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SummaryFun, funny and charming - more than the sum of its parts.
The GoodWhen the Ape Escape series debuted back in PSone era it heralded a revolution (of sorts) in the platformer genre, with high production values, innovative analogue stick based control system and minigames which were better than most full games. A long time has passed since then, and Ape Escape 3 is really the same game with shinier graphics, and is near identical to Ape Escape 2, only if anything a little shorter. So why have I enjoyed it so much? Because few games on the PS2 are quite so charming, sweet and funny as this little effort, and if you, like me, have a soft heart and a sense of humour you will fall in love with it.
The plot is as barmy as one might expect. The monkeys have all escaped (again), the dastardly Specter is leading them on a quest for world domination (again) and its down to a team of plucky Japanese tweens to sort everything out (again). This time round the monkeys are planning to hypnotise the world by hijacking television networks, broadcasting a crazy show which turns viewers into drooling fools, powerless to move - surely broadcasting endless episodes of Friends would have had the same effect?
Therefore your character (either a boy or a girl, both neatly designed, although its a shame the choice is so immaterial to the experience itself), has to hop through the monkeys' studios, catching the pesky primates so the show will stop broadcasting. This is done via the tried and tested method of right analogue stick controlled gadgets, including all the traditional favourites like the 'stun baton' (light-sabre), the hula hoop and the remote controlled car. All handle effortlessly after a while. However, for this installment we lucky gamers actually get a genuinely new gameplay feature - dressing up.
After a few rather dull levels of standard jumping, netting and whacking the cute little enemies, your mentor hands you a magical power - an otherworldly costume change that turns you into a mystical knight complete with shield, powerful area attacks, a slow but powerful melee attack and even a neat monkey catching move allowing you to round up several at a time - and all these abilities are still launched with the right stick.
The new outfit is just the first of a selection of enjoyable getups including a wild west suit with long distance rapid fire pistols, a samurai with the ability to walk on walls Prince of Persia style and a genie summoner who can make enemies dance uncontrollably - even the coins around the level bob to the beat. These outfits are powered from a slowly refilling bar, boosted with pick-ups from around the levels, and the balance is handled pretty well. Whenever you need a power its never too far away, but you never get to rampage endlessly round the levels as your potent alter-egos.
There are a fair collection of levels, each based around a specific show or genre. While many left me completely bemused as to what they were actually supposed to be parodying, when the developers and localisation team get it right it really is quite funny. Who could not be amused by a kids show called Simian Street, a monkey-helmed shopping channel, or a horror montage level with the primates acting out scenes from Psycho and The Exorcist (don't worry, its kid friendly)? Likewise you'd need to be pretty dead inside if the sight of a monkey in a suit running into a phone box and turning into a superhero didn't make you smile. These moments are a regular occurrence in-game and while they don't sound that funny written here, in the middle of play the gentle, playful humour is bound to make you chuckle, at least as a contrast to the hoards of faux-gritty GTA clones subduing the market.
Although the game is certainly not as long as its prequels, I feel its more manageable length is better suited to replaying, and there is an enormous selection of extras. There are little films to collect of the monkeys acting out scripts; most are quite badly translated and more bemusing than amusing, but some are just so bizarre that they can't fail to make you laugh. There's even a few made by Hideo Kojima and his team which are excellent, and should you collect enough you'll be able to make your own 30-second masterpiece using the same editor the developers used, although it is rather complicated.
There are daily fortunes should you catch the monkey with your star sign or birthday, and even love matches between two names. The whole soundtrack is up for grabs, along with buckets of concept art, 'monkey fables' which again are at least always bizarre, skins for the remote control car, even different songs for the genie to dance to when you dress up and summon it. The sheer range of content is fantastic, and this time, unlike Ape Escape 2's random system, you get to choose directly what you want.
Series veterans will be pleased to know that the minigames are back, although there is nothing to match the multiplayer charms of Monkey Football. Nevertheless, lone players have a special treat: Metal Gear Monkey. Certainly a good enough title to be used on something like the Playstation Network or Xbox Live Arcade, this multi-hour stealth game is surprisingly playable with multiple weapons (including grenades which are actually pineapples in a neat reference all the way back to the first Metal Gear Solid), bonus rooms and even an unlockable hard mode with no radar. Although its no Snake Eater, the game is never less than playable, and the script is very enjoyable. You even get to hear a monkey going "Snake, Snake, SNNNNNNNNAAAAAAAAAAKKKKKEEE!", surely worth the price of entry alone.
The BadThe game's primary problem is that the central game mechanics haven't moved past the 90s. In much the same way as titles like Super Mario Sunshine feel oddly dated and no longer fun in the context of the noughties, Ape Escape 3 often feels like a 32-bit era game in 128-bit clothing, unable to compete with the open worlds of Jak and Sly, and without the superior combat of Ratchet. It could be argued that the game is a nostalgic homage to the age of Crash, Spyro and Rayman, but then that era has only just passed and those heroes are still popular, albeit branched out into new genres. The question is, why hasn't Ape Escape attempted to evolve?The costumes are nice addition, but feel like the dresspheres in Final Fantasy X-2, a pretty and distracting gimmick while what the game needs is a complete overhaul like Final Fantasy XII.
Certainly if you tried previous games and disliked them or just plain aren't really into 3D platformers, this won't change your mind in the same way Beyond Good & Evil or Psychonauts might. In fact, the whole project lacks ambition and scope. The game's attempts to extend its life through time attacks and a survival mode offer no rewards at all (apart from adding the word 'master' to the title screen), and stink of desperation.
Also, beyond Metal Gear Monkey, the minigames are not up to scratch. There's a monkey throwing game that just feels rushed, and a neat beat-em-up parody that neatly makes fun of Tekken and co and their melodramatic replays, but forgets to provide a lasting challenge and any sort of depth.
Moving to audio, the voice acting is good enough, but the music again stinks of mid-90s. You may warm to the bouncy tunes on offer (I did), but I have to admit there's a real case for them being repetitive dreck. A less pressing issue, more of a disappointment, is the lack of decent bosses. Although the last few are awesome (as is pretty much all of the last hour), most are lack the old-school charm of the last game. It did make me realise how much I took for granted the sheer enjoyment of flashing-weak-point based bosses and finding attack patterns. While this game's bosses do have weak points, the lack of any real attack pattern is a real problem where fun is concerned, especially concerning the mini-bosses.
A more pressing concern for many are the failings of the dress-up system. Many of the outfits, such as the genie summoner, will only be used every few levels at clearly marked points, the closest the game gets to a puzzle. Just as many outfits are completely underpowered at the end of the game, which is a shame as many are more satisfying than the later costumes. Why not have the chance to level up outfits so you can be a cowboy/girl for the whole adventure? The superhero costume is also severely rubbish, with a mid-air dash seemingly put in so you can throw yourself off cliffs by accident.
The failings of the outfit system are compounded by the lack of new gadgets, in fact all of the new gadgets from Ape Escape 2 have been removed. While I'm glad to see the back of the water-squirter and the bananarang, I still feel some gadgets like the magnet have unreached potential, and its a shame this has been ignored. The lack of upgradeable gadgets is also a real issue for me, although others won't mind. Why not run the sky flyer into a jet pack through repeated use? Why not turn the catapult into a little laser pistol like the monkeys use? What about a little remote controllable helicopter if you use the car enough?
On a finishing note, you can catch a little monkey based on a certain other platform hero. I'd normally be happy with this, but the resulting hybrid is actually terrifying. What a waste! Unfortunately that comment is applicable to most of the game itself.