It’s no surprise that, after Old Man’s Journey, Broken Rules would search for a real cause to fuse their blend of subtle, heartrending storytelling with. Gibbon: Beyond the Trees is a sweet, environmentally-minded vignette that paints a picture of life for gibbons, from their singsong nature to the dangers they face on a daily basis through deforestation and things as frivolous as palm oil. It’s fleeting, short-lived, and doesn’t amount to more than a brief bout of brachiation, but its message is booming.
Gibbon casts you as one of the titular primates, revealed after the fact to be named Pink. Beyond the Trees is a white-knuckled race through a South-Asian jungle as your family pack of gibbons is exposed to man, with all that means in any given context. Gigantic earthmovers soon replace the game’s stunningly hand-painted jungle views and serve as a sobering reminder of how many animals would be displaced by these practices. If threats to habitat weren’t enough, poachers chase Pink and her kind from their jungle to ours—trading the wilds for stone.
Gibbon manages to capture the emotional resonance that more polished games like Ori have achieved, in part because what we’re seeing is a reality. It’s a shame it doesn’t rise to meet the same standard of platforming, but it’s presumably a fraction of the budget. What remains is a fast-paced jungle jaunt that, while feeling at times spectacular and acrobatic, feels rather rudimentary and hangs its hat on a simple premise that grows tiresome at points. There’s definite tedium that sets in once you leave the jungle’s safety and find that shimmying along rooftops and power lines is your only thru-road. It could very well be a deliberate case of illustrating the loss of freedoms, translated through movement that simply isn’t as fun as what came before, but I’d say that’s a long bow to draw.
Gibbon is a very mechanically simple experience and places its central focus on the art of brachiation—the act of moving from branch to branch. While there’s no real consequence to speak of, Gibbon is very much a game where momentum is king, and using the jungle layout to your advantage is key. As Pink, you’re able to run uphill, swing, slide down mossy trees, and execute mid-air acrobatics that serve as boosts to her speed as she chains all of her abilities together. It might be basic, but it’s also satisfying when at full flight, and Pink moves from each of the environment’s elements very intuitively.
Pink’s journey lasts all of an hour and her ten chapters will comfortably be handled in one sitting, but it’s a whirlwind ride that doesn’t seem to let up. The pacing and stakes are impeccably established, while the action is seamless as each scenario bleeds into the next. Unfortunately, the performance on the Switch (granted, I am still running a base model) doesn’t always measure up to what Beyond the Trees tries to achieve in terms of its free flow action with stuttering and screen-tearing a regularity.
Not having to be laser-focused on the game’s gameplay loop also provides ample opportunity to take in the game’s scenic and gorgeously hand-painted vistas. For such a short game, the artists do a phenomenal job of showing us almost a timelapse of how these forests respond under duress once touched by deforestation, fire, and industry—perhaps the most crippling of the lot. Its presentation as a one-take vignette is often punctuated by close-up set pieces that advance Pink’s story—these give us our best look at these unexpectedly adorable apes. Despite its performance hang-ups on my original Switch, Gibbon also wonderfully captures the quick, free-form travel of these primates with some really smooth animation.
Gibbon: Beyond the Trees is another mechanically simple but heartfelt tale from a small studio that, on this occasion, definitely had something to say. And I think it’s that message, coupled with seeing these animals displaced from their colour-rich element, that makes this game hit surprisingly hard. I wouldn’t say that the Switch version is the optimal way to experience Gibbon: Beyond the Trees, but its brevity lends itself well to a handheld.
Gibbon: Beyond the Trees, like Old Man’s Journey before it, is a tightly-packed, hour-long adventure that lays bare the eco-terrorism that continually threatens these titular primates. While it doesn’t do anything particularly groundbreaking as a game, it’s a brisk, beautiful and, at times, terribly sad game that moves along at a rate of knots, even if that places a strain on the now-aged Switch hardware.
All of the jungle environments are pretty
The story, albeit brief, hits on some nice emotional touchstones
Has a really strong message behind it
The gameplay loop does grow tiresome before the credits