Ape Escape 3: saccharine platform banality, or the thinly veiled propaganda of media-savvy anarchists with genocidal ambition?
"What are you talking about you loony it's a game about catching monkeys in nets."
Is it? Let's review.
"Evil" monkey Specter has been a bit naughty in the past. This is fair comment. This time, he's set up a TV empire. Specter's shows are designed to transform the population into a semi-conscious mass of lethargy dependent on television in order to overwhelm and dominate humanity, the game says. Oh yes, we may nod knowingly at one another, shoeing our DVD box-sets under the sofa and pretending we don't have the clock set for Get My Big Celebrity Apprentice Out Of Her New Kitchen Tits.
In order to stop Specter, the player takes on the role of one of two kids, led by their smiling, apron-clad, alarmingly techno-savvy guardian, who sends them off to sabotage a series of nearly 30 television and film sets, where monkeys are working to fill out Specter's schedule, by "capturing" them in nets as they run away screaming.
It's all very simple. You move around with the left stick and use whatever "gadget" - a euphemism for "weapon of The Movement" - you have selected by waggling the right stick towards your enemy. The most basic of these are a sort of electric baton and a butterfly-net - stun the monkeys with the baton and you can easily capture them in the net. Level by level, mother introduces another "gotcha gadget" to your it's-not-an-arsenal-oh-no, until you're kitted out with a radar monkey detector that lets you spy on nearby monkeys, a hoop that lets you chase them down, a handheld helicopter for bridging gaps, and items like catapults and a remote control car for stunning them from a distance.
New to Ape Escape 3 is a range of transformations - wholesome symbols of national strength like a knight in shining armour, a cowboy and a ninja - which you activate by building up a "morph meter", hitting R1/R2 and selecting from a menu. They last for a short while and add various abilities - like a shield to withstand fiery blasts, six-shooters and a projectile net, and you can maintain these desirable states by beating up the robots deployed to protect monkey workers and stealing the "morph power" capsules they drop. They recharge by themselves, too, but why wait when you can slaughter the resistance? Some transformations offer you new paths through levels - the ninja can run along certain walls and dart across ropes, for example - while others are designed to solve problems like switches on the other side of doors.
You can also pilot race-cars, robots and tanks (usually poorly), which must be used to punish any monkeys brave enough to try and wield technology against you.
Not content with simply capturing all the monkeys - some of which are so frightened they cower in closets or seek shelter on rooftops and must be hunted down with your radar device before you can "detain" them - you also take any and all money you find, smashing up crates and furniture, and even, during one of the game's most overtly callous sequences, by climbing into the nest of a pterodactyl and smashing her eggs. As she circles you, trying to ferry a desperate monkey to safety. Probably crying.
As you go, you're encouraged to sneak up on monkeys and take over their cameras mid-shoot, capturing their movies. For posterity, or so that you can mock them once they've been taken into custody? And where are the monkeys taken? Funny how that's never mentioned. You can review the footage later in a gloating "simian cinema" - at which point you realise it's actually relatively high-brow - fables, Shakespearean tragedy, golden era slapstick. Why crush this, but for the act of crushing the maker?
When you're done mocking their art, you can spend some of the money you've looted at various shops - throwing it away on books, basic mini-games and more advanced tools for tracking the "evil" monkeys you're "saving humanity from".
And you know what's ironic about all this? The developers were clearly so caught up in their subterfuge, so dedicated to their obvious intent, that they didn't even round off the illusion of a game particularly well. If there's any consolation to be had from the alarming experience of Ape Escape 3, it's that with a restrictive third-person camera that often faces the wrong way and can only be centred, never adjusted calmly while you battle; with fairly tedious tutorials thrust upon the player every other level, building up a complex system of controls; with awful, pantomime bosses that demand nothing but brute strength to defeat; and with largely linear level design that seldom excites or innovates to any degree, it will probably fail in its mission to paint Specter - the monkey-cum-good immigrant tycoon, providing work and fortune to brave monkeys around the globe - as some sort of despotic hellraiser destroying us all one dishonest TV show at a time.
Rival developers will find more here that's been borrowed or done before than anything else. Moving platform sequences, switches that have to be held down by crates to keep doorways open, remote-control-helper puzzles - there's rarely a moment that stands out as particularly memorable, although nothing's actually handled that badly. Meanwhile, the core act of capturing monkeys becomes fiddly as you vary forms, as you try to click a stick while aiming with it or switch tools with face buttons while flapping them at scarpering simians. In a few places a rogue, freedom-fighting designer's clearly grasped the controls and tried to do something new - a row-boat with a pair of analogue oars, for example - but these sequences aren't given enough time to bed in and feel awkward, presumably because the staffer responsible was found out and taken away for "re-education" pretty quickly.
As an aside, there's a pretty reasonable mini-game based on Metal Gear Solid that you can get at by finishing the main game, and it's worth playing when you get to it. A mini-game about subterfuge, eh? They're laughing at me.
There are times when you'll stifle a guilty laugh, too - an Exorcist riff with a spinning-head monkey, a train-top showdown in the Wild West, a monkey hanging onto a flagpole for dear life as gusts of wind threaten to send him hurtling into the bind of your fascist net - but the devs' motivation clearly lay elsewhere, because anybody with Jak & Daxter, Ratchet & Clank, Mario, Maximo, Sly Raccoon or even Grabbed by the Ghoulies on their shelf has done what's being done here to a more consistently rewarding level. As you get a bit further into it, the range of things you can call upon is refreshing rather than stifled the way Kameo was, but what you're doing is never more than basic. It's short, too, although it stretches itself out by leaving one or two hidden monkeys on each level so that you have to come back and hunt them down afresh on a second visit - even if you can see them when you capture the last monkey you need to fill your disgusting quota.
As game design, that's lazy. As what we know it's really about, it's very effective. Leave them hungry, eh Sony? Leave them wanting more?
Ape Escape 3 might be a solid platform game aimed at a slightly younger audience, but if you think about what it's aiming at those poor impressionable future soldiers of the state, it should bring a lump to your throat. If this is a game, you'll probably enjoy most if you've ignored most of the genre output for several years. It's not badly done - a good, clean, simple, average game.
Except it's not a game, is it? That's just what they want you to think.
I want to know where the monkeys are taken, Sony. I think we should be told.