Games offer a unique way of expressing social concerns. As an interactive medium, instead of just watching a documentary about saving the monkeys, video games can give you a sense of agency and a uniquely personal lens through which to take part in events. Gibbon: Beyond the Trees was created to highlight the plight of Gibbons from ecological collapse in South East Asia, with developer Broken Rules even working alongside locals and environmental officials in the area to portray the plight of the Gibbons with sensitivity and authenticity.
Importantly, there is also a video game at the heart of this. Broken Rules have designed an auto-runner swinging game that feels incredibly satisfying to control. Coupled with gorgeous 2d graphics reminiscent of the developer’s previous title Old Man’s Journey, there is a lot to love about this charming short adventure. So is this game the monkey’s nuts? Or did it make us go ape…(I’m not sorry, more monkey puns are coming)
Bringing to mind the classic gameplay of Donkey Kong: King of Swing on the GBA, Gibbon: Beyond the Trees functionally allows you to swing through the trees, using L to run and leap up through the branches, while R instead allows you to use your arms to swing from the different bits of foliage while flinging yourself into the air. There’s a nice knack where you must release the swing or run button just as you reach the end of the branch, giving a push and pull feeling that emulates the swinging between trees nicely.
Bustling with foliage and the nature of the jungle, the world itself is a living breathing character that changes with the story here. This is still a heavy tale, but it manages to quite masterfully balance the joy of swinging through the trees with the honest, and sombre situation that is currently unfolding. Throughout the short story campaign, you’ll follow Pink the gibbon and their family, as they are uprooted from their home and chased down by poachers. I’m a vegan for many years and a lifelong advocate for animal rights, so I’d be lying if I tried to tell you I got through this game without shedding a tear or two.
On top of this, there is even an extra mode to unlock after completing the main game. Playing as a different Gibbon, you simply swing through the trees and enjoy the environment, collecting trapped birds as you go. Considering how fantastic the swinging mechanics are, I’m grateful to have more than one way to experience them. Honestly, just the moment-to-moment joy of leaping through the air and between branches is immensely satisfying, especially when you unlock the backflip later on which allows you to land with a little extra oomph and add some acceleration to your run.
Now, it all sounds good so far, and I had a blast leaping through trees in this gorgeous painterly world, but I also have some real issues. Gibbon: Beyond the Trees was originally released on Apple Arcade, many titles from which have made the jump to Nintendo Switch very successfully. Sadly, Gibbon didn’t quite make the leap intact. Opening the game will reward you with a lengthy loading screen, which is a harbinger for the state of performance from here on out.
Graphically Gibbon doesn’t seem overtly visually intense for the hybrid system, but this port chugs harder than Thomas the Tank Engine doing the conga. Performance stutters consistently, but wildly fluctuates depending on the number of things on the screen. I can deal with this in some titles, but the gameplay here depends on accuracy and speed. One wrong button press and your gibbon could fall down from the rainforest and into the fires plaguing the industry ravaged floors. Especially with the satisfying timing of swinging, so much hinges on nailing your grabs and landings.
Another issue is compounded by the slow load times. While some games will quickly snap you back when you fall to your death, there is a wait here that drags you out of the experience. Coupled with the framerate, there was so much that got in the way of the fun. Another minor issue is that the ledges you can leap onto aren’t always telegraphed very well. Ordinarily, these specific branches, rails, or telephone poles are fairly self-explanatory if they can be grabbed. Still, quite a few times the available options get lost in the overall foliage. There were a couple of times when my poor gibbon just fell to their death, and waiting for it to load back up was a pain.
You might read this and think I didn’t enjoy the game, but that’s far from the truth. There is so much to love in Gibbon: Beyond the Trees. The environmental message is told empathetically, sensitively, but with an urgency that is essential to actual action happening. There is even a list of charities and foundations that can help listed in the credits! I also adored the swinging mechanics, the beautiful painterly visuals, and the story being told tightly and effectively. I just hope the Switch port gets a couple of patches in the future.
Gibbon: Beyond the Trees combines gorgeous painterly visuals, and fantastic swinging mechanics, with an urgent and emotional story told with sensitivity. Sadly a couple of performance issues hold back this lovely game, leaving it a few monkeys short of a zoo.