Sony has no shortage of first-party-developed platformer franchises. But amid glory hogs like Ratchet, Jak, and Sly Cooper, the Ape Escape series has quietly plugged along since the PlayStation era, providing consistently great platforming experiences peppered with generous amounts of bizarre humor and colorful aesthetics--albeit with minimal recognition compared to those juggernaut franchises. Ape Escape 3 for the PlayStation 2 is the most refined entry in the series yet. It doesn't stray far from the monkey-nabbing concepts found in the previous games; rather, it simply tightens up the whole package, adding a boon of new content, new abilities, new minigames, and lots and lots of those loveable monkeys. It's no giant step forward for monkeykind, but it's pretty much exactly what you would want from an Ape Escape game.
The premise for Ape Escape 3 is just about as bananas as any of the previous games' plots. Specter, the evil leader of those crazy, kooky monkeys, is back once again. His latest scheme? With the help of a human scientist named Doctor Tomoki, Specter's turned the monkeys loose on the airwaves, creating a host of cripplingly silly TV shows that are melting the minds of humanity into mush. Even the previous heroes of the series--Jimmy, Spike, and the professor--are all caught up in the insidious shows. That leaves the task of rounding up all these ridiculous monkeys to Kei and Yumi, a brother-and-sister combo that doesn't exactly have a lot of experience in the field of monkey wrangling; but after a quick tutorial, it becomes clear that they're absolute naturals. All this plays out through a series of hyperactive cutscenes, with dialogue traveling at a blindingly fast pace. The characters definitely have some majorly anime-centric inflections going on, and the translations of the dialogue are a little suspect in spots. All that hyperactivity can get a bit cloying after a while, but the humor is so goofy and over the top that you can't help but love it.
Whether you choose to play as Kei or Yumi, Ape Escape 3 plays basically the same as it always has. You're initially armed with a light-saberish club that stuns monkeys and destroys angry robots and other nasty things that occupy the game's various levels. You'll also have a monkey net, which you must use to trap the 400 different monkeys scattered throughout the game. Yes, that's right, 400. It's not nearly as daunting task as it sounds, however. Each of the game's levels contains a mere fraction of that number--but there are also quite a lot of stages to play through, each with their own bizarre TV-show theme. Sets like the Old West, the Arabian desert, the Arctic tundra, a martial arts dojo, a picturesque beach resort, and a series of airplanes that must be leapt across high up in the sky are just some of the more obvious examples. The monkeys themselves typically fall into the same themes. When you're wandering through the desert, it's not uncommon to come across a monkey in a turban spitting fire or running around with a fake scorpion tail attached to its bottom.
The monkeys all have their own personality types, too. Some are slower and easier to sneak up on and catch, while others are more aggressive, quicker, and more likely to turn the hunter into the hunted. Whether they're armed with the aforementioned scorpion tails, breaths of fire, laser pistols, or Uzis, these monkeys aren't interested in being caught and will fight you to the death if need be. It's hard to view them as much of a threat, though, because they're just so darned cute as they run around, sporting that anime-meets-Paul Frank look, squealing their monkey squeals with their little siren-light hats. It's all fun and games until one of them knocks you back on your ass and steals your monkey net, though. That's right, the monkeys can actually take your weapons this time around, and if you get caught with your own net, it's game over.
Fortunately, there are plenty of other gadgets and abilities to use to trap these dastardly simians. As you go through the different stages, you'll earn new gadgets and forms. Gadgets are assigned to the four face buttons on the controller, and you simply press one of the buttons to switch between them. There's more than four gadgets, mind you--including such wonders as an RC Car that can be used to traverse narrow passages and surprise hidden monkeys, a handheld helicopter blade that lets you fly over big gaps and reach higher ridges, and a crazy hula hoop-looking thing that lets you double your speed and damage anything you run into. But only four gadgets can be assigned at a time, and only one can be used. You use the gadget in your hand with the right analog stick. If you have, say, the monkey net in hand, you simply press it forward to slam it down on a hapless monkey, or spin the stick around to do a sideswipe move. If you've got the hula hoop on, you start spinning the right analog stick around as fast as you can to get it going. From there, you simply use the left analog stick to move around and the right trigger buttons to jump and double-jump. If you've never played this series before, it might take a bit of getting used to, but after a while, it becomes natural and proves to be a tight method of control.
Apart from the gadgets, Kei and Yumi can actually transform themselves into different characters of sorts. For example, you can turn yourself into a knight, a cowboy/girl, or a ninja. Each form has its own unique benefits. The knight, for instance, is much better at defending against attacks, and can dish out more powerful attacks. The ninja is quicker, can walk on walls and tightropes, and can actually generate two phantom ninjas to fight alongside him or her. And there's even an Arabian costume that lets you control a crazy dancing genie that can teleport between assorted genie vases contained in some levels, and whose dancing will hypnotize monkeys, making them easier to catch. All these forms are limited, mind you. A meter drains each time you use one, and you have to either wait for it to slowly build back up, or collect enough energy containers to refill it (and there's no shortage of them around). These different forms don't radically change the Ape Escape formula, but they're all unique and fun enough to provide some variety to the equation.
When you're not travailing around these different worlds on monkey-catching assignments, you'll be jumping around a lot of platforms and occasionally driving vehicles or giant robot mechs. The platforming handles about as well as any other 3D platformer. There are plenty of interesting jump puzzles to get around, and the controls are rarely frustrating (save for occasional bouts of camera wonkiness). Some stages are more linear in design, with decisive beginnings and endings, and some are more open-ended, with multiple, immediately accessible paths to take. The latter are the best ones, since they're the easiest to go back to--which you will have to do if you want to catch all 400 monkeys.
You see, while each stage has a certain number of monkeys assigned to it, you don't have to catch all the monkeys in a given stage to advance. If there are 15 monkeys, usually you need to catch only 12. This means that when you've caught all the required monkeys, the game spits you back out into the main hub area. There's no option to hang back in the stage you're in and finish the job. You'll have to jump back into that stage a second time to go back and get the rest. What this leads to is a lot of stages where you'll have to travel from point A to B all over again, but this time with no monkeys to catch for 80 percent of the level. It's not horrible or anything, but it would have been nice to have the option to stay in a level if you wanted to. As it is, it just feels like an artificial lengthening of the game.
And there's really no need to lengthen the game any further. There are a few dozen stages to play through, and there's a great deal of extra content to unlock, from movies to minigames. The one nice thing about having to go back to all those different stages over and over again is that it does give you more opportunity to collect coins, which you can use to unlock these materials. When you go into the game's shop area, there are a number of different stores to choose from. There's a music store, where you can buy musical tracks and unlock in-game cutscenes for your viewing pleasure. In the hobby shop, you can unlock minigames, like the monkey toss (which is like a hammer toss, but with a monkey tossing another monkey) and a Metal Gear Solid spoof in which you have to sneak through enemy territory as a crazy monkey that thinks he's Solid Snake. Speaking of bizarre, there's this whole simian cinema thing, too. In each main stage of the game, there is a camera that's pointing at one group of monkeys or another. By standing on this camera and pressing a button, it will film a new clip for the simian cinema. Once you're back in the hub world, you can go to the simian cinema to watch these clips. They're all these completely pointless non sequiturs that don't make a lick of sense, but boy they sure are funny.
Ape Escape 3's presentation is the very definition of colorful. Every stage and character is bright and bold looking. There isn't a single washed-out or drab-looking set piece to be found, and while the textures and resolutions might be generally low, the cartoonish designs and oddball flavor make up for those technical shortcomings. The humans don't get far beyond standard anime fare, but the monkeys are all adorably weird, and the boss monkeys in particular take the award for most ridiculous monkeys ever shoved into a game. The only real graphical hang-up the game suffers from is a somewhat erratic frame rate. It tanks when too much is going on onscreen at once, but fortunately it doesn't completely break up the action.
The audio isn't nearly as endearing. The various sound effects, monkey shrieks, and musical tracks are all done well, but the human voice acting doesn't quite cut it. It's all got that superenthusiastic, mildly grating anime inflection to it, with a lot of poorly punctuated sentences and statements that don't quite make sense as they're written. Part of it might be the translation, but the actors are a little overwrought in the delivery. But again, that's just one part of the audio, and everything else is quite good. Some of the musical tracks are even pretty catchy, which is why it's so fortunate that there's a section where you can just go listen to the unlocked music whenever you like.
For those who just can't get enough of the concept of running around and catching wacky monkeys, Ape Escape 3 will be like a little slice of heaven. It does everything that the previous Ape Escapes did well, heaps a hefty helping of additional content onto it all, and serves it up right. And if you've never taken the plunge on an Ape Escape game in the past and have any penchant for platforms, Ape Escape 3 is the one to get; it is definitively the best in the series so far.