Lovely to play but sad to think about, this game follows three pastel-coloured gibbons from their natural treetop habitat through the lumber camps and human habitations that have been rapidly replacing it. It’s neither long nor complicated, getting its point across with striking art that contrasts zoomed-out natural landscapes – gorges, jungles, waterfalls, against sunsets and morning skies, all crowded with trees and hanging vines and vegetation – with the movement and bustle of the towns, crowded with people and vehicles.
Simple controls have your endangered apes swinging from branch to branch – all you have to do is time it correctly and you’ll build momentum and sail across the canopy, occasionally catching a boost from your buddy. Swinging free from trees and vines is much easier than climbing the buildings and power lines of the human environments, a neat illustration that underlines the game’s message about habitat destruction and poaching.
As a player, you feel a surge of giddy delight when you somersault across a gap in the canopy before grabbing on to the next branch, the gibbons’ hooting echoing across the space; in a crowded town, that delight gives way to frustration and annoyance, all sound drowned out by motors and construction noise. Once they are forced to leave the jungle, row after row of uniform palm trees give the gibbons little shelter, and the burnt-out deforested wasteland gives them none at all.
Performance, however, on the Nintendo Switch version was not great in crowded areas, something that the developer is working to fix. A stuttering frame rate makes it actively more difficult and unpleasant to play as you get further through, and this time not in an intentional way. This put me off from playing much beyond the brief but affecting 90-minute story; after that you can continue to swing around and rescue other endangered animals in an endless mode that resets whenever your gibbon takes a tumble.
Habitat destruction is something we’re surely all aware of – we’ve all seen the heartbreaking footage of animals left stranded in tiny patches of forest, surrounded by roads and industry. Beyond the Trees reinforces its ecological message through its visuals and through play, and though this might not be many players’ introduction to this pressing real-world issue, it is a new way to look at it, and a new way to engender sympathy. Developer Broken Rules has done its research here, both on the creatures themselves and the places they call home. No matter how many people feel moved to donate to conservation charities after playing, this game will have made a difference through its advocacy.