Gibbon: Beyond The Trees review: a short, but heartfelt ecological adventure
King of the swingers
Despite being little more than an hour long, Gibbon: Beyond The Trees is a bite-sized game that gives you plenty to chew over. Made by Old Man's Journey devs Broken Rules, this ecological adventure is both a celebration of its titular primates and an urgent call to action, highlighting the effects of real world issues such as deforestation, poaching and tourism by taking you on a 60-minute sprint through the natural and urban jungles these animals now call home.
Designed to be played in a single sitting, you begin as one of a three-strong family of gibbons swinging joyfully through the dense flora and fauna of South East Asia's rainforests, the gibbon's natural home turf. Perhaps appropriately, this game starts by aping the structure of an endless runner. A squeeze of the right trigger (or right arrow key) will propel your primate forward into an automatic swinging motion, for example, while holding down left trigger (or left arrow key) sees them break out into a run. Running is slower than swinging, but hit L on a down slope and you'll whizz into an even faster, Tarzan-style slide, letting you cannon ball across the forest's wide, yawning gaps with a playful exuberance.
Indeed, the only thing you really need to watch out for is to make sure you let go of both triggers whenever you get to the end of a branch, otherwise your gibbon will trip over their own hands, so to speak, and lose momentum. The end result is a kind of hypnotic ebb and flow that harks back to Broken Rules' earlier work, Secrets Of Raetikon, where you soared through valleys and mountaintops on the wings of a mythical bird. Gibbon is a much more grounded affair than Raetikon, but the way you crest and fall through its various environments is just as thrilling. As you lever the triggers back and forth, you not only feel like you're pedalling your arms through the treetops, but you also get to revel in the cathartic release of your gibbon's leaps and jumps when you let go.
It's a wonderful sensation under the thumbs, and it only gets better once the game starts adding its sick backflips and assists into the mix. The former can be deployed at any time with a quick tap of the d-pad to give you an extra burst of speed on your next landing, but the assists will only trigger when you cross paths with your fellow gibbon mate, making them feel rare and special whenever they occur. Here, everything slows to a crawl as you and your pal lock arms to somersault you forward, and man alive, it's one of the most joyful things I've ever witnessed in the history of video games.
And what a jaw-dropping playground Broken Rules have created here to flex your budding acrobatics in, breaking free from its endless runner template to give you completely free rein in how you travel. There's no right or wrong path to take as you bound ever eastwards. There aren't any collectibles or hidden pathways to worry about, and its artfully contrasted dioramas make scanning for your next handhold an easy and intuitive experience. Even if you mess up and fall right down into the leafy undergrowth below, the warren of multi-layered and criss-crossing pathways on hand always gets you, quite literally, back into the swing of things very quickly. Heck, for all its talk about speed and maintaining momentum, there isn't even a timer. Instead, you're simply let loose to stretch and flex in whatever manner you choose.
That's not to say Gibbon is entirely devoid of challenge, though. There are various fail states and pitfalls you'll need to avoid (including some rather horrifying forest fires), but it's not overly punishing when you fail either. Much like last year's The Artful Escape, mistiming a jump will simply rewind you back to one of its generous checkpoints just before the obstacle in question, giving you enough of a run-up without feeling repetitive. The whole process isn't quite as immediate as The Artful Escape, admittedly, but it's hardly egregious either.
Eventually, though, those trees give way to logging communities, shacks, farmland and cities, and Broken Rules make effective use of these shifts in environment. Raging rivers become busy roads, vines give way to powerlines, chains and festive bunting, while branches morph into balcony ledges and ramshackle iron roofs. They're all just as easy to swing from, but the stark contrast in both their height and variety makes you long to get back to the forest again. Indeed, when the trees fall away entirely during a particularly striking stretch of slash-and-burn log-farming, actively robbing you of that glorious climbing frame you've just been enjoying, you really feel the pang of its central message.
That said, it can be too heavy-handed at times. The final act of the game, where you're chasing a helicopter after your baby gets snatched by a group of hunters, feels a little overwrought in places, and there's a central helicopter chase that really stretches its opening claim that "all subject matter is represented respectfully and accurately" in the course of its story. Forget Gibbons. Are we sure this isn't a secret origin story for Arnie and the Predator?
In all seriousness, though, there is a minor tension between its joyous movement system and wider narrative beats that never quite gets resolved. Indeed, when you're so caught up in the game's immersive controls and finding your next foothold, it's easy to gloss over some of the subtler details leading up to its bigger, more bombastic set pieces. An ominous trail of loggers and diggers heralding the second act's big fire section, for example, frequently dissolved into little more than a blur as I barrelled along with my sliding backflips, and it was often only when the camera occasionally pulled back to let me drink it all in that I really had the chance to appreciate what was happening around me.
It ends up giving you a false impression of what Broken Rules are trying to achieve here. Instead of simply lurching between its central story arcs, the warning signs are there. You just might not get a chance to see them. Indeed, it was only when I unlocked the properly endless Liberation mode that I was able to soak in these smaller details. In this mode, another gibbon sets out to free other trapped animal pals in a randomly generated mix of the main story environments, and seeing them crop up multiple times makes me wish I'd seen it all the first time round.
Then again, maybe that's the point. If we saw the portents of these disasters clearly in advance, perhaps the gibbon wouldn't be on the endangered species list, nor would we be facing our own impending climate crisis. Still, while its tone may be a little uneven, its heart is definitely in the right place. Gibbon: Beyond The Trees deals with a lot of hefty topics in 60 minutes, but it also knows when to let its hair down, too, giving you everything you need to enjoy and celebrate these creatures while they're still with us.