Somehow I managed to miss out on the whole Ape Escape thing. I was always aware that the series existed, but beyond that basic awareness, I didn't have any feelings towards it one way or the other. I wasn't even sure whether the fact that the titular apes were escaping was supposed to be a good or bad thing. Apparently every now and then a nefarious monkey professor (that's a monkey professor, not a professor of monkeys) sets a whole lot of monkeys loose and it's up to a brother and sister team to viciously beat the monkeys into submission and put them back in their cages. I've got to say, for a game solely about being cruel to animals, Ape Escape 3 is a surprisingly fun romp.
A third-person action game, Ape Escape 3 picks up after the apes have already escaped and run rampant over a large television studio, and it's up to the player, acting as one of two precocious kids, to whack them over the head with a stun rod and then capture them with some manner of teleporting net. The television studio structure provides a perfect excuse for the game's levels to have an incredibly wide variety of themes, from a western level, to a medieval level, to one that's supposedly themed after The Terminator, but for some reason takes place at the docks.
The actual game has the player running through these remarkably well-built levels searching for monkeys to bop over the head and stuff in a net. Some of the monkeys just wander around in the middle of the room, others act in their own little TV shows and movies, and some hide themselves away and need to be ferreted out. This is all done with standard 3D controls and puzzles. There are plenty of moving platforms to double-jump onto, and switches to hit. And just in case only hunting down monkeys might not carry a whole game, each level is also packed to the gills with a menagerie of killer robots.
For what's supposedly a kid's game, Ape Escape has a strangely convoluted control scheme that has the PS2's left control stick mapped to moving, while the right control stick handles multi-directional attacks. Now, this sort of control scheme is normally only applied to 2D games, or more shooting-intensive titles, where it's vitally important to be able to fire in one direction while dodging in another. Here the stick is mostly used for choosing which direction to swing a weapon or net in. This setup would be a great if there were any occasions in the game to move one way while clubbing in another, but there aren't, so all it really accomplishes is to rob the game of a desperately-needed controllable camera.
Another problem is the game's inexplicably repetitive structure. Every time the player goes to one of the levels for the first time, they are told to capture a specific number of monkeys, and once they have, they automatically leave the level. Unfortunately, this number is always lower than the total number of monkeys in a level, which forces players to repeat every level at least once to catch all the monkeys. This isn't so bad in the early levels, which are small enough that they can be completed in just a few minutes, but the later levels, which require up to ten minutes just to get to the end, can get amazingly tedious on the third trip through.
Fortunately the game developers realized that running through twenty levels capturing well over four hundred monkeys could easily get tiresome, so they allow the player to transform into eight different versions of their character, each one with different abilities, weapons, and methods of capturing monkeys. These "morphs" are meted out every couple of levels, matching the level's theme. For the medieval world there's a knight, for the wild West world there's a gunslinger, for the future world there's some kind of a future Japanese superhero with an unclear theme. Eight seems like a lot of possible transformations, but the game manages to make each one of them useful for different situations. The Ninja is better at capturing monkeys, the knight is better at fighting bosses, and so forth.
In addition to the main game's quality, Ape Escape 3 really shines when it comes to the supplemental material. Besides the standard audio and video files, there are a couple of addictive mini-games and a strange addition that's big enough to deserve the title maxi-game: "Mesal Gear Solid". Repaying Metal Gear Solid 3 for its "Snake Escape" mini-game, Mesal Gear Solid is an elaborate parody of Metal Gear Solid (MGS) in which the player controls a monkey who has to break into a secure facility to help Solid Snake destroy the new, monkey-themed Metal Gear. While using the Ape Escape controls and graphics to play MGS seems like little more than a gimmick at first, the game is surprisingly compelling, and actually does an admirable job of poking fun at some of MGS's conventions. It made me wonder if there wouldn't be a market for a compilation of Ape Escape parodies of popular games. I for one would be interested in playing Ape-ylvania.
While I'm not qualified to judge whether this game is a worthy follow-up to its predecessors, I can honestly say that it's a very good game in its own right. The gameplay, while child-friendly, is still challenging enough to keep veteran players interested. On a final note, after a series of cutscenes full of awkward dialog and simplistic humor, right at the very end, there's a genuinely touching moment. That's a good description of the entire game actually—90 percent decent, middle of the road entertainment, 10 percent excellence. That may not seem like much, but it's 10 percent more than most games offer.