TinyBuild’s Divide by Sheep ($2.99) is a game that I first saw back at PAX South, and it left an indelible mark on me. This was thanks not just to its cute-yet-macabre theme, but also because its puzzles were clever, and did a lot to add joy to what is otherwise a casual-friendly math puzzler. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a casual-friendly game, but it’s tough for those games to stand out. I do wonder just how much Divide by Sheep suffers for trying to be a game for gamers, though: it feels like it sits in this odd middle ground between being a game that’s a casual-friendly math puzzler, but with a deceptive theme. And I worry too many people will see the sheep and bright colors and maybe pass this fun game over. Though, if you’re reading this, you should not, it’s fun.
This is at its core a math puzzler, where the game starts off with you trying to get different numbers of sheep on to rafts. Using the different sizes of islands that are available, you must change the numbers of sheep by killing some on purpose. Then, the wolves get involved, where they will eat sheep, but will be too heavy to move after the fact. You have to use wolves in clever ways, and sometimes you’ll have to get wolves into rafts! Then, lasers that split sheep in two get involved, with the ability to combine the sheep back together once they’re on their rafts. All sorts of new aspects get introduced, and you must keep moving sheep, half-sheep, wolves, and even pigs, around the islands to try and complete the three objectives to get the requisite three stars. All the while, sheep will die, get eaten, sliced up, all in the name of pleasing the Grim Reaper, who needs friends, and who cares if they’re sheep? Have you ever tried talking to sheep? Maybe they’re good conversationalists.
Many levels have an easy way to just get one star, but figuring out the permutations to get three stars, however impossible they may seem, is possible. It just often requires some outside-the-box thinking. The levels never get too big and crazy to the point where it feels like an impossible task, you just might have to rearrange things a lot. It’s a well-designed game. I think it also does a great job at just exploring its concept to its fullest potential, or at least close to what that would be. I am disappointed when games fail to do everything they could do.
This is a game where it can be easy to see most of it without putting too much time into it. It’s not a short game, in fact I’d say it’s the perfect length for what it is. But it’s not the lengthiest game in the world. The beginning levels were pretty easy to me, but I talked to someone who couldn’t figure them out. I did study math in college, and wound up writing for a living. Difficulties start to arise in the second world, and the third world throwing me for a loop. You can progress with just one star, but you’ll need to get a lot of two-and-three star scores to see later levels. Still, you can proceed to the next one just by getting the one star, so you don’t feel stuck at any one point, because that one star is usually attainable. The later levels start to mix everything in to tricky puzzles, and new elements are introduced at regular intervals. These help make the puzzles always feel great to solve with three stars, because you feel like you’ve accomplished something. You’ve figured out the trick. Solutions feel so right; it’s a satisfying sensation that’s tough for puzzle games to get just right.
The aesthetic of Divide by Sheep is so clever, because it’s macabre yet adorable. Sheep get eaten alive and sliced into pieces, but then they get duct-taped back together. The wolves get stuffed silly and stuck where they are. There’s optional blood, but it’s still just a cartoony game. It’s a tough style to execute, and the game shows some restraint to be silly without ever being too ridiculous. I don’t know if I’d give this game to kids – the sheep slicing might be too much, especially, and this might limit the appeal – but it’s still just this fantastic approach to the whole thing. Though, again, considering it’s this otherwise-cutesy game that’s macabre and gory, I don’t quite know who it’s meant to appeal to.
One thing that annoys me is that the game sometimes will just leave you sitting there if the third objective is impossible to complete – like if there’s no other moves you can make – but it’ll sit there until you hit the manual finish button. You can’t manually finish a star objective and move on to another one, so you can botch the first objective but have the second two done, and you can’t pull it off because you can’t force the switch. The solution is to get good, scrub, and go for the three stars. Still, when there’s not the need to get three stars on every level, it’d be nice to have the option. Plus, there is the end-level intelligence that could be put in to play.
I do wonder if this is the kind of game that would be better in portrait mode. The reason I ask is because this is such a casual-friendly game, and I’d love for it to be something that you could play on your phone while on the go in a one-handed way. The interface would have to be changed to account for portrait perspective, but I want to think that it’s possible somehow. I get it, though: this wound up being a multiplatform game, and perhaps it was just more convenient to build it for landscape. But if it could work as an orientation-independent game? I’d love it! I also would love iCloud support of some kind.
I really dig Divide by Sheep. I do wonder about the audience of the game, as it exists in this weird middle ground between casual and hardcore that might not appeal to either side. It’s a solid experience that I’m amused by, and am curious to see what they do with new levels, because the game explores so much of its concept as it is. Still, I recommend checking it out.