Whether they’re chucking barrels at soon-to-be plumbers, performing acrobatics inside balls or trying to take over the world, monkeys and apes are a pretty big deal in video games.
We’re fairly sure that Gibbon: Beyond the Trees isn’t the beginning of a Donkey Kong-rivalling megafranchise, but it is one of the most enjoyable and thought-provoking gaming experiences we’ve had in 2022 so far. And if you’re an Apple Arcade subscriber, you really should put aside a bit of time to play through it.
What’s it all about?
In developer Broken Rules’ (Old Man’s Journey, ELOH) own words, Gibbon: Beyond the Trees is an ecological adventure about freedom and survival. You play as an electric pink-coloured gibbon swinging its merry way through the tropical rainforest (the location of which is never specified in-game) it calls home.
At least that’s how the game introduces itself. Using nothing but genuinely heartbreaking environmental storytelling, it soon starts to show you how real-world issues like deforestation, poaching and climate change are devastating to the forest and its magnificent furry inhabitants, threatening their very existence on a daily basis.
Thematically heavier than Super Monkey Ball, then, but Gibbon: Beyond the Trees doesn’t need to preach its message. It would rather you experience it for yourself, and by the time the credits roll you’ll be so invested in the welfare of your brave gibbon and his pals that you’ll want to know more about what needs to happen for their situation to improve.
Is it any good?
Gibbon: Beyond the Trees’ powerful ecological warning is what makes feel important, but it’s also extremely fun to play. Swinging and leaping through the 2D side-scrolling levels (we say levels, but the game’s 10 chapters actually flow into one another without loading) has a glorious sense of momentum, and it’s genuinely some of the most fun we’ve had with a traversal mechanic since Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales.
You can play using either touchscreen controls or a controller. With the former, you hold two fingers on the screen to run and let go to make the titular gibbon you play as jump towards the nearest branch. When holding down your finger or thumb you’ll continue to swing as long as there’s something to swing on, and letting go at just the right time to jump between trees, ravines and man-made structures is crucial to maintaining speed. Eventually you learn to backflip, which when executed at the right time gives you a quick speed boost, and in sections where you’re swinging alongside a monkey mate you can catch its outstretched arms mid-jump and have it toss you ahead. The game temporarily shifts into slow-mo when this happens, and it’s beautifully animated.
Beyond the Trees wisely keeps things simple, and while we preferred playing with the excellent Backbone One controller, the touch controls work just fine and never feel imprecise. The game is never particularly challenging, but as the initially plentiful treetops begin to burn to the ground or disappear in favour of expanding towns and roads, you quickly find yourself much closer to the ground with far less to swing on.
That the game becomes notably less enjoyable at this point is an ingenious and we think very deliberate move by its designers. Rather than using voiceovers or cutscenes to explain how these dramatic environmental changes impact the gibbons, they make you physically feel it in your hands.
A mention, too, for the stunning hand painted visual style and terrific audio design. From the vibrant green foliage at the beginning of the game to the rampant orange flames and charred backdrops that soon take its place, Beyond the Trees really pops on the iPhone 13 Pro’s OLED display, and with headphones on (recommended) you hear every rustling tree, singing bird and roaring engine.
Gibbon: Beyond the Trees’ 10 chapters probably won’t take you much longer than an hour to play through, but you’ll be surprised at just how much drama Broken Rules packs into its brief runtime. It’s an emotional roller-coaster, this tale, but one that ends on a hopeful note. And while the subject matter is well worth reading up on regardless (as we have done since playing), this extremely polished and mechanically satisfying little game offers a really good reason to engage with it.
Where can I get it?
Gibbon: Beyond the Trees is currently exclusive to Apple Arcade (£4.99/mo) subscribers. It will launch on Steam and Nintendo Switch at a later date.