing in mind its PS2 exclusivity, Ape Escape 2 really is competing in a very crowded market, albeit one with a massive installed base. Sony has at least attempted to approach the genre from a quirky and strategic angle, but our lasting impression of the game is one that mostly entertains, but rarely inspires.
6 / 10