Imprisoned for the crime of witchcraft, you must use your skill and intellect to overcome the Prison of Agnus. Fear not, Brave Goat, for you have a friend on this journey...
For the crime of hat theft (it's a pretty pimp looking hat), Goat is sentenced to rot in the Prison of Agnus. Goats are pretty stubborn animals, always eating cans and butting climbers from mountains, and this one is no different. Determined to escape from his puzzle game prison, Goat embarks on a platforming quest, seeking advice from friendly sheep, the help of a kind rat, and confronting terrible wraiths in MagicalTimeBean's stellar (unrelated) follow-up to its successful Soulcaster games. Players guide Goat through a series of 64 mostly trap laden rooms in this clever two-hour romp which captures all the style and fun of the developer's previous two hits while delivering a fresh, new experience.
The game has garnered comparisons to Solomon's Key, but beyond being single screen puzzle games, there's not too much in common among the two titles. For one, Goat is a good bit more limber than Dana, able to double jump and dash at will, which provides quick speed boost as well as allowing him to smash through bricks. In short order he comes across an ally, a rat, who can be summoned to reach places Goat cannot. The player does not guide the rat as he scurries along, climbing up walls and running through narrow tunnels, but Goat can exercise some influence with how he deploys the rat. Goat can toss his furry friend up or set him down to sleep, which is useful when a button needs to be held to lift a platform or some other obstacle. Goat can also swap places with the rat should he locate the magic pimp hat, the game's sole power-up bonus found in certain rooms when a particular puzzle requires that ability to be solved.
All puzzles are self contained in single screen sized rooms, accessed from The Gathering Place, a hub world made available once the player has cleared the first six tutorial levels. Aside from the final challenge, each stage door leads to six rooms of which five are puzzle challenges which must be cleared in succession. In the sixth room, Goat meets up with an imprisoned sheep, the first of which begs Goat to rescue his brethen. There are nine sheep in total, but Goat only needs to rescue eight of them to unlock the final door. I don't see why anyone would want to leave that extra sheep stranded and pass over extra challenges, particularly given the length of the game.
The puzzles are the highlight of the game, but as with the Soulcaster games, there's just not enough to satisfy and the game isn't as challenging as I'd like. Completing the full game does unlock a new game mode, but it's just another trip through the main game with one minor wrinkle which makes the repeat trip less interesting and challenging than the original experience. Escape Goat includes a level editor as a nice extra, but there's little fun in clearing levels the player has designed him or herself. It's unfortunate that the developer didn't include Live sharing as games such as Avatar Golf have done well in extending their lives by opening up new designs to the community. I suppose it's always better to leave them wanting more, but it's disheartening here precisely because of the inclusion of the impotent editor which is exactly what fans of the game will want but is too limited to be of use. Hopefully Escape Goat will do well enough to warrant a sequel at some point in the future, or maybe the developer will update the game to enable editor sharing, though that's unlikely.
Escape Goat's still a great ride while it lasts and makes Ian Stocker three for three when it comes to great looking and playing indie games which insist on being played. Goat is a joy to control, the puzzles are well structured though lacking in challenge, certainly so if one goes in expecting a modern Solomon's Key. Players can expect more great pixel art from Stocker, whose game wears its 8-bit influence on its sleeve but offers much more detail and smoother animation than would have been possible 25 or so years ago. I particularly like how organic these rooms look with giant gears grinding and turning whenever a stone platform is shifted from its starting position. The soundtrack is also lovely, a word I refrain from using myself but am now because I can't keep calling the game excellent and great without sounding too repetitive and bland. The soundtrack is nothing of the sort, a tightly focused collection of songs which suit rather well the absurd premise of the game, its atmospheric synth tunes worth listening to outside of the game and arguably having most lasting power than the game itself, made easier thanks to being available as a download to enjoy when not tied to the console. It's good stuff.
Though concerns over length may cause hesitation for some, Escape Goat is without question a game deserving of its praise and another reason to thank the Tebow that Microsoft opened up its console for independent development. Ian Stocker has proven himself to be an indie-er version of Jonathan Blow, a master of game direction and structure, already having three filler-free games to his credit. The collection of puzzles are not quite of the level of Braid, but Escape Goat's smart design more than proves itself to be a prison that everyone needs to break out from.