You’ll finish the story mode of Gibbon: Beyond the Trees in an hour, give or take, but what a potent hour it is. It begins with a gibbon family frolicking in the forests of Southeast Asia, swinging playfully through the treetops, but that soon gives way to a more grim reality: deforestation, poaching, climate change, and “social media tourism” turn a carefree romp into a flight for survival and a crucial spotlight on the critically endangered primates.
The genius of Beyond the Trees is in its simplicity. At its mechanical core, it’s a momentum-based platformer designed around brachiation—that is, swinging from branch to branch. A simple control scheme and intuitive design belie a surprising degree of finesse in traversal, with well-timed jumps, a blend of quick reactions and forward thinking, and good route selection as choose which branches to aim for being the key to keeping moving. As long as you do so, you can enjoy the exhilaration of swinging through the trees and the innate satisfaction of riding that flow, against a stunning backdrop of beautiful rainforest.
At least, until the forest gives way to a human settlement—still navigable, but in a trickier fashion, without the smooth curves and natural pathways that the boughs form. Or until deforestation means trees become more sparse and fires turn an otherwise safe fall into a lethal one. Or until poachers start shooting at you, and there’s suddenly much more urgency behind your traversal and a need to constantly keep moving to avoid those deadly bullets.
Related: For a similarly fluid, but much more playful momentum platformer with a skateboarding twist, OlliOlli World is worth a look. Check out our review!
It’s a confronting expose on the plight of the gibbon that unfolds almost entirely through level progression and difficulty curve. Beyond the Trees is rarely a particularly challenging game (nor is it meant to be), but there’s a clear, definite shift in how the game unfolds to drive the point home. Early on, the lush and plentiful trees provide ample road to travel; when you jump from one branch, you don’t have to pay much mind to where the next one is because you know there’ll be something. Even if you don’t catch anything, the worst that happens is you land on the ground, lose a bit of speed while running, and then jump back onto the next branch you find.
But those environmental changes, and the level design that follows, demand more precision and create more sense of tension. Even if it doesn’t get dramatically harder, your options become more constrained, and newfound consequences for failure introduce a tangible sense of danger.
The harrowing journey of one particular gibbon family to find a new home gives the story a personal, emotive touch, with the wordless delivery and rapid pace helping to rend the heart. An epilogue that briefly explains the real-life plight of gibbons drives the point home: this isn’t just a game, and some concerted conservation efforts are desperately needed to save these delightful creatures from a horrific fate. But it’s in what happens between those cutscenes that Beyond the Trees truly leaves its mark: a free-flowing, carefree, momentum-based platformer where the very things that enable that flow gradually get pulled away is a striking metaphor indeed.
Much of the impact of the story is in its punchiness, but Gibbon: Beyond the Trees isn’t a one-and-done game. Completing the main story unlocks “Liberation” mode, an endless mode with procedurally-generated levels that let you ride the flow to your heart’s content, with a few optional objectives along the way in terms of rescuing other captured animals. It’s a source of longevity for people who want more out of the game once the credits roll, and a way of pushing the core design of the game a step further. But even with a more “gamey”, less overtly story-driven focus, the weight of Beyond the Trees’ message comes through in the design of the levels and the way those different segments flow into one another.
In either mode, a gorgeous, hand-painted art style helps set the mood, from lush greenery, to human cities that are lively but not exactly welcoming to wildlife, to the most desperate scenes of deforestation and danger. There’s a heavy focus on contrasts, shadows, and deep (but not oversaturated) colours—reds and greens in particular—that makes every scene look striking. Plenty of little details in scenery to add depth and tone, while a moving score and fantastic sound effects, especially when it comes to the gibbons’ calls, ties everything together. A minutes-long loading screen when you load the game up on Switch is a mild nuisance, but far from enough to hinder the experience.
Gibbon: Beyond the Trees is a game with a point to make, and it does so decisively. The gibbons’ majestic brachiation is a great foundation for an exhilarating momentum platformer that doubles as a potent insight into the threats faced by a critically endangered species.
Gibbon: Beyond the Trees
Developer: Broken Rules
Publisher: Broken Rules
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PC (Steam), iOS
Release date: 11 May 2022 (Switch); 18 May 2022 (Steam)