The existence of Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier is a surprise. For all its action-packed trailers, Fox’s reboot of the franchise doesn’t really lend itself to video games. “Sombre and character-driven” isn’t how you’d describe most big-budget action games (like the ones inspired by other high-profile movie franchises); nor is the series’ heavy reliance on sign language for its ape dialogue.
Fittingly, then, Last Frontier eschews most conventional video-game design, going down an even more strictly narrative path than the likes of Telltale Games’ adaptations - to the point that arguments over what medium it falls into seem inevitable.
Last Frontier tells the story of a group of apes - led by chimpanzee patriarch Khan, sons Bryn and Tola, orangutan counsellor Clarence, and gorilla enforcer Brutus - who split apart from Caesar’s tribe, moving inland to settle in the mountains. Winter is coming, as multiple characters note, and food is short, forcing the apes to venture onto the human-controlled plains for supplies. Policy regarding humans is split amongst the clan, its various members forming rough analogues to the Caesar/Koba/Maurice trinity of the movies - and it’s up to you, as the undecided Bryn, to navigate all that.
But wait! It’s ALSO up to you to navigate the struggles of the humans. As Jess Ross (The Descent's Alex Reid, not quite entirely masking her British accent), thrust into a leadership role following a death in the family, you’ll have to make decisions for a town similarly running low on supplies. Complicating things: the arrival of a pair of ape hunters set on eradicating Bryn’s tribe, no matter what the human cost. Jess’ story is a little post-apocalyptic Western in its own right, but pitted against the apes’, it forms part of a tale of two tribes, both trying to survive the winter. It’s a small-scale story, and not a particularly original one, but thankfully it’s told pretty well.
While Andy Serkis does not appear in Last Frontier, his executive producer credit hangs heavy over the whole production - and that’s a good thing. The story might be over-familiar and mopey, but it’s realised through strong moment-to-moment drama. It is entirely possible to become invested in this story, and it’s largely thanks to the actors and cinematic teams. Last Frontier is visually stunning when it’s working well, with strong set design, dramatic and minimalist lighting, and cinematic direction. Recorded at Serkis’ Imaginarium Productions, the game's performance (and performance capture) is excellent across the board - especially on its ape characters. Speaking mostly in sign language, the apes manage to escape the uncanny-valley effect from which the human characters occasionally suffer. There’s life in them there eyes.
Where it turns into a video game, though, is where Last Frontier frays at the edges.
One of PlayStation's big new features recently is PlayLink - a social gaming system whereby players can cooperatively make decisions in specially-designed games via a mobile app. Inspired by the popularity of group playthroughs of interactive slasher Until Dawn, and imitating Telltale Games' Crowd Play feature, it aims to turn decision-oriented narrative gameplay into a social experience. Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier is one of the first titles to use PlayLink, and though it shows promise, its implementation leaves much to be desired.
Nearly every bit of interactivity in Last Frontier is a binary decision - attack or defend; support character A or character B; lie or tell the truth - all precipitating action or dialogue that helps shape the story. It’s a lot like Until Dawn, only with zero direct control over characters. Hardcore gamers will scoff at such a thing, but for casual social gameplay, it’s a solid design choice, based on emotion and storytelling rather than twitchy gameplay. The fact that players guide both the humans and the apes could make for interesting scenarios: do you collectively support one side, or the other, or play them off against each other? It’d be more interesting again if the game’s wild-card characters were playable, but as essentially an interactive movie, there’s definitely something here.
Unfortunately, the actual choices presented by the game are often inconsistent or fuzzy. While most options are labeled with both a direct action and their underlying goals or motivations, others simply read “Character X is wrong” and “Character X is right,” or something equally as vague - sometimes even before that character has even been properly introduced. Sometimes, it feels like the player (and characters) should be granted a greater degree of choice; other times, seemingly significant choices don’t create the drama one might expect. You can even spend an entire scene steering a conversation towards non-violence, only for your character to exit, non-optionally, on a line like “let’s hunt them down like rats.” Obviously, there’s a story being told here, and the game isn’t going to let you swerve too far from that path, but it’s hard to stay invested when your decisions have so little - and so unpredictable - an effect.
Last Frontier is also cursed by horrendous technical shortcomings - the sort that I’d ordinarily let slide, but that absolutely disrupt the game’s cinematic aspirations. While the character models and motion-capture animation are terrific, the base PS4 hardware struggles with what it’s being asked to do. Frame rates stutter any time more than a few apes are onscreen; textures and models stream in slowly, causing garish pop-in; and nearly every single camera cut causes weird visual glitches. A lack of holding-pattern animations means the game essentially pauses any time a decision is to be made, somewhat interrupting the flow of action.
Worse, the sound design is shockingly sparse, completely lacking in anything beyond the most basic ambience and incidental effects, with mixing that causes whole characters to disappear aurally whenever they’re not speaking. The mix is borderline unfinished, with many sound effects straight-up missing or incorrect, and with no attempt to place its characters in sound environments. Paired with a repetitive, monotonous score, it’s enough to suck all sense of incident out of the action.
It’s a real shame Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier is so technically hit-and-miss. It’s a solid piece of video-game drama, directed and performed well - but let down by inconsistent interactivity and technical quality. There’s definitely something in this format of game - essentially a pick-a-path movie, intended for groups - but Last Frontier is a poor ambassador for the genre. A decent second-stringer Planet of the Apes entry, though. I'll take that.